Wisconsin saison fans, parlez-vous Francais?
The quarterly parade of Belgian-influenced beers from Door County Brewing has begun. L’automne farmhouse ale is the first in a series that aims to capture the four seasons within head brewer Danny McMahon’s favorite brewing palette: the wide-ranging, rustic ales that make up the umbrella “style” of saison. (Say it “SAY-zahn”; it’s the French word for season.)
These beers trace their roots back centuries to the Francophone Belgian countryside, where farmers brewed beer with barley but also wheat, rye and other grains — basically, whatever was available that year.
The native yeasts (and, often, other microorganisms) that fermented these beers varied from farm to farm and came to be a defining attribute of the modern saison. While many styles are thought of as hop- or malt-forward, saisons are actually yeast-forward.
Their fermentation takes place at temperatures much higher than typical ales. McMahon’s Belgian/saison yeast ferments best around 75 degrees, while more typical ale yeasts operate in the 60s and lager yeasts prefer more autumnal 40s and 50s. Saison Dupont, the Belgian-brewed gold standard of the style, can ferment at temperatures as high as 90 degrees.
Saisons’ higher birth temperatures have a huge impact on their flavor and aroma thanks to the byproducts known as esters that are released when yeasts do their work converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Just like lagers’ cooler fermentation minimizes esters, saisons’ balmy fermentation temperatures kick ester production into overdrive, catalyzing tons of fruity, spicy and funky flavors and aromas.
Bringing the style out of farmhouses and into modern breweries has smoothed out the style somewhat, of course, but myriad variations in ingredients and outcomes remain.
Most of the world’s most acclaimed saisons still come from Belgium, although there’s been a boom of saisons among smaller American brewers in recent years. Wisconsin’s brewers — as a whole a more traditional lot than most — have been somewhat slow to the style, with only a few widely distributed examples. Each is different and good, depending on what you’re looking for: Hinterland Saison is sharp and somewhat hop-forward, Wisconsin Brewing’s Zenith is clean and easy-drinking, O’so’s Picnic Ants is robust, bold and funky.
Still, there’s an eclecticism to the style — so far mostly untapped by Wisconsin breweries — that lends itself well to seasonal series like Door County’s.
The rye- and wheat-accented L’automne, which hit shelves Sept. 1, will be followed by L’hiver, a strong Belgian dark ale loosely based on the dubbel style. Spring will bring L’printemps, which McMahon said is still being developed but will be bright and juicy. Same story for L’ete, which will tap the long saison tradition of a light, sessionable beer for summer.
Each beer’s name is the French word for its season, and McMahon said he may rotate beers in and out of the series, meaning this year’s L’hiver may be completely different from 2017’s.
These beers will be somewhat limited, McMahon said, in part to avoid the phenomenon that gives us Oktoberfests in August and shandies in February. When there’s less to sell, there’s less pressure to get them out so early, McMahon said, and his goal is to have these beers truly reflect the calendar.
“We really wanted our seasonal beers to be in season,” he said.
Style: L’automne straddles styles of the Belgian saison and its French sister biere de garde, a maltier and more robust style local beer fans might remember as the 2013 iteration of the Madison Craft Beer Week Common Thread.
Brewed by: Door County Brewing, Baileys Harbor. Founder John McMahon and his head brewer son expect to break ground late this year on a new brewery about a half-mile from the company’s small brewery and tap room in Baileys Harbor. The new 11,000-barrel-a-year facility should open in late 2016 and allow them to bring all production to Door County. All McMahon’s bottled beer is currently brewed across the state at Sand Creek Brewing in Black River Falls, an arrangement that will be slowly phased out after the new facility opens.
What it’s like: I was ready to say this was a Belgian-themed Oktoberfest, but L’automne was an entirely new drinking experience for me, more complex than the Munich-to-Brussels approach you might expect in a fall saison.
Where, how much: Door County made only 90 barrels of L’automne for its markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That translates to about 150 cases and 12 half-barrels each for the Madison and Milwaukee. My two bottles were provided as samples ahead of its release; a six-pack will set you back about $10.
The beer: L’automne pours a slightly hazy chestnut brown with copper-orange highlights and immediately announces its Belgian-ness with an aroma replete with spicy, banana-clove yeast character. This beer’s warm, rich malt profile really becomes evident with a sip, emerging alongside that estery yeast flavor. But perhaps L’automne’s most distinctive attribute emerges on this full-bodied beer’s finish: an assertive dryness more typical of saison than biere de garde.
Booze factor: Rich malt flavor and full body usually indicate high alcohol content, and L’automne follows at 7 percent ABV.
The buzz: Door County is no stranger to the saison game; its Pastoral and the ryed-up Biere de Siegle have been on Madison shelves for nearly two years. Biere de Siegle, however, will transition to draft-only as part of the introduction of the seasonal saisons.
Other Door County lineup changes are coming, too. Silurian Stout, an excellent milk stout that had been year-round, will be replaced with something that sounds similar but excitingly different: Vanilla Bean Silurian Stout. It’ll run opposite Big Sister, a big witbier introduced this spring, in a half-year seasonal rotation. Big Sister was such a hit this year, McMahon said, that production next year will be tripled when it returns next spring.
About that time, Bare Bottom Madness pale ale will be replaced by Sideshow India pale ale, brewed with Door County’s Belgian yeast strain, white wheat and Eldorado, Huell Melon and Mandarina Bavaria hops. Sideshow will join Door County’s other year-rounders: Polka King Porter, Little Sister and Pastoral.
But Danny McMahon has said his passion lies with experimenting with saisons and sours, and production of the latter will take over Door County’s Baileys Harbor brewery when the new facility opens. It’ll be interesting to see how that passion plays out in this seasonal series. It’s certainly off to a good start.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)