Beer Sherpa Recommends: Deschutes Cultivateur

Is summertime saison time?* That's what both Goose Island and Deschutes seem to think, and I'm starting to agree they're onto something. Both have released sunshiny blond saisons, delicate and warming as a June day. Both enjoy a dalliance with wild yeasts, too, adding depths and layers to what is already one of the most expressive of beer styles.

Saisons, it must be said, are less a style than a state of mind. They can include just about any ingredient, can be any color or strength, can be hoppy or unhopped--a saison is whatever a brewer thinks it ought to be. There is one basic criteria to, though, if by acclimation rather than law: vivid yeast character. Herein lies their essence.

Saisons are called "rustic" and associated with farms, but nothing except the yeast is really required to meet that bucolic standard. This seems right to me. What's "rustic" barley? Rustic hops? These don't mean anything. But laboratory-grade yeast? Your 18th century farmer was not likely to keep a store on-hand for those intermittent brew days. Instead, he let nature have her way with his wort, and the wild result was where that rusticity was located.

Americans haven't historically been great at putting the wild back in their saisons. Farmhouse yeasts snuck from bottles of Belgian beer by commercial labs do a great job of producing spicy phenolics and exotic fruity esters. But going further, to that past-centuries standard, byadding wild yeasts or bacteria tend to blot out all the character from the regular ale strains. They turn a once-complex beer into something characterized largely by Brettanomyces, making them somehow less by the addition. In the past few years, brewers have started to figure out how to add yeasts without subtracting flavor, and here we come to Deschutes.

Cultivateur, now in its second iteration--the came out in 2014--is a triumph of addition. Deschutes' brewers and cellerfolk have figured out how to preserve the flavors produced by the Saccharomyces saison strains while building delicate flavors of wild yeast on top of that sturdy scaffolding. In Cultivateur, the nose, which opens up markedly with warmth, even has a touch of bread from the malt underneath everything, along with a hint of funky wild yeast, and Riesling (within which are apricot and peach). It shows both sides of wild yeast--its funky, barnyard, and drying side as well as its vividly fruity capacity. The result nudges up pretty near to white wine in profile, with a similar level of acidity (which is to say it's nowhere near "sour"), fruitiness, and dryness. As the beer warms, it becomes intensely aromatic and fruity. And, although it's 8%, the alcohol is almost entirely hidden. It's an elegant, stylish beer that will do yeoman's work at the dinner table, combining the best elements of wine and beer.

It's currently pouring at the Portland pub and Bend tasting room (but not the Bend pub), and it's available in bottles as well. Cultivateur may well continue to develop in the bottle, but it's got that sunny fruitiness now, and I personally plan to finish the two bottles I picked up by summer's end.

*Saison, of course, means "season" in French, so this is surely not accidental.