Meet Grisette, The Almost Forgotten Beer Style That's Mesmerizing Modern Brewers

September 05, 2019

By Ben Keene, September 05, 2019

It’s a word that evokes Victor Hugo’s Paris, and could pass as the name of a pre-Prohibition cocktail. To brewers, however, a grisette is more than a word. It’s a relatively old beer style with roots in the Belgian province of Hainaut, along the French border. Its defining characteristics are, like the beer itself, somewhat hazy, due to the fact that little information about grisettes survived into the present day. And while these “little gray” beers are grouped with saisons in the farmhouse ale family, they are thought to have been brewed for workers who labored in mines, not fields. In spite of a dearth of details, quite a few brewers have nonetheless taken to this obscure style, and have arrived at three general points of agreement: Grisettes should be lower alcohol ales made with malted wheat that lean into their hop character. 

“Due to minimal written history on the style, recipe development leaves a lot to the brewer's imagination,” says Seth Morton, head brewer at Jackie O’s in Ohio. “The general architecture that we use is a small inclusion of wheat in the grist, hopped more heavily than saison, fermented without Lactobacillus, and aged in wine barrels.”

Jackie O’s first released Scrip, its dry, slightly tart interpretation of a grisette, in 2017, and has sold approximately 40 barrels of the mixed-fermentation beer for each of the past three years—a number that amounts to less than half a percent of the company’s annual output. But Jackie O’s continues to make the 4.5% ABV beer because it’s a style that is near and dear to the production team, and, according to Morton, “We felt a connection to the history of grisette. Southeastern Ohio has a long history of mining, and we wanted to pay tribute to that.”

Elsewhere in Ohio, Rhinegeist Brewery includes a 4.5% ABV grisette called Table Beer in its year-round lineup. Brewed with “a high percentage of wheat and ancient grains for body and complexity,” director of education Chris Shields actually cites Jackie O’s Elle, a foeder-aged saison, as a source of inspiration, along with a desire to offer something lower in alcohol. Table Beer spends six months in a foeder where it undergoes a secondary fermentation and picks up vanilla notes from the oak vessel as well as a degree of acidity from a mixed culture of wild yeast and souring bacteria. 

“We only sell Table Beer in-house at the brewery,” Shields says. “For us it’s an introduction to our Outer Reaches [sour] program [and] we wanted to offer something special to anyone making the visit. It’s the perfect balance of approachable complexity.”

Low alcohol beers don’t have to sacrifice flavor or refreshment. And it’s this quality—an approachable complexity—along with a loose definition, that appeals to brewers and could potentially lead to a revival of grisette the way plucky American producers rekindled interest in German-style gose nearly a decade ago. Less of a strict style and more of a rough set of guidelines, grisette beers afford brewers a degree of flexibility that lets them experiment with different ingredients and processes. Not quite improv, but far from formulaic.

Maine’s, Oxbow Brewing Company has been making grisettes since 2012, and frequently includes spelt, an heirloom variety of wheat. “Simply put, we describe grisette as a ‘farmhouse wheat beer’ and we keep them below 5.5% ABV and use at least 30 percent wheat,” explains head brewer Mike Fava. To date, the brewery has created single yeast strain examples, mixed-fermentation examples, and another, the 4.5% ABV Surfcasting, that tiptoes into gose territory by incorporating sea salt and lime. At 90 barrels a year, Grizacca has emerged as Oxbow’s top-seller in the category, and Fava says the brewery will keep making grisette, “especially using it as a base style to build flavor combinations.” 

Other breweries have used the open-endedness of this type of farmhouse ale as a jumping off point, too. Earlier this year at Burnt City Brewing in Chicago, head brewer Ben Saller packaged 30 barrels of beer labeled as a Meyer lemon grisette. Bright, tangy, and 4.5% ABV, Li’l Sparky is refreshing, but it’s different. In addition to the lemon juice, a Norwegian farmhouse yeast (instead of a Belgian strain) and German hops with packed with tangerine and citrus fruit notes distinguish this interpretation from its peers. 

“If I were hard-pressed to defend Li'l Sparky as a true grisette, I would try to change the subject or possibly just run away,” Saller says lightheartedly. “It's got a grisette-like grain bill, with spelt and wheat malt. To me it just occupies the same space in my beer-drinking habits that a grisette would.”

Maybe that’s ultimately the point. To occupy a place in the minds of drinkers without getting bogged down by archetypes and traditions. Back in Maine, Allagash Brewing, also introduced a grisette (although the word didn’t appear on packaging) with a twist earlier this year, rolling out roughly 550 barrels of a limited release called Darling Ruby. The idea came from Lindsay Bohanske, the company’s industry tour coordinator, and resulted in a 4.5% ABV beer made with malted red wheat, raw wheat, oats, and the juice and zest from 2,000 pounds of fresh grapefruit. And while Allagash isn’t planning to brew it again anytime soon, Darling Ruby didn’t last long. 

“We’ve had a lot of great feedback on the beer all around,” says marketing specialist Brett Willis. “The light minerality you’ll find in a grisette really pairs nicely with grapefruit. There's a good chance you'll see another grisette coming from us in the future.”

For now, the style seems likely to remain somewhat under the radar, delighting those who stumble across an example in their local taproom or bottle shop. Times changes though. Not long ago saison was itself a strange word for an unfamiliar style, and gose was all but unheard of in the United States. Grisette may yet have its day, winning over drinkers with its nuance and approachability. Already convinced of the merits of these “little greys,” more than a few brewers are rooting for such an outcome.  

“Everyone loves a low-ABV, low-calorie, dry, refreshing beverage that is bursting at the seams with flavor and individuality,” says Oxbow’s Fava. “More people should get excited for grisette for sure.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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