Farmhouse ales, or saisons, which is French for “seasons,” are so named because they were traditionally brewed as refreshments for farmhands in rural Belgium. Because refrigeration had not yet been invented, brewing during the summer months was not feasible due to the possibility of airborne bacteria spoiling the beer. Brewers instead produced their saisons during the fall and winter, allowing them to age for several months to be ready for the summer. Farmhands drank this aged saison to stay hydrated after a long day’s work because potable water was scarce and prone to disease. Rumor has it that each farmhand was entitled to four or five liters of beer per evening. Not a bad deal! Where do I sign up?
Of course, in those days, saisons were brewed at much lower strengths (typically 3-4 percent ABV) in order to hydrate the workers and prevent them from being too insanely hung over to do their allotted work the next day. As the style progressed through the ages, however, it became stronger and stronger. Today, a typical saison will come in at about 7 percent ABV.
To get a taste for this style, I picked up a 750-milliliter bottle of Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin Farmhouse Saison. A unique player in the craft beer industry, Brewery Ommegang specializes in Belgian-style beers. They’re also very active in the beer community and organize a wide variety of events, concerts and tastings. Every August, Ommegang plays host to a Belgian beer festival that celebrates their beers’ heritages and the rich tradition of hop farming in upstate New York. You can even camp in the hop fields! Chatting with the Ommegang folks at the American Craft Beer Festival last month, I was told that tickets for the event sold out in seven minutes!
Their Hennepin saison is named after the Belgian missionary and explorer Louis Hennepin, who is credited with being the first European to describe the beauteous wonder of Niagara Falls. This is fitting, I suppose, because Brewery Ommegang is located in the rolling hills of upstate New York. To be specific, the brewery is located in Cooperstown, in a region that has a rich history of brewing and breweries.
I poured the beer into a pint glass and immediately witnessed a vicious cyclone in my glass created by the sediment and carbonation swirling around. Cool! The white head bubbled ferociously after the pour. The cloudy golden appearance of the beer is a consequence of the fact that it is unfiltered, like many Belgian ales. I noticed spicy notes in the nose, with unique yeast notes punching through. Taking a sip, the first thing I noticed was the intense bubbly mouthfeel, which was almost like champagne. Man, the flavor of this beer is complex! At first, sweet malt notes are evident, and then amazing flavors from the spices begin to come through and stick around. The taste of the beer really evolves from the first sip to the final swallow, with hints of ginger present at the last second.
Drinking this beer is quite an experience. In the spirit of farmhouse ale, it’s highly refreshing and drinkable, yet it’s also bursting with intense flavors that all wonderfully complement each other. The beer manages to sneak in tons of complex spicy notes, including coriander, orange peel and grains of paradise, with no flavor overpowering the palate. Ommegang’s Hennepin is truly a very well-balanced and enjoyable brew, perfect for a picnic in the summer heat!
ABV: 7.7 percent
$8 for a 750-milliliter corked bottle
My ratings (out of 5):