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Color Outside the Lines

If we think of modern beer style guides as canonical coloring books for grownups, then saison is the devil on our shoulders inviting us to venture outside the lines and use all the crayons in the box. Here’s a guide to this playful style.

Dave Carpenter August 18, 2016

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The first rule of saison is that there are no rules.

Okay, maybe that’s an oversimplification. But if we think of modern beer style guides as canonical coloring books for grownups, then saison is the devil on our shoulders inviting us to venture outside the lines and use all the crayons in the box. Nobody has to know.

Perhaps more than any other beer style, saison embraces brewing that is at once primal, playful, and pernicious. Once widespread in Belgium, saison overcame an uncertain future on the Continent when American craft brewers rediscovered and revived it with characteristic gusto.

The story of saison is really the story of beer itself.

Stylistic Origins

Until very recently, brewing was almost exclusively a local activity. Long before hipsters rolled in on fixie bikes and made locally sourced ingredients trendy and expensive, beer more or less implied homebrew made from whatever was available nearby. Beer styles developed regionally—micro-regionally, even—and expressed diverse cultures, climates, and topographies through their own unique goûtes de terroir.

Saison originated on farms in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region, most notably in the province of Hainaut. The style’s name is simply the French word for “season,” which alone tells us a great deal. Wallonian farmer-brewers made beer during winter in preparation for the summer arrival of les saisonniers, seasonal workers whose tilling and toiling must have induced a powerful thirst.

Nobody knows exactly how the prototypical saison of Hainaut would have tasted. Historical records and folklore offer clues, but it’s impossible to be certain. Variations in crops and hops meant farmers would have brewed with whatever they had, making each year’s vintage unique. Fermentation would almost certainly have featured a blend of house yeast, wild yeast, and bacteria. And since saison was consumed on premises as sustenance, consistency from one batch to another was probably afforded as much thought as your grandmother’s lasagne recipe that calls for a pinch of this and a smidge of that.

A further difficulty in pinning down the style is that we very nearly lost it. The late beer writer Michael Jackson sincerely believed saison was in danger of extinction in 1991 when he wrote, “Perhaps the most endangered [Belgian beer style] is the Saison. . . . [It] needs all the help it can get.”

At Jackson’s urging, American beer importer Don Feinberg convinced Brasserie Dupont to begin exporting Saison Vieille Provision (now simply called Saison Dupont) from Belgium to the United States in the late 1980s. Dupont’s subsequent stateside success had the effect of making it the involuntary standard bearer for the style—not just because it’s a fantastic beer, but also because it happened to be first. To this day, a perfectly adequate answer to the question “What is saison?” remains “Something like Saison Dupont.”

What Is Saison?

To better define the undefinable, I sat down with Gordon Schuck, who, along with business partner Brad Lincoln, founded Funkwerks, Inc., a saison-focused brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. Gordon offers the best definition of saison I’ve encountered.

“If there is one common characteristic to the style, it is the attenuation. Saisons have attenuations exceeding 90 percent. This lends a dry finish to a flavorful beer. And what is the flavor? That depends on the beer. Saison Dupont is a very bitter yet fruity example. [La Brasserie à Vapeur’s] Saison Pipaix is drier with a mineral edge. [La Brasserie Fantôme’s] Fantôme is less fruity but has more of a lactic acid edge. Essentially, a saison is a dry beer with a character unique to the brewery where it is made.”

Attenuation (the percentage of available sugar that actually gets fermented), it seems, is what makes a saison a saison. It’s not uncommon for a well-made saison’s final gravity to approach 1.005 or less. Achieving such low gravities calls for a special kind of yeast, and therein lies the true heart of the style.

If there is one rule that we must associate with saison brewing, it is this: Yeast is everything. Saison derives its unique flavors and dry finish from aggressive strains of yeast that, given enough time, could probably ferment a Volvo.

And the yeast strains are famously temperamental. Brasserie Dupont’s strain prefers temperatures as high as 95°F (35°C), a full thirty degrees higher than most British yeasts. Gordon and Brad experimented with a blend of ale strains and red wine yeast before settling on a strain that is said to have originated from Brasserie Theillier in France, available to homebrewers as Wyeast 3711 French Saison. (For more about yeast, see “Fermentation Fascination.”)

Some brewers include spices in their saisons, but such seasoning must be done with care. Saison yeasts produce enough spicy notes that augmenting with actual botanicals can easily overwhelm the palate.

Sensory Profile

So how do such textbook attributes translate to what you and I actually taste? To find out, I walked down to my local craft-beer bar and sampled a flight of four popular saisons (pictured at top):

With the exception of the Funkwerks’s flagship beer, which is distributed in only a handful of states, these examples are widely available from coast to coast.

The four samples exhibit real, but minor, differences in appearance, with clarity ranging from virtually transparent (Tank 7) to hazy (Funkwerks Saison) and color spanning the brief spectrum between brilliant blonde and pale copper.

Aromas vary from peach and passion fruit to lychee and orange, but all exhibit a characteristic spiciness that comes through in the flavor as well. Black pepper, ginger, coriander, and vanilla notes are commonly evident, even in samples that contain no actual spices. It is this difficult-to-describe but easily recognizable combination of fruitiness and spiciness that jumps out and yells, “I AM SAISON!”

The driest examples, Funkwerks and Dupont, offer pleasant finishes that border on tart, while Tank 7 and Hennepin’s higher terminal gravities (2.5° and 2.6° Plato, respectively) are accompanied by sufficient hops bitterness to avoid cloying sweetness.

Experience Saison in Style

The difference between reading about saison and intuitively recognizing it is the same as the difference between memorizing a few vocabulary words and actually speaking French. To truly understand what saison is, you must taste some saisons.

More than any other style, saison really can be whatever you want it to be. I can’t tell you precisely what that is, but to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it.

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Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?