Finding consensus to define a “best” beer for a style can be hard with thousands of breweries creating hundreds of thousands of beers all over the world.
But perhaps more than any other choice, there’s one beer that many brewers and drinkers alike feel comfortable giving the Merriam-Webster treatment. Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, with a résumé of awards and superlatives from esteemed brewers like Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver, is widely considered the benchmark of saisons. The Beer Judge Certification Program lists Saison Dupont as a prototype for the style.
Given its flavor profile, it’s easy to understand why. Despite only the basic ingredients of malt, hops, water and yeast, Saison Dupont manages a beloved depth of flavor at an easy-drinking 6.5%. The beer’s hops impart earthiness while its signature strain of yeast evokes a wide range of descriptors, from peppery spice to light funk.
“When it comes to saisons, I think it’s the most imitated beer in the United States at the moment,” says Wendy Littlefield, who imported Saison Dupont with husband Don Feinberg for 26 years and co-founded Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. “If you are interested in saisons, you really can’t do better than to begin with Saison Dupont to understand what that style means to people.”
Oddly enough, the beer might not have reached its iconic status without a little luck. Writer Michael Jackson, who called Saison Dupont “a down-to-earth classic of the style,” came to love the zesty, herbal brew while traveling through Belgium in the 1970s. At Jackson’s urging, Feinberg and Littlefield looked at a partnership with Brasserie Dupont and began importing Saison Dupont in the late 1980s through their company, Vanberg & DeWulf. At the time, the beer represented just 2 percent of Brasserie Dupont’s sales and was being considered for discontinuation. It was easily eclipsed by the brewery’s strong pale ale, Moinette.
In Belgium, Moinette still reigns supreme as flagship, but Brasserie Dupont’s export business would grow to 40 percent of production, with Saison Dupont (now imported by Total Beverage Solutions, which purchased Vanberg & DeWulf’s portfolio in 2014) leading the way in America.
Saison Dupont’s range of flavors makes it versatile for nearly any drinking occasion, causing Garrett Oliver to call it “a miracle with food” in his book The Brewmaster’s Table. Its adaptability with all sorts of dishes helped shape how Littlefield introduced it to American audiences, pairing it with a variety of foods at beer dinners.
“We were emphasizing beer gastronomy and trying to break the stranglehold of the idea that German beer went with German food or Italian beer went with Italian food,” Littlefield says. “We wanted to show the flavors were versatile and could be combined with all kinds of cuisine from all kinds of places.”
Light in body, moderate in alcohol and full of flavor, Saison Dupont started to catch on. For a beer that had been made from its current recipe since about 1950, it finally found a strong footing. It just so happened Saison Dupont took off in America instead of its home country.
Across the U.S., brewers, including Prairie Artisan Ales and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, have allowed Saison Dupont to lead the way for their own saisons. Jester King Brewery even announced in 2015 it would package some of its Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer in green bottles to mimic Saison Dupont and other heralded Belgian versions of the style. (Read more about this in our January 2016 issue.)
For Gordon Schuck, Saison Dupont proved to be the ultimate muse for Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colorado, where the co-owner and brewmaster’s niche is saison.
“More than any other beer, Saison Dupont was the one that inspired and defined our saisons,” says Schuck, noting his appreciation for the beer’s spicy bite. “When we created our recipe, we might not use the same ingredients, but we’re trying to influence our yeast to get esters in a very similar way.”
Schuck now uses proprietary yeast for his beers, but originally derived his strain from a Wyeast batch of French saison yeast with the hope of finding similar flavors of his beloved beer from Brasserie Dupont.
“Saison Dupont is the one you go to first when you talk about the gateway saison,” he says. “It has all the benchmarks you want in the style in a simple, pared-down, classic way.”
The following beers were tasted by beer editor Ken Weaver.
Funkwerks SaisonABV: 6.8% | Saison
Tasting Notes: Always a pleasure to return to (if a bit forward on the pepper). This is not messing-around, wishy-washy, ester-laden saison—instead satisfying with a bittering snap similar to Saison Dupont’s. Firm bitterness here, a zesty jump of herbs and pepper, and just enough underlying almond to keep things smooth. There’s a crackling, rustic, freshly cracked bread feel to saisons of this sort. As the label promises, it definitely pairs well with high fives.
Jolly Pumpkin PinchadiscosABV: 7.2% | Saison with Wild Lime and Rose Lemongrass Tea
Tasting Notes: Make sure to chill this one down, as our photographer noted some overflowing-ness at room temperature. This feels like an amplified version of that core Jolly Pumpkin-esque profile: juicy lime, medium pepper, brisk bitterness and a squeeze of lemony acidity. This is mouthwatering and funky without heading into lambic territory—all clean citrus, lime peel and bright tartness.
Prairie StandardABV: 5.6% | Hoppy Farmhouse Ale
Tasting Notes: The hop character here is expressive, and always beneath is a crackling, toasty core that feels perfectly linked to a workhorse beer: There’s a pop of toasty-toasty malts, zings of peppery citrus and an effervescent carbonation that’s providing a ton of lift for this flight. Endlessly drinkable, complete with instructions for rural noodling—this is refreshing beer that feels like Saison Dupont underneath.
Bryan Roth is a North Carolina-based writer. Find him tweeting about beer at @bryandroth.