On Seasonality

What does it mean to produce seasonal beers in our modern refrigerated age?

Les saisonniers were the early brewers of saison, Wallonian fieldhands in need of a suitable fieldbeer. They brewed throughout their mild winter, properly mid-fall to mid-spring, a beer capable of withstanding the bacterial pressures of the summer heat while it rested, chiefly, in barrels.

Today, there is possibly no more erratically performed beer style than saison, with little influence from the seasonal wort. Since the advent of widespread refrigeration, with breweries pumped full of glycol, ammonia, and freon, one can safely brew any beer in whatever season one wishes.

The one exception is that great Luddite of brewing: lambic, and beers of spontaneous fermentation.   

 Wort cooling in the coolship in the unusually chilly ambient May air.

Wort cooling in the coolship in the unusually chilly ambient May air.

Belgian lambic brewers have borne the torch of seasonal brewing through the last century for two main reasons. First, lambic requires a slow, atmospheric rate of cooling while chilling the wort to the 60s F, which requires that the air be cooler than that final temperature for a sustained period of time. Secondly, the quantity and diversity of microflora in the air are constantly changing, and the summer is notoriously rough on both counts for spontaneous beer fermentations.

There are two contemporary examples of outstanding producers of spontaneously fermented beers brewing throughout the year, employing very different techniques. De Garde Brewing, of Tillamook, OR, is located in a coastal region in which seasons are considerably suppressed, with the average high in December at 51F, and in August only 69F. Brouwerij Girardin, otherwise a beacon of traditional farm-brewed lambic, brews occasionally through the summer in their newer, climate-controlled brewhouse.  

 Barrel retirement in the summer shade outside of Brouwerij Girardin.

Barrel retirement in the summer shade outside of Brouwerij Girardin.

 Oceanside, cliffside, invasive wild blackberries above Tillamook in late August

Oceanside, cliffside, invasive wild blackberries above Tillamook in late August

The use of primarily fresh, local fruit is a hallmark of modern American wild brewers like De Garde. There is certainly no better way to approximate terroir in beer (and in so doing, crafting truly distinctive beers) than to source nearby ingredients and use yeast from one's immediate atmosphere.

So while our winter brewing season is a necessity of spontaneous brewing in temperate climates learned from our Belgian lambic brewing friends, the current American current towards the hyperlocal guides us towards our ultimate aim.

While any attempt at cataloging the American seasonal brewers influential to us will prove futile, Jester King has provided an excellent example, particularly with their Dichotomous series. Scratch Brewing, of southern Illinois, like Princeton's Elements restaurant, forages in their surroundings for characterful ingredients that are the bounty of their given season by their very nature.

Even an early blog post on saison by a young Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery addresses the ideals of the seasonal farmhouse brewery, in characteristic form:

A farmhouse brewery may utilize various assortments of adjuncts and grains - all produced locally: myriad types of wheat, spelt, oats, buckwheat, rye, honey, maple syrup, hops, wild yeasts, berries, and fruit. In the United States, the average distance from farm to plate is greater than 2,000 miles - resulting in the depletion of natural resources at the expense of localized economies and, more often than not, nutrition. Farmhouse to me is symbolic of the resistance to the tendencies of ‘constant convenience consumerism.’
— Shaun Hill (2007)
 End-of-season Trifoliate oranges in Hopewell, NJ (November)

End-of-season Trifoliate oranges in Hopewell, NJ (November)

For our own part, we've selected this region, our little slice of central/western New Jersey in the Delaware Valley, for its strong seasonality and agrarian aspect. In the fall we brew our Berliner Messe and Saison with an eye on the forecast, performing our lambic-style brewing in November through April, and bookending the season in April and May with our Berliner and Saison again.

Last November, when I had thought we were solidly in the clear with cool enough overnight temperatures to brew our lambic-style beers, an unseasonably warm forecast showed up on one of our scheduled brewdays. We take these auspices as reason to try something different. So I asked after the Trifoliate oranges behind Brick Farm Tavern and Troon Brewing, and with a bucketful of these sour, bitter beauties picked from the infinitely-thorned branches the night before the brewday, decided to give a witbier a shot.

Upon returning to the coolship the morning after the brewday, I was met with the most glorious aroma any of our wort has yet yielded, the oranges having steeped in the wort overnight, giving up their essence. Then, last month, the beer received an addition of fresh-picked, undried local Chamomile flowers, which yet again imparted every sweet aroma it had to offer. This very simple dually spontaneous beer is my favorite beer we've yet brewed, because it was given to us by the seasons.

 Freshly harvested cherries bring new sugar and wild yeasts into the barrel to spark a raucous spontaneous refermentation 

Freshly harvested cherries bring new sugar and wild yeasts into the barrel to spark a raucous spontaneous refermentation 

To be clear, we do not eschew all climate control at The Referend. Throughout the summer the barrel cellar is air conditioned to keep the space below 72F. It is otherwise untouched. In the winter, cellar temperatures can drop into the 40s. As opposed to the Platonic ideal of cave-aged wine (or homeostatic FVs of beer) in which a nearly constant temperature is maintained year-round, we believe these beers become hardier when exposed to a moderate seasonal range. E.R. Southby explains in his 1885 text "A Systematic Handbook of Practical Brewing":

By storing beers in good cellars, in which a uniform temperature of about 54F is maintained, almost all risk of the beer becoming acid is avoided, provided it is well brewed, and from good materials. There are however, some inconveniences in this method of storage, for if the cellars are very cool, the beers stored in them are apt, when removed into a warmer atmosphere, to kick up, owing to their not having previously gone through that slow fermentation in cask, which is sure to take place sooner or later in all stock beers. On the other hand, if the cellars are maintained at a somewhat higher temperature, the beers are apt to chill, and become cloudy when removed in cold temperatures.

The fact is, that by coddling beers, while you certainly preserve them from disease, you are sure at the same time to render them tender, and susceptible to every change in temperature.

Brewing seasonally is perhaps not much more than a heightened awareness of the constant changes of the immediate world around us, then fitting ones work inside that context. 

As HD Thoreau so well pontificated, “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”