by Paul Deines
What we have here is two styles in one. Nothing unusual there, this mixing of techniques and ingredients: there're coffee-infused IPAs, pale ales aged in bourbon barrels. But this confluence unites two styles that only a few years back were decidedly outré: the saison and the sour.
When the beloved beer writer Michael Jackson published what would be the final edition of his Great Beers of Belgium before his death, he said many Belgians had never tasted a saison. That was 2006, and this traditional farmhouse ale was on the cusp of extinction. Today, you can easily find one in any taproom. The style is rustic, frothy, spicy, and highly sessionable in its modern incarnation (generally the neighborhood of 5% ABV). It’s become a favorite of major American craft brewers, including Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Saisons pair magnificently with raw oysters, fries, polenta, earthy sharp cheese on crackers, and cured meats.
The saison we’re talking about today is from Crooked Stave Artisanal Beer Project, which specializes in that riskiest and most invigorating of old-world beer-crafting techniques: spontaneous fermentation.
In that 2006 edition of Great Beers of Belgium, Jackson states that the all the sour-beer brewers of the world could be counted on two hands. This too has changed dramatically. Sour beer – the product of spontaneous fermentation – has recently been embraced by American brewers. Now, American beer snobs – myself included –have become ravenous for the vinegary, sour funk of these wild ales.
Wild Ales are produced when free-culturing microbes – Brettanomyces, aka Brett – through open-air fermentation and aging in wood casks. In traditional Belgian brewers of sours, various vintages of the fermenting wort – called lambic – are refined for years and blended like sherry. The resulting vinous sour brews are served in corked champagne bottle and, in many cases, are amongst the most sought-after beers on earth (don’t believe me: Google “Cantillon for sale”).
Crooked Stave’s Surette Provision Saison (aged in oak barrels) marries farmhouse to sour as well as I can imagine possible. It pours a fine straw gold, cloudy and full. Saison notes of pepper, wheat bread, and grass mix with the Brett-derived lemon and sour apple. Close your eyes and you’re picking macintoshes on a dewy summer morning. That first sip explodes with the tart fruitiness, which subsides into a mix of spicy bread and earth notes and a subtle hop bitterness that somehow hung on through the barrel aging. Also impressive is the marriage of the mealy, sticky mouthfeel of a saison with the champagnesque effervescence of a traditional sour. This is really a wonderful waystation for someone wanting to try a sour beer. A traditional gueuze (that aforemention blending of lambics) like Cantillon’s of Drie Fonteinen’s may be wonderful, but astringent. The haystack base of Surette offers a nice familiar entry to the sour-tart Brett notes.
Crooked Stave Artisanal Beer Project came into existence in late 2010 as the brainchild of wild ale innovator Chad Yakobson. He spent four years deep-diving into the science of spontaneous fermentation for his dissertation – the entirety of which is available on his site The Brettanomyces Project - and Crooked Stave is the implementation of his knowledge. He’s been circulating universally acclaimed brews throughout the Denver area for three years, and just this year he’s expanded ever so tentatively outward. Summer 2013 brought Surette and a couple other offerings to New York.
Obviously, beers that require this rigorous process are not cheap. Surette retails in New York at $8-9 for a 375 ML bottle, but it’s worth it. When you’re exploring craft beer in America, it’s easy to find yourself from in a pale-ale-and-stout cycle, and this brew is a perfect antidote.
SURETTE PROVISION SAISON (Crooked Stave Artisanal Beer Project) – Like all Crooked Stave brews, this is ostensibly a one-off. That said, it keeps resurfacing. The brewer primarily distributes in Colorado, but they are expanding into other major markets, New York included. Check with your local beer guy.