By Rob Fink
WTOP Beer Contributor
WASHINGTON — Garrett Oliver wears many hats: brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, author of “The Brewmaster’s Table,” editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer” and a recent winner of the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional.
And on Thursday, May 8, Garrett’s role will be speaker and host when he brings his beer knowledge to the District for an evening of “Farmhouse Ale: The Taste of Saison,” a National Geographic Live! event, just in time for this week’s craft beer and food experience SAVOR.
Earlier, I had the opportunity to speak with Garrett about the wonderful world of saison. He was quick to explain his fervent enthusiasm, not only for the style, but for the upcoming event itself.
“What is interesting about saisons is that they are a style that is broad, yet accessible,” says Garrett, who began brewing professionally in 1989 at Manhattan Brewing Company.
In fact, if forced to live on a desert island for a month, he says he would choose saison as his style of choice — and that would be the case “for a lot of brewers.”
Style-wise, he says saisons tend to be light, quaffable and “very dry, and that increasingly, they are getting a bit of funk back into them,” which harkens back to when saisons were produced in the 18th century in the Wallonia region of Belgium, where the style originated.
At the time, pure, genetically isolated yeast strains were not available, and mixed fermentations (meaning the inclusion of wild yeast and/or bacteria) were altogether unavoidable. Compared to the contemporary indulgence of saison, which is normally centered on pleasurable consumption, Garrett reminds us that saison was once a potable, “stable food product that you had to have,” and “was made with whatever ingredients” were available to the farm, such as oats, spelt, and wheat, in addition to malted barley.
It wasn’t until the advent of the 20th century that the modern incarnation of saison (thinking of the benchmark Saison Dupont) was born. Interestingly, Garrett goes on to establish the connection between the historical and modern style in that contemporary brewers are now seeking out otherwise historical flavors by the purposeful inclusion of wild yeasts and/or bacteria, such as Brettanomyces. This pays homage to tradition, but also brings “acidity back to beer.”
Whether contemporary or historical, saison can ultimately “accommodate a wide range of things,” Garrett says.
Terroir is a term often associated with wine, but Garrett argues that it can be equally applicable to beer.
One of the several fantastic beers being served at the National Geographic Live! event is the brand new Brooklyn beer, Ridgy Didge — a collaboration with the Australian brewery Mountain Goat. In the quest to capture the true spirit of terroir, the beer incorporates a classic saison yeast strain with lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry, both of which are ingredients indigenous to Australia.
Other countries are producing reputable iterations of the saison style, as well, including England, which is historically known for mild, cask beers more than anything else. Somerset Saison, from Wild Beer Company out of Westcombe, England, will make an appearance at Garrett’s tasting.
Full of vibrant fruit and spice aromatics, its nose is suggestive of freshly cracked black pepper and a pleasingly tart acidity, which carries all the way through the bone-dry finish.
As we continued our discussion, Garrett was downright giddy about including Boulevard’s Saison Brett in his tasting, an inimitable saison out of Kansas City, Missouri — it’s one of my personal favorites.
Dosed with champagne yeast and the wild yeast Brettanomyces at bottling, Saison Brett exhibits bountiful notions of pineapple, damp earth and orange marmalade, uniting into a rounded concatenation of flavor.
With that said, restrained exuberance would be the perfect way to describe Garrett Oliver’s approach to saisons and beer. Our conversation was teeming with his continuously humorous commentary that will surely take center stage at Thursday’s National Geographic Live! event.
The beer list (which is subject to change) follows. I hope to see you there. And most importantly, cheers!
Beer List for “Farmhouse Ale: The Taste of Saison”
“Farmhouse Ale: The Taste of Saison”
National Geographic Live!
May 8, 2014; 7 p.m.
1600 M Street, NW
Editor’s Note: Rob Fink lives in Arlington, Va., and is an avid homebrewer. Follow him on Twitter.