The idea of a restaurant and brewery on the Downtown Mall that specializes in Belgian cuisine and beers would have been completely absurd as few as five years ago. Today, with the mainstream dominance of craft beer culture in Charlottesville, it is practically a no-brainer. Charlottesvillians discuss new beers the way farmers talk about the weather.
Brasserie Saison was the brainchild of Hunter Smith, owner of Champion Brewing, and Will Richey, owner of The Whiskey Jar, The Alley Light and other downtown hot spots. Saison refers to the signature style of beer traditionally brewed on farms in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Smith worked closely with Joshua Lawson Skinner, a brewer at Champion, to create a house saison that could represent the restaurant and brewery.
“It’s in the name, representing the region we wanted to focus on,” Smith says. “That’s our flagship and has been the most popular since we opened. We knew that we needed to knock that one out of the park. …The first [experimental] batch we were like, that’s kind of it. So it was almost a little bit stifling when you get it right the first time. I was looking forward to a couple of months of messing around with it!”
A first sip of the house saison reveals a smooth and aromatic beer, reminiscent of Belgium’s iconic Saison Dupont that has come to define the style among American brewers.
The saison is also used in cooking the house-style steamed mussels along with bacon, garlic and chilies.
Since the birth of the American craft beer movement in the early 1980s, Belgian beers have held a special place in the hearts of serious American beer-lovers. Within the confines of a country less than a third the size of Virginia, Belgium developed a wide range of unique beer styles using malts and yeasts that weren’t used anywhere else in the world. Think of it as the Galapagos of the beer universe. It was difficult to obtain those Belgian beers before craft beer became mainstream, and on the rare occasions when Belgian ales were available in the U.S. they had often suffered badly from long trips on container ships where they were exposed to extreme temperatures.
The allure of the exotic and unobtainable Belgian beers tempted many beer-lovers on this side of the Atlantic to try their hand at brewing their own. For decades, it was the only way to drink the stuff. Belgian beers became an unofficial litmus test among homebrewers, microbrewers and beer insiders. Anyone can make an acceptable IPA. If you can make a convincing Belgian saison or dubbel, you’re probably a highly skilled brewer.
Being asked to develop an entire menu of Belgian styles would be a dream come true for many American brewers.
“Yeah, it definitely is a dream assignment,” Skinner says. “I’ve been really passionate about Belgian beers even before I was a homebrewer. I have an idea in my mind of how they should be. It’s been a lot of fun to design and execute it and see it come to fruition.
“I’m really proud of the dubbel,” he says. “…A lot of [dubbels] tend to become banana ester bombs or syrupy sweet. So we set out to make this one dry and not too estery or too phenolic. …A lot of that is fermentation temperature and the strain of Belgian yeast that you use.”
The dubbel was indeed a dry example of the style. There were subtle notes of caramel and a hint of butterscotch in the finish.
Among the beers that Skinner developed with Smith for Brasserie Saison, there are two that depart from a traditional approach.
One is a dry-hopped version of the house saison, which is everything that the standard version is but taken up an octave with a stronger nose, and pronounced notes of citrus and pine on the palate.
Dry-hopping, which originated in England, refers to the process of adding hops to the fermenting beer rather than during the earlier boiling process. American homebrewers picked up on the technique and experimented with it in every style of beer and variety of hops imaginable. Belgian brewers noticed what the Americans were doing and recently began copying the method and applying it to their own styles. Now, Skinner and Smith have borrowed it back in their dry-hopped saison.
Brasserie Saison’s second departure from tradition is its Belgian IPA. It is doubtful that any brewery in Belgium is making an IPA, but this is probably what it would taste like.
It has a clear, sharp flavor with the body of a saison and the hops of a thoughtful, restrained Pacific Northwest-style IPA.
I handed the glass to my photographer, Eze Amos. His eyes lit up as he drank it.
“Oh God, I love beer!” he said.
The Belgian IPA has a slight bubblegum taste that pops in for just a fraction of a second, then it disappears. A full marriage of American and Belgian styles.
I went back to a taste of the dubbel as Amos applied himself to the IPA in earnest.
“This might be the best IPA I have ever had,” Amos declared.
He’s not crazy.