Saison means “season” in French. The origins of Saison ales can be traced to farmhouse breweries located primarily in the French-speaking area of Belgium known as Wallonia, specifically the province of Hainaut.
The practical goals in brewing Saisons were threefold: to refresh the seasonal workers in summer, to make work for the full-time farm workers during the winter (a period of “unemployment” on a farm), and to produce spent grain, which served as quality feed for the livestock in the winter. Beer was therefore brewed in one season, winter, to be drunk in another, summer.
No one alive can be certain of what a typical Saison tasted like several centuries ago, but we can assume that they were different from modern versions. How different is anyone’s guess. Given that these ales were produced by farmers (not full-time brewers) and the fact that they were not sold commercially is reason to believe that these Saisons were probably made with little mind to repeatability. With the unpredictability of the growing season and the practice of crop rotation it is probable that these brews were made with varying amounts of different grains such as barley, wheat, rye, and spelt. In years when hops were scarce, herbs and spices were likely substituted. In other words, these farmer-brewers made their Saisons with whatever was at hand. This legacy lives on in the variations—on a rather loose theme—that define modern Saison.
Today, Belgian Saison, along with its French cousin, Bière de Garde, make up the two major subcategories of the family of styles known as Farmhouse ales.
Modern Saisons defy easy categorization. They can be as contradictory as they are uniform. Most are light in color, a few are dark, and some are in between. A few are full-bodied and sweet; many are extraordinarily dry and fruity. Those who like their beer styles neatly arranged in narrow categories will find attempting to pigeonhole Saisons an exercise in frustration. To others, this elusive quality is precisely their allure, as they represent many possibilities within a loose structure. For many modern brewers “Saison” is a nearly blank canvas; its definition, a moveable feast.
Present-day brewers and beer aficionados can agree that, generally speaking, modern Saisons are exceptionally dry, highly carbonated, and fruity ales of average to moderate alcohol strength (5%–8% by volume). Hop bitterness tends to range from 20–40 IBUs. Nearly all of them are re-fermented in the bottle, with many displaying copious sediment.
Despite the varied interpretations of Saison, perhaps the best known and considered by many the standard-bearer of the style is Saison Vieille Provision from Brasserie Dupont.
Although Saison is native to Belgium, perhaps the country that may ultimately expand or redefine the Saison style is the United States. Many American craft brewers embody the creative “no rules” approach that has long defined Saison. There are more numerous and more varied versions of Saison being made in the United States at present. Over time, perception of Saison as a Belgian style may well shift to it being primarily associated with American craft brewers, just as the British-derived India pale ale style has essentially become American.