Age-Old Farmhouse Brew
The bright flavors of summertime—berries, fresh tomatoes, citrus fruit—have given way to the broodier flavors of autumn, and our annual gluttonous celebration of the harvest is now just around the corner. In my family, the Thanksgiving meal pretty much fits the stereotype (turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls), but for the last few years we’ve also thrown in a heavenly side dish concocted from root vegetables, marcona almonds, maple syrup, and rosemary. Whatever your traditional meal looks like, though, chances are good that it’s a starch-and-fat-lover’s delight, which raises an urgent question: How are you going to wash it all down?
This season, let me encourage you to choose a beverage as elegant as your flatware, as flavorful as your meal, and as lively as the conversation: beer. I know, I know: Can fermented barley tea really manage to be elegant, flavorful, and lively? Well, not every beer, to be sure. But there’s one beer style in particular that seems almost tailor-made for the traditional American Thanksgiving meal, though it hails from Belgium and its name is French: saison (which means season and is pronounced by English-speakers as “say-zahn”).
Historically, saison was a low-alcohol brew made for rehydrating seasonal laborers on farms in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Before refrigeration allowed for brewing year-round, it was brewed in quantity over the winter and then stored for summertime drinking, with each Belgian farmhouse crafting their own distinctive recipe from local ingredients. (Saisons sometimes still get called farmhouse ales.) These days, most commercially produced versions have a higher alcohol content, but they retain three of the characteristics that make this style of beer perfect for Thanksgiving: a spicey flavor profile, very high carbonation, and a bracingly dry finish.
Autumn meals often showcase herbs and spices like nutmeg, clove, allspice, rosemary, and sage, so you need a beer that’s going to resonate with those flavors and not get drowned out by them. The yeast used to ferment a saison typically gives off flavors of peppercorn, perhaps with a bit of clove thrown in. Turkey and potatoes with spices and herbs are a perfect match, creating a real treat for your taste buds.
Saisons typically undergo a secondary fermentation inside the bottle (rather than being force-carbonated using a tank of carbon dioxide), which is what gives them their champagne-like levels of carbonation. This is important for a meal laden with fatty flavors that weigh down your tongue, because the high carbonation serves to lift that fat off your tongue, prepping you for the next bite. The carbonation level also means that these beers often come in heavy bottles with corks, which help to add a touch of elegance to a family meal.
THE DRY FINISH
Again, like champagne, saisons are fermented with a yeast strain that eats away nearly all of the sugar left behind by the malted grains, which means that although they may taste of sweet grain and citrus, none of that sweetness will be left behind after you swallow. You’ll get enough sweet and sticky sensations from your marshmallow-topped yams, so it’s important to have a beverage that cleanses rather than cloys.
If you’ve never experimented with saisons before, there’s really only one place to start: with the undisputed classic example of the style, Saison Dupont. (You can usually find it at Elizabeth Station beer market in Bellingham, and sometimes at local grocery stores.) This beer was originally brewed in the 1920s, and most modern examples are designed to imitate it.
It is a staple of any celebratory meal at my house, but there are also fantastic examples of the style brewed locally. Structures Brewing in Bellingham often has a wonderful saison on tap, and Aslan Brewing has some tasty examples too. You also can’t go wrong with a saison from Atwood Ales in Blaine. I recommend their Mo’s Saison, which features different ingredients sourced from the Atwood farm each time it’s brewed. This year, give thanks for being surrounded by good beer.
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