The story of Belgian farmhouse ales could fill a book—that is, if there were any real historical information available to fill the pages. Nevertheless, tales of ghostly rustic “saisons” fill our imagination, burnished in the fading golden light of an early harvest, dripping with romance of a connection to the land. The beer itself often has to work very hard to maintain the image. It’s an illusion, but boy, what a pleasant one. Because the history is so sketchy and contradictory, I’m just going to bullet- point it. You can connect the dots as best you can while we’re waiting for someone to figure this out.
- The late, great Michael Jackson wrote in his World Guide to Beer in 1977, “In the south of the country, top-fermented beers are sometimes called saisons.” He was pretty capable of ferreting out obscure styles, so he either missed it, or saison just wasn’t much of a thing then.
- The Belgian Brewmaster G. Lacambre wrote in his Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières in 1851 that “saison” indicated a beer brewed “en saison,” indicating a winter-brewed stronger beer: between 4.5 percent and 6.5 percent ABV at the time.
- Lacambre also details a couple of dozen regional styles in Belgium. None of them resemble modern saison.
- The beers in the current saison-producing region of southern/southwestern Belgium were amber-to-brown in Lacambre’s day. There’s no mention in Lacambre’s book about farmhouse anything. There were rural breweries, but from photographic evidence, these were multistory brick buildings in large compounds employing twenty or more people. This makes sense when you consider the variety of tasks—barrels, brewing, delivery, horses, cleaning, coal furnaces—and the considerable amount of manual labor required.
- The only historic beer with the word saison in its name was Liège saison, a poorly attenuated 2.5 percent ABV brown ale brewed from malted spelt, oats, and/or buckwheat, or sometimes broad beans. It’s utterly unlike today’s saisons.
It’s clear that much about the origins of saison/farmhouse ale is confusing. The fact that we use these two words pretty interchangeably just makes my point. I’m going to call them saison since I’d rather appear sophisticated and use French, but you can plug in “farmhouse” if you’re that crunchy kind of person. So let’s suspend disbelief on the history until something comes along and bursts our fantasy. Let’s move on to what we can be sure of about this sprite of a style—today.
First, saison is quite pale, and a light haze is typical. From a flavor standpoint, the malt character is limited to a very narrow range: grassy, bready, crackery, possibly with delicate accents of light kettle- corn caramel or malt ball. Period. No raisin, no toast, not even that little biscuity edge pale-ale malt sometimes brings. Of course, there are many delightful variations that shoot off in just about every direction, but we’re going to limit ourselves to the historical-ish center. We’ll talk about the yeast character later, but it is my personal opinion that this should be the absolute star of the show. Saison’s unique fermentation character largely defines the style. While it’s assertive, it is also subject to distortion and dilution. As malts get darker, flavor chemicals with sharper edges are created, and while these are delicious in the right context, it’s been my experience that they also detract in lighter styles and compete with the peppery yeast nose.
The Belgian classics such as Saison Dupont are in the 6.5 percent ABV range, and some Wallonian producers have stronger versions close to 10 percent. Back in the nineteenth century, every beer style in Belgium was brewed in both strong and weak versions; the bigger ones were likely more in alignment with present-day reality. But history does give us permission to make legitimate saisons in the lower-alcohol realm.
Saison is a dry-tasting beer, but that does not mean it should be thin. The grain bill can add a lot to the texture, adding a creamy viscosity with the right ingredients. The general opinion is that saisons “frequently contain wheat, oats, rye, or spelt” as the BJCP guidelines put it. Higher amounts of these adjuncts can be especially helpful in lighter versions to maintain a sense of weight on the palate. These grains don’t have assertive flavors and can actually thin out the malt character a little, and the brewer needs to make a call as to whether this is a good thing. Regardless of the grains, saison should be formulated and brewed so there’s little or no residual sweetness, another reason why caramel ingredients must be used very sparingly, if at all. Even the stronger versions should be crisp and refreshing.
The dryness can get a boost from certain yeast strains that are very robust fermenters, and one type of strain, the so-called diastaticus, can even break down certain starches. This is sometimes a problem for brewers since the yeast strains are slow fermenters, and the beer may appear to be completely fermented when it is still chugging away, resulting in bulging cans or over-pressurized kegs … whoops! Saisons represent the extreme phenolic peppery end of the Belgian yeast spectrum. The characteristic description is white pepper. The brewing-yeast manufacturer White Labs says their French Saison strain produces “a phenolic ‘bite’ and moderate ester compounds.” Several strains are available, differing in their spice-and-fruit balance. The classic Dupont strain is a notoriously truculent fermenter, working like crazy for a few days and then slowing to an agonizing crawl. Many brewers at this point simply use a neutral house yeast to finish. Since the beer’s yeast character is largely determined by this point, there’s no major impact on aroma. Many saison strains work well at elevated temperatures. Dupont ferments their beers at 90°F (32°C) or above although White Labs recommends a maximum of 85°F (29°C) for theirs. We will often start at room temperature, then after a day or so let the beer free rise into that temperature zone to finish up. Because of the sometimes-sluggish finish, we often give our saisons a little extra time to make sure they’re absolutely completely finished with fermentation. Saison may be made with Brettanomyces yeast as well, although most brewers are not interested in the precautions necessary to invite this rogue yeast into their breweries. The Trappist ale Orval is pretty much a saison in terms of its flavor profile. It is fermented with normal yeast, but bottled with a Brett strain, which slowly ferments residual sugars, developing the barnyard/horsey aromas over many months. Some connoisseurs are very particular about the perfect age for an Orval. Wine-barrel and highly sour versions exist, but while delicious, this starts to strain the boundaries of the style, I think.
Saison tends to be on the hoppy side for a Belgian style, but it is a far cry from IPA. Traditionally, hopping tends toward European noble-type hops, especially Saaz and its relatives, with modest bitterness and just-perceptible hops aroma. If you want to get creative, hoppier—even dry-hopped—versions can taste great. It should be noted that the yeast character is not compatible with every type of hops. We’ve found fruit-forward hops—especially with notes of pear, apricot, or pineapple—to be most harmonious.
Like most Belgian beers, saisons tend to be a little fizzier than the average ale, with CO2 volumes pushing up to 3.0 or higher. This is not always the case with draft versions, as elevated carbonation requires bartenders to make annoying changes to their system, which few are keen to do. Packaging equipment also has its limits, so American versions tend to be less lively than their Belgian counterparts. If a brewer can manage, even a little more sparkle can brighten up the beer in a pleasant way. And to a good extent, carbonation is the engine that drives aroma up out of the liquid and into your face, so a little more is usually a good thing.
Saison can be a phantom and, even when we find it, may be a shape-shifter. But one thing we know for certain: it’s flat-out delicious.