Innovative craft brewers are always looking for new avenues to explore with their beer, from interesting ingredients to off-the-beaten path styles nearly forgotten. One style that’s started to get attention in the craft beer world is the grisette — a relative of Belgian saisons that feels like a perfect fit for Southern California.
A member of the loose collection of farmhouse ales that developed along the border of France and Belgium, grisette originated not in the fertile farmlands of Wallonia but to the south, in the Hainaut province, where Belgians mined coal and ore. Where saisons developed as restorative beverages for tired farmhands toiling in the fields, grisette was brewed to quench the thirst of the men laboring with pick and shovel in the mines. The name grisette literally means “little gray” and refers to either the gray stone that the miners dug through, or the gray-clad worker women who served the eponymous ales to the workers. Like the saison ales served in the fields, grisette was brewed primarily to refresh. Light in body and low in alcohol, a glass of grisette cut through the dust and grit after a day’s work, the dry finish helping to further quench the thirst. These bright and refreshing qualities, and a complex flavor that remains easy to drink, make grisette a natural fit for Southern California’s lingering summer warmth.
Today, brewers are revisiting many regional specialties such as grisette and the ultra-trendy gose style from Germany, but there are no instruction manuals for making these Old World brews. There is little evidence suggesting what the traditional versions were like. Most beer historians rely on brewery records and recipe logs when investigating historical styles, but the small farmhouse operations producing grisette in Belgium didn’t leave many records behind.
In the book “Farmhouse Ales,” author Phil Markowski says, “Oral accounts of those who remember the old grisettes say they were low alcohol, light bodied, saison-like golden ales of no great distinction.” This description gives today’s brewers plenty of leeway to design a saison-like beer that emphasizes refreshment, and the handful of craft breweries now making grisette vary greatly in their approach. Sometimes the brews are hopped more aggressively than saisons, often they employ a balancing tartness, and they’re usually kept low in alcohol.
The lone Belgian brewery still producing a grisette in any quantity — Brasserie St. Feuillien — doesn’t export its line of four grisettes. Likewise, many of the well-regarded modern examples brewed in America — such as Side Project brewing from St. Louis and Pennsylvania’s Sly Fox brewing — are not available in Southern California, but a pair of Los Angeles brewers do produce noteworthy versions.
The Agoura Hills brewpub Ladyface Ale Companie makes La Grisette, an example brewed with wheat, built around a brisk, tart zing. It’s pale and dry and about 5% alcohol; La Grisette is as welcoming to food as it is thirst-quenching — a natural match to moules fritte or goat cheese. While you can occasionally find La Grisette on tap around town, your best bet is to visit the Ladyface brewpub for a glass (or a growler fill).
In Torrance, Monkish Brewing bottles Ghetto Bird — a grisette that’s light and tart thanks to three months spent maturing in an oak vat. The hazy, pale beer is made with a mix of grains, including spelt and oats, that add texture and subtle cereal flavors.
Monkish owner Henry Nguyen, who specializes in saison brewing, calls the grisette style “romanticized” and says he isn’t even really sure what makes them different from the more common saison. “We approached it the same as any saison we have brewed,” he says. “We like lower [alcohol] beers to drink ourselves, and I wanted a complex beer at that. Why do we call it a grisette? Why not?”
Bottles of Ghetto Bird are available in the Monkish tasting room for about $18, and the tart, slightly oaky and refreshing beer is an excellent table beer served with brunch, a picnic lunch or with a spread of cheese and charcuterie.
With a combination of refreshing drinkability and farmhouse ale complexity, at a session-friendly strength, the grisette is primed for a comeback. And as drinkers get comfortable quaffing tart gose and grow bored with attempts to homogenize Belgian witbiers, grisette may be the next Old World style to captivate the craft brewing scene.
Ladyface Ale Companie, 29281 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills, (818) 477-4566, www.ladyfaceale.com
Monkish Brewing, 20311 S. Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 295-2157, www.monkishbrewing.com