From the French word meaning “season,” saison indicates a beer brewed in cooler temperatures in the Wallonia region of Belgium. The beer would ferment as summer crept closer, and in those warmer months, when Wallonia farm workers needed a respite from laboring in the fields, they’d pour a seasonal beer from the farmhouse.
Thus, saisons are also called farmhouse ales.
Because every farm’s crops were unique, every farm’s saison was unique, endearing it to drinkers as a specialty ale tied closely to the earth and its farmer.
It wasn’t until Saison Dupont had its Beatlemania moment in the 1980s that the saison exploded in reputation and replicability. Soon every brewer big and small was crafting his own unique saison, which led to more quantity than quality. More Gerry and the Pacemakers and fewer Kinks.
Soon every brewer big and small was crafting his own unique saison, which led to more quantity than quality. More Gerry and the Pacemakers and fewer Kinks.”
Since that initial Belgian invasion, the American field has been weeded out. Now there’s a small cream devoted to tweaking the saison just enough while retaining the marriage to the earth so essential to the style's drinking experience.
Brewery Ommegang, built on a former hop farm in the historic American wonderland of Cooperstown, New York, is one of the cream, with a mission borne in 1997 of delivering Belgian style ales to American palates. Now owned by Duvel Moortgat Brewery, Ommegang is arguably the closest thing America has to a Belgian power player.
Its saison, Hennepin Saison Ale, is named after Belgian explorer Louis Hennepin, allegedly the first European to witness Niagara Falls. While Brewery Ommegang is a good 250 miles from the falls, Hennepin Saison Ale earns its historical reference as an ultimately refreshing and sterling example of the saison tied closely to its upstate New York acreage.
Open a bottle of Hennepin. Let it stand for 15 minutes and you’ll still absorb an intoxicating aroma of fruit and spices. Certainly pepper, cloves, and coriander are up front. But then hits the usual citrus notes playing alongside cherry. It’s warming like a winter morning, aided undoubtedly by its alcohol content, a higher-than-traditional 7.7%.
Hennepin pours a hazy gold, with yeast sediment dancing in the glass with ample carbonation. A gorgeous head tops the glass, leaving one to ponder the complexities of this saison and the nature of the Cooperstown fields before imbibing. It’s really that awesome of an experience.
It’s really that awesome of an experience.”
Being located in the village known primarily for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and in a vast region of New York known for its fertile grape-growing lands and farm culture, Brewery Ommegang is an easy hook for romanticism. Its Belgian reputation only adds to that.
Ommegang may be known more for its classic quadrupel Three Philosophers, and its recent collaborations with the HBO series Game of Thrones, but before taking one sip of Hennepin, it’s obvious they’ve taken the time to not only understand Belgian styles, but to also draw drinkers into considering the marriage between those styles and the environment.
Drinking Hennepin only justifies that belief. Spices are up front and fade slowly, anchored by orange peel and ginger until pepper and cloves take hold. It’s a smooth finish with a tinge of warmth, and only a lingering dryness. It tastes like a saison should taste, but it’s very much its own treat.
There is no perfect saison, only a Belgian invader that set the bar for everything that followed. Brewery Ommegang has created its own superb act, a Kinks in a field of Pacemakers, true to the style while still very true to its New York heritage.