Centuries ago farmers in the south of Belgium used the leftovers of their harvest to brew a low-alcohol rustic ale.
Oats, wheat, rye, and most any grain could go into the recipe, but the key ingredient was the yeast, a regional specialty that turned standard wort into a zesty summer ale. Aged through the more reliable cold months, the beer was paid out to farmhands in summer as a reward for working in the hot sun.
Today’s saison, or farmhouse ale, has more alcohol but it operates on the same basic idea: work with what you’ve got. Modern saisons are as malleable as the brewer’s imagination, with flowers, fruit, spices, honey and so on getting added to the mix. Here in Bellingham, barrel-aging with wild yeast has caught on as a way to tweak a saison, while still nodding to tradition.
One example is the State Street saison from Structures Brewing, the first bottled beer from a newer brewery with serious chops.
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Another is the Wild Warehouse from Wander Brewing. This farmhouse ale gets released once a year with some fanfare, since it grabbed a gold medal in a tough category, Wood- and Barrel-Aged Beers, at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. So after missing out last year, I’ve been eager to try it.
Also, for this review I tried the official beer of Ski to Sea 2016, the relay race from Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay, another sign of the season.
Boundary Bay Ski to Sea ESB. Here an amber-gold body comes out mostly clear and clean. So clean, in fact, that by look, aroma and even texture it could be mistaken for a hopped up Vienna lager, with an American twist. It clocks in at 45 IBUs, with a medium-light viscosity and a standard white head that fades fast. Up front I get an aroma kind of like sweet orange, I think, a note that’s in the finish too. And while it’s not exactly traditional, tradition says the ESB is about balance, and balance is achieved here in malt and adjuncts: Maris Otter two-row barley, Belgian aromatic malt, Crystal-120, wheat, oats and biscuit. This 6.3-percent alcohol ale is dry-hopped, the bottle says, and the U.K. Fuggle hops are light, spicy, springy, faintly flowery — and not at all overpowering. The approach runs counter to the brewery’s longstanding image, i.e., burly but sedated, like a big teddy bear. And as much as I love the robust Boundary Bay beer I grew up with, these days their more nuanced efforts are getting better and better. B+
Structures State Street saison. There hasn’t been much of a learning curve for Structures, and clearly word has gotten around that they’re already making great beer. Somehow I snagged two bottles from this beer’s first run, at $12 a pop, just before they sold out. Like most saisons, this 5.2-percent ale pours golden yellow, with light haze, lively carbonation, and tiny white bubbles of head with good retention. On the nose a relatively reserved wild yeast aroma should signal how you’re going to feel about this, for better or worse. This one is fermented in Hungarian oak with Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces, then bottle-conditioned with more Brett. I get a little oak in the aroma, and in the flavor, but it’s in the background. Even the more obvious notes of Belgian funk and lemon feel passive and restrained, and not too tart. The mouthfeel is thin, crisp and inviting. In the first bottle it grew more yeasty the deeper I went, until it was slurry in the bottom third. A few weeks of settling clarified the look in Bottle No. 2. As for a grade, I’m torn. Up against every beer in the world, it’s in a high tier. But grading on a curve — in the elite company of other barrel-aged saisons — I’d put it near the middle of the pack. I found it above average in some respects, and too understated in others. C+
Wander Wild Warehouse. Color is a smoky wildfire shade of gold, topped with a ring of bubbly white head that sticks to the glass. Aroma is a hard to place, a moving target, with notes you’d expect from white wine, good cider and, well, okay, a complex sour beer that costs $16. On the tongue you’ll get soft oak from (French) Chardonnay barrels, where this 6.8-percent alcohol saison gestated for nine months. The overarching flavor is, to me, something like sour apricot. But you’ll get brilliant layer after layer after layer, no one burying the next. One moment you catch lemon-mango. The next, there’s lime and mandarin, along with wild sour funk. Yet it’s less sharply sour than another recent Wander barrel-aged release, Sauraha, and fuller and sweeter. Still, you won’t call it sweet. A tart aftertaste like cranberry comes on unobtrusively at the end, and it’s a perfect finish. No doubt, this one lives up to the hype. A+
In other brews …
— Atwood Ales started selling bottles at the Bellingham Farmers Market. The Blaine brewery doesn’t have a taphouse, but it’s a true farmhouse operation of Belgian-style beers brewed in a barn. Be on the lookout for its bombers around town.
— Aslan Brewing, owners of a prime patio, released a malty dry-hopped spring ale called Patio Sesh’. Boundary Bay took home a silver medal at the World Beer Cup for its 2014 vintage of Old Bounder, a barleywine. Chuckanut Brewery will host a free brewery tour and book signing June 4 for the release of “Washington Beer,” a history of Washington beer by Mike Rizzo. Kulshan Brewing canned its Sunnyland IPA, a beer I gave high marks earlier this year. The Local Public House, home to Menace Brewing, added open-air seating near its entrance, right after finishing another major expansion, The Annex. North Fork is selling bottles of Electric Berryland, a mad-scientist blend of two barrel-aged sours, fermented with local raspberries. Stones Throw Brewing will host a block party with live music, a pig roast, and — surprise! — beer on Saturday, May 28, the day before Ski to Sea. Two new single-hop pale ales were brewed up by Structures: one with Mosaic, one with Simcoe. Meanwhile, Wander tapped an IPA using whole cone Citra, Chinook and Ahtanum hops.
Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, firstname.lastname@example.org.