The story of moon pies is familiar to many Southerners: in 1917, a Kentucky coal miner asked a traveling salesman for Chattanooga Bakery for a snack “as big as the moon.” The bakery produced a dessert made with graham crackers and marshmallow, dipped in a chocolate-like coating. It quickly became a staple in miners’ lunchboxes, and while American miners might have washed down their moon pies with cola, their Belgian counterparts craved something stronger: Grisette-style beer.
Grisettes are a Belgian table beer, considered a lower-alcohol alternative to a Saison. The style originated in Belgium’s Hainaut province. As the area began to industrialize in the late 19th century, brewers began to market the beer to local miners.
The origin of the name of is fuzzy, but “gris” means gray in French. Some attribute the name to gray uniforms worn by girls who distributed it to thirsty workers as they exited the mines. Others claim Grisette was named after the color of the quarried stone in northern Hainaut.
Whatever its etymology, Grisettes are rising in popularity, thanks to the interest (and talent) of American brewers. These brewers are reviving an almost forgotten style and don’t necessarily feel bound by tradition. There are, however, several characteristics that define it. Grisettes are low in alchohol, brewed with malted wheat and have significant hopping levels achieved by using higher quality hops than those used in typical farmhouse ale.
Cleveland brewer Luke Purcell makes an interesting Grisette, called Miner’s Lady, for Collision Bend Brewing Company. It pours a hazy amber color with a huge white head and is highly carbonated. It’s surprisingly bold and hoppy for a beer with just 4.5 percent ABV. “We were very happy with the spicy character that our Belgian yeast strain was producing in our Saison,” Purcell says, “and thought this would work well for something lighter. When I suggested brewing a Belgian table beer to our brewer, Ben Northeim, he suggested we try the Grisette style.”
Session beers are fine (and Grisettes definitely rank above the typical light lagers), but what pairs well with them? Purcell notes that food pairing is important to Collision Bend’s identity, and the spiciness of Miner’s Lady, plus its high carbonation, make it a great match for their Asian stuffed chicken leg or the San Diego fish taco.
Shaun Yasaki of Noble Beast Brewing Co., also in Cleveland, currently has Strawberry Sour Grisette on tap. “It’s a one-off and not very traditional,” he notes. It underwent a sour mash, an old European technique for lowering the acidity. The Grisette is quite sour and is aged on strawberries for a subtle fruit character. It’s 3.2 percent ABV, so it’s light and refreshing, and a big dose of Citra hops is added at the end. The result is stone fruit aromas and low bitterness. In the past, Yasaki brewed a selection called Manchurian Grisette that had a small amount of Kombucha blended in.
Even if you’re not digging coal (or snacking on moon pies), try a Grisette the next time you find one on tap or at your favorite beverage store. Here’s to the miners who brought us this brew.