It was one of my favorite styles for its earthy simplicity and clean finish, an Old World beer brewed to be refreshing and not much else. I'm talking about a farmhouse ale. As the parade of short-run craft beers has rolled by, I'd forgotten about it altogether. Fortunately, you can find a great saison in Memphis; you've just got to know where to go.
Farmhouse ale is a family that includes styles like bière de garde, gueuze, or sahti. A saison is a farmhouse ale, but not all farmhouse ales are saisons. Got it? They are generally earthy, tart, and dry. Beer writers are always using the word "funky" to describe them. They were originally served as part of the pay package, what we'd call (limited) benefits, of the seasonal farmworkers — called Saisons. Paying people in beer wasn't that weird in a world before shrink wrap or Advil.
By most accounts, the style was developed in Wallonia — the French-speaking part of what is now Belgium. That settles very little on the national pride front because beer is a lot older than modern Europe. Belgium itself was only thought up by the British in 1830 as a hilarious way to annoy the French.
What annoys me is how hard it is to get a pint in Memphis. The grocery stores I tried don't have it, so I had to go to the Mothership — or more to the point, the taproom. Both Wiseacre and High Cotton have their expressions of saison on tap, and Wiseacre has it in a six-pack. They are both very good, and you should try both because they taste absolutely nothing alike.
I headed down to High Cotton in the "It's not Downtown, but you can see it from here" Edge District. Their version, called, helpfully enough, Saison, is an earthy brew, which certainly delivers on the "funk" (not to be confused with the "skunk").
To test the intended parameters of the beer, I drank outside where, just days before the start of fall, it was 94 degrees outside. It passed the test, because it was refreshing as hell. It is more spicy than tart, with little hops taste and a big, malty bloom at the end of it. If you are a fan of rye beers, this is probably right up your alley.
That seems about right for a farmhouse ale. In its original incarnations, no one was pedantically scouring the countryside for the finest ingredients, which accounts for its earthiness. Farmers often used unsold fruit that wouldn't make it through the winter, which accounts for the tartness. It's not terribly high in alcohol because you needed those seasonal workers to get up off their backsides when lunch was over.
Wiseacre's saison is called Tarasque. It's named after a mythical creature that was a vivisection that included a lion, a bear, a turtle, and a scorpion. Legend has it that a French nun sang it to sleep. Tarasque, the good people at Wiseacre tell us, leans toward the French style. My middle name is Jaubert, so I guess I do as well.
What Tarasque lacks in funk, it makes up for in tartness and a clean finish. True to the style, it gives the hops a break and has a great citrus zing to it.
Wiseacre's saison lacks that big, malty bloom you find on the back end of the High Cotton version. It's lighter on the palate, less of an aftertaste.
Despite both being true to style, comparing the two has an apples-to-oranges feel. For me personally, I feel about that big malt finish the way I feel about a fine cigar. It's not that I dislike it, but I want to like it more than I actually do.
For my money, I'd buy a six-pack of the Tarasque. If you can find it. It might be my new favorite beer, at least for the moment. I can be fickle. I lean toward the French.