LIBME Beer Education – Bob Rodriguez August 2011
History: Saison (French, “season”) is the name originally given to refreshing, low-alcohol pale ales brewed seasonally in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, It was made to refresh farm workers during harvest season.
This style shares a lot of similarities with the Bière de Garde style of France. Originally this beer brewed in spring to last through summer and into autumn. Therefore it had to be durable and refreshing – a tall order for ales brewed in the days before refrigeration. Although now most commercial examples range from 5 to 8% abv, originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and thus had alcohol levels less than 3%.
Because of the lack of potable water, saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness. The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage, but at the same time could not be so strong as to incapacitate the workers.
Additionally, these beers were strongly hopped, as hops act as a preservative and have antiseptic properties.
Saisons brewed in early Spring would often be blended with saisons brewed the previous Autumn, or even blended with lambic beers to increase the refreshing acidity of these beers. Blending also occurred to reduce the abv. Fermentation at warm temperatures, sometimes involved a mixture of yeast strains, which release fruity and spicy flavors. Fermentation continues in the bottle, resulting in a lively carbonation and dense, rocky head.
Today, saisons are most often packaged in champagne-style bottles with a cork secured by a wire cage. It wasn’t too long ago that saison was regularly referred to as a “dying style.” But it has enjoyed a strong
resurgence in recent years. It is still brewed as it always has been in small, artisanal breweries in southern Belgium. But the real leap in growth of the style has occurred in US based craft brewing.
Ingredients: As with many Belgium styles almost anything can go in a saison though the style remains unique and distinctive. Most saisons are based on Pilsner malt with adjuncts such as candi sugar or honey common. The style contains a bit more hops than other Belgium styles with Noble hops, Styrian or East Kent Goldings. It is also sometimes dry hopped.
Many saisons contain herbs and spices. The ale yeast that is used contributes lots of flavor. This is often enhanced with a sour mash or Lactobacillus to add some acidity to the beer.
Modern saisons brewed in the USA tend to copy the yeast used by Brasserie Dupont, which ferments better at 85 to 95 F than the standard 65 to 75 F fermenting temperature used by other Belgian saison brewers.
Tasting Notes: Historically saisons did not share identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a style, but were rather a group of refreshing summer ales.
Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version. A soft malt character contributed by the Pilsner malt supports spicy and fruity flavors resulting from the yeast and adjuncts. Though the hop presence is pronounced it never overwhelms the spicy complexity of the beer. All of this plus the acidic sourness and a typically dry finish contribute to a complex and very satisfying brew.
Food Pairing: When pairing with saison it will overbear more delicate foods. Otherwise one might think that, given its complexity, saison might be a fickle beer for pairing. Actually, the opposite is true. With so much going on in the aroma and flavor of a good saison, it’s got the stuff to go with almost any dish. The fruity and spicy notes can lift a simple barbecue to angelic heights. The spicy and peppery notes will really enhance the flavors of any hot or peppery dish.
Brewers’ Notes: IBU: 25 – 45 OG: 1.048 – 1.080 FG: 1.010 – 1.016
Brands to Try: Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Ommegang Hennepin, Brasserie a Vapeur Saison de Pipaix, New Belgium Saison, Fantome Saison
References BJCP study guidelines 2008, Bryce Eddings, About.com 2009, Wikipedia 2011