A trip to Sasanoa Brewing at Tarbox Farm on Westport Island feels a little bit like traveling back in time, as you lumber along a bumpy country road, through the woods, along an old family burial ground, and past someone’s house (“are we lost?”), before finally parking on the edge of a field amongst other visitors’ cars, slightly askew. Beyond that, the Sasanoa River.

Turn around, and there is the tasting room – tasting yard might be more accurate – which opened last summer. The yard is flanked by an old barn topped with solar panels. Bright yellow umbrellas sprout from picnic tables adorned with bouquets of flowers grown on the farm. Like those flowers, the tasting room is seasonal, open only on weekends from May to October – a tragically short, but glorious window for those looking to taste some of the best farmhouse beers around in their natural, pastoral setting.

“It’s just about finding that balance,” brewer Kyle DePietro says about crafting his beers. “It’s an ongoing process. Hops change from year to year. Recipes change. They’re always developing. It’s about finding that balance and what ingredients you want to have shine without overpowering the other ingredients.”

As an organic farmer and brewer in the farmhouse tradition, the ingredients and their provenance mean a great deal to DePietro. Sasanoa is Maine’s only brewery that is certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). DiPietro and his partner, Angie Trombley, have farmed in Maine for nearly 20 years. And in the farmhouse tradition, many ingredients for their beers – ginger, lime basil, strawberries, grapes, hops – come straight from the fields around the brewery.

The exemplary Hop Barn (5.6% ABV) is a saison featuring Cascade hops grown at Tarbox Farm. It features an all-Maine grain bill, with organic barley, wheat and spelt. It’s pale in the glass, leaning toward a deep gold. Citrusy aromas and that distinctive saison spiciness are joined by grapefruit notes and a hint of lemon. It possesses a lively body and finishes dry, with a little bitterness.

DePietro has always loved saisons, first and foremost because they are refreshing. But he is also drawn to “the history of saison that ties into the farm, farm ingredients, and what’s available that season.” Traditionally, it was a beer brewed by farmers and bound up with the seasonal rhythms of farming in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The word means “season,” and it was a drink made to reinvigorate the “saisonniers,” who were migrant workers helping with the harvest. And though it was a beer for the summer, saisons were brewed between late fall and early spring, when weather was cooler, allowing for more control of fermentation temperatures. It was also when farmers had more time on their hands to brew. The spent grain from brewing even provided good feed for winter livestock (at Tarbox Farm, it works as compost).

We can’t know what saisons from centuries ago tasted like, though they were most certainly different than what we drink today. Farmer-brewers weren’t selling these beers commercially, and so the repeatability of a recipe wasn’t important. As DePietro says of his own beers, saisons were made by “using what’s available.” That could include different grains – like barley, rye, wheat and spelt – which would be deployed in varying amounts. Spices and herbs could substitute for hops, when necessary. This variability is a defining feature of saisons then, and in many ways today. At Sasanoa, the promiscuity of saison as a style is partially held in check by the demands of using all-organic ingredients (though perhaps that also cultivates a certain creativity).

Sasanoa’s Saison Marquette features grapes from Tarbox Farm. Photo by Ben Lisle

The brewery recently released two new mixed-fermentation, barrel-aged beers (some of which made their way down to Portland’s Bier Cellar): Saison Marquette and The Great Conjunction. The mixed fermentation process combines yeast and bacteria to replicate some of the aromas and flavors that traditionally would be produced by the spontaneous, open-air fermentation of traditional farmhouse ales. Brettanomyces yeast strains generate fruity, earthy, floral – and sometimes funky – characteristics. Bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus eat sugar and leave lactic acid in their wake, making a beer tart and acidic. And then, microbes camped out in the barrels pitch in as well – though with less predictable results. As DePietro says, when you dump beer in a barrel, it is a “little bit of a leap of faith.” In the case of these two beers, that faith was rewarded.

Saison Marquette (6.25% ABV) features Marquette grapes from Tarbox Farm and is aged in French oak, pinot noir wine barrels from River Drive Cooperage in Buxton. The beer is built atop two types of organic malted rye from Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls, in addition to organic barley. Marquette grapes are hardy, capable of surviving cold winter temperatures more than most wine grapes; they are also a descendant of Pinot Noir grapes. DePietro figured that lineage might make the grapes and the barrels a fine match – and the results bear out his intuition. Aromas and flavors of cherry and grape are joined by a hint of earthy funk and a little woodiness. It is tart, but not overpoweringly so. Each sip feels like a minor variation on the theme; its layers unfurl as the beer warms.

Sasanoa’s The Great Conjunction is a Belgian strong ale. Photo by Ben Lisle

The Great Conjunction (8.3% ABV) is a mixed fermentation Belgian strong ale, aged in bourbon barrels from Split Rock Distilling in Newcastle. Organic barley and rye make up the grains. It pours a dark ruby brown. Mildly effervescent, with a slightly rounded softness, it drinks spicy and tart, with cherry, bourbony vanilla and chocolate flavors. There is a poised harmony – a sort of celestial music – to this beer named for the rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky.

It is a balance and beauty that emerges from all of the Sasanoa beers I’ve had – beers that are in an intimate conversation with the farm and the farmhouse tradition, in theory and practice.

Ben Lisle is an assistant professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries in Portland’s East Bayside, where he writes about cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Reach him on Twitter at @bdlisle.


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