The season of beer

In the modern days of air conditioning and refrigerators it is often easy to forget about the seasons. Heating something up is usually not a problem but keeping them cool is a whole other part of the thermodynamic cycle. Before artificial refrigeration was invented, ice blocks, caves, and cellars were the common way of keeping beer cool. Beer, and even specific styles, were only brewed at particular times of year. Refrigeration was one of mankind’s greatest technological breakthroughs and it should come to no surprise that one of the first and most successful refrigeration technologies, invented by Carl von Linde in the 1870’s, was being funded by Munich’s Spaten Brewery. Their goal was to create a means of producing lager beer year-round. Although refrigeration changed the course of beer (and the world), many of the styles were founded because of seasonality and as the temperature warms up we begin to enter the season of beer.  

A beer fit for spring and saints

Beer has often been called “liquid bread” however it is doppelbock that truly embodies the moniker. It is also the beer that most represents spring. Dopppelbock was founded in Munich, a city whose name means “home of the monks.” To this day some monks consume beer as a good source of nutrients and historically it was one of the few sources of potable water. Of course this depends on the monks’ order and when the monks following St. Franciscus of Paula, known as Paulaners, came to Munich from Italy in the seventeenth century they brought with them both their taste for beer and their techniques in brewing it.

There are several stories of how the first doppelbock came about however the most common one is that it was brewed as a celebratory beer for St. Franciscus’ commemoration day on April 2nd. The forty days of Lent and the four weeks leading up to Christmas are the two times per year that Paulaners fast. During these periods they are not allowed to consume solid food but can still consume liquids. The commemoration day falls in the middle of Lent and this beer was brewed with an extra dose of malts to increase its nutritive value (which incidentally increased its alcohol). It was named Sankt-Vater-Bier (Saint Father Beer) and over time this beer became known as “Salvator.” Today you can go to the store and still buy a bottle of Paulaner Salvator. The Paulaner brewery has long been out of the hands of monks but that is a whole other story. From Spaten Optimator to Arbor Brewing’s Terminator, many of the world’s breweries affix -ator onto the name of their doppelbock as a way of honoring the original doppelbock.

These days most doppelbocks are brewed year round however there are some other Lenten and Easter beers still brewed only for the season. One of the more notable (and somewhat available) of them is Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier, which is only offered between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Schlenkerla is the most famous of the breweries located in Bamberg, Germany, a region known for creating rauchbier. This family of brews are made using malts that have have been smoked with beechwood trees indigenous to the area. The smoked malts can give the beer a flavor that ranges from light hickory to downright bacon. Rauchbiers can be made in different base styles like helles lager, bock, or even hefeweizen however they will always contain smoked malts. Fastenbier has a rich maltiness that gives it an almost doppelbock-like character but the alcohol content of 5.5% ABV is too low for this to be considered a doppelbock. The brewery describes it as a brotzeit which literally translates to “bread time” and its full malty body and high yeast content live up to this descriptor. The smokey sweet malt flavor of Fastenbier will make a nice complement to an Easter ham.

There are other types of bock beer however the first bocks came from Einbeck. Unlike doppelbock but similar to beer refrigeration, bock beer was driven by the desire for commercial success. The popularity of bock beer soared when Einbeck joined the Hanseatic League in the fourteenth century, predating doppelbock by a few hundred years. This confederation of merchant guilds and towns sent Einbeck’s beer all over the area and eventually ordering an Einbecker beer got shortened to ordering “a bock” beer. Although the deep golden maibock style is named after the month of May, early spring is my favorite time of year to drink these crisp yet rich brews. Einbecker Brauhaus is the last surviving historic Einbeck brewery and to this day Einbecker Mai-ur-bock is the most classic example of the style (ur essentially means “original”). It has a firm maltiness with a toasted quality reminiscent of cinnamon toast and just a brisk bite of alcohol in the finish.

A beer not meant for March

Before refrigeration it was difficult to brew in the heat of the summer. The warmer temperatures lent themselves to spoilage or just off-putting fermentation flavors from the increased heat. Many of the brewers would not brew during this time however one Bavarian ruler made it law not to. In 1553 Duke Albrecht V forbade all brewing between April 23 and September 29 in Bavaria. During March, the Bavarian brewers would brew overtime in order to have enough beer to last through the non-brewing season. These beers became known as Märzenbier, or March beer. They were made with a little extra strength and kept cool in cellars or caves to help them keep longer. The ordinance eventually ended but the Märzen style didn’t really become cemented until the Spaten Brewery introduced their version at the Oktoberfest in 1841. This malty amber brew represented several technological breakthroughs (once again that is a whole other story) and its modern day interpretation is still sold as Spaten Oktoberfest.

It’s all about the season

Refrigeration also makes it easier to store ingredients over time and before its existence many of the farmers would want to use up the previous harvest before receiving the next one. These farmhouses would have small breweries on site to make beer for the laborers and farm residents. From Belgium to Finland, there are a range of historic beer styles that sprouted from these different farm brews. Of which, saison (“season” in French) is the most popular and prevalent today.

Saisons are now brewed far and wide in the beer world and many of the local breweries produce their own interpretations. The Brewhouse even produces a range of saisons to reflect the different sport seasons (Baseball Saison, Football Saison, etc.). If you taste your way through the area’s saisons you will notice that they all have some similarities but overall these saisons fall into a variety of different colors, strengths, and flavors. This open-ended interpretation is due to the fact that the beer would change each season since it would be made from whatever ingredients were left in the farmhouse. Overall these beers are fairly well hopped, fruity and somewhat phenolic in yeast character, sometimes spiced, but always refreshing and effervescent. Saison Dupont Vielle Provision is considered the definition of the style and has a full, fluffy head that spouts aromas of citrus peel and black pepper with a grassy undertone. Saisons are notorious food beers and can go with anything from pork to seafood, appetizers to entrees, or even just alone as an aperitif. No matter where you place one of these styles of beer, it is comforting to know that beer season is here.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, March 21, 2017

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