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The rise of saison beers

Local craft brewers are discovering saison, a style of Belgian ale just made for summer, writes Max Allen.

"It's time to let the yeast do the talking," says brewer Costa Nikias as he opens a bottle of his La Sirène Saison, one of the best new beers to appear on the Australian craft scene over the last few years.

"So many brewers and drinkers go crazy over hops, looking for beers with the most extreme hop flavour and bitterness," he says. "For me, the yeast is much more important: that's where most of the really interesting characters in beer come from."

He pours the saison into a big goblet: it's glowing gold, with a thick, creamy head, bursting with fruity, yeasty aroma, medium-bodied, not particularly bitter, tartly refreshing. He's right: that delicious perfume comes from the esters - aromatic volatile compounds - produced primarily by yeasts during fermentation.

The saison style originated in Belgium as a farmhouse ale, brewed in winter, drunk in summer by farm labourers. Today, the benchmark Belgian producer is widely considered to be Brasserie Dupont - and luckily, Saison Dupont is imported to Australia so you should find it in most better craft beer shops. If you also come across a bottle of the limited-production organic Saison Dupont Biologique, buy it immediately: it combines all the hallmarks of the style - creamy head, golden cereal flavours, super refreshment - with extra layers of citrusy, spicy complexity. It's just gorgeous. Indeed, it was named Best Belgian Beer at last year's Brussels Beer Challenge.

A couple of broad-minded Australian brewers have included small batches of seasonal saison in their range for a while: Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth in Victoria released their first Chevalier Saison - with secondary fermentation in 750ml bottles - a decade ago, and have been making it ever since. It's a good example of the style, which benefits from short-term cellaring (six months to a year): because it's bottle-conditioned, the yeasty lees inside the bottle contribute complex flavours to the beer over time.

But in the past couple of years interest in the style has picked up as more brewers have jumped on the saison beer-wagon.

"I've always had a love affair with Belgium and the beers they produce," says Matt Houghton of Boatrocker Brewing in Melbourne's Braeside. "I've been honing the style, visiting Belgium regularly, and last year we released our own, the Saison du Bateau."

The trick in the brewing, says Houghton, is to keep the beer dry. The strain of yeast he uses for his saison - reputedly isolated at Dupont in Belgium, then cultured up and sold to other brewers around the world - can produce a lot of glycerol during fermentation. A little glycerol is a good thing and can give the beer a lovely mouthfeel - but if there's too much it can accentuate the high alcohol (6.5 per cent) and the soft level of bitterness, and make the beer taste sweet and cloying.

"Traditionally, a lot of saisons were brewed for farmhands to drink every day," says Houghton. "They were lower in alcohol - probably around three per cent. But the modern styles they make in Belgium - and we like to make here - are stronger."

Late last year, Boatrocker also released a small batch of saison with nine per cent alcohol. Called Gaston, this beer started fermenting as a regular saison before being put into old chardonnay wine barrels, along with a strain of yeast called Brettanomyces to continue fermentation until bottling.

As you may know, Brett yeast is considered the arch-enemy by most winemakers - it can produce flavours that make their precious pinot taste of horse sweat and dried blood. But some adventurous brewers love Brett, arguing that its funky, wild flavours are entirely appropriate in farmhouse beers such as saison.

Nikias from La Sirène uses Brett to ferment a tangy, almost vinous, funky beer he calls Wild Saison. The name is slightly unfortunate, as it implies the beer fermented spontaneously, using the wild yeasts that are around us - in the air, on brewery equipment, on our clothes. But truly wild, spontaneous fermentation is something that interests him immensely.

Just before Christmas, La Sirène released the first commercial batch of a beer called Wild Tripelle: it's brewed without the addition of cultured yeast, relying solely for fermentation on the organisms in the environment of the brewery in Melbourne's Alphington.

"We're going to be heading more and more down the path of doing wild ferments," says Nikias. "We think it gives our beers a unique sense of place."

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