No beer style is more expressive of a brewer’s personality, individuality, or skills than one that features local ingredients. Saison (Belgian) and bière de garde (French), two similar but subtly different beer styles, do just that. These rustic ales were originally brewed in hundreds of local farmhouses in an area once known as the kingdom of Flanders, which included parts of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Their areas of origin are relatively close to each other but are separated by a mountain or two (the Ardennes) and (now) by international borders. They are similar in style but reflect the particular and idiosyncratic products grown locally. Whether or not you have a farmhouse, you can brew these interesting beer styles. To get you started, here’s some information about the two styles.
Saisons and bières de garde historically used ingredients that were grown locally, hence the name “farmhouse ales.” The combinations and flavors of both styles are as varied as the brewer’s imagination and the ingredients available. Saisons are typically dryer while bières de garde may be a bit sweeter, a result of the French having a sweet tooth.
Malted and unmalted grains available close to home were the norm, and combinations of wheat, barley, spelt, oats, or rye were used in limitless variations. Modern-day versions of saisons may be predominately pilsner, while bières de garde typically incorporate a base of pale or pilsner malt. Both styles have additions of wheat or other supplemental grains (e.g., Vienna, Munich).
As for hops, brewers commonly used local varieties such as French Strisselspalt, Belgian-grown Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings, and various noble German or Czech varieties in both styles. Hops bitterness is generally low to medium, as is hops flavor. Saisons show a bit more hops character than bières de garde, but it’s subtle enough to allow the malt character and spiciness to show.
The results of combining these basic ingredients are similar to the experience at an apple pie baking contest at your local country fair. The ingredients are similar, but the combinations and subtle changes in recipe and methods vary with the baker. Both of these beer styles are forms of food art that express the terroir of the region.
Both saison and bières de garde typically have an alcohol level that enables the stored beers to stand up during aging but doesn’t make them so strong that they can’t quench a weary soul’s thirst after a long day’s work in the fields. As a rule, both frequently show alcohol levels in the range of 5.0–8.5 percent ABV.
Yeast is the key to both saisons and bières de garde. Because very individual yeast strains occurred in various locales, each region’s beers possessed distinct character. Yeast-produced ester aromas (fruity, honey) are marked in saisons and somewhat subdued in bières de garde. Mentions of “musty” or “corky” aromas are described in bières de garde but are typically not found in saisons. On the other hand, peppery notes are found in saisons but not usually present in bières de garde.
Brewing Saisons and Bières de Garde
In our era of modern brewing, a simple click of the mouse enables us to obtain any number of yeast strains suitable for saisons and bières de garde. Historically, various yeasts came from distinct brewing regions, mostly in Belgium or France. The locals traded and/or shared the ones that produced the desired flavors. In time, yeast labs “captured,” cultured, and packaged yeast strains, enabling brewers to produce both styles at any time of year. The key to producing quality saisons and bières de garde is very specific yeast strains and fermentation techniques.
I recently spoke with Michael Dawson of Wyeast Labs about flavor characteristics to expect when using some specific yeast strains and how higher fermentation temperatures might affect those flavors and produce additional character. Let’s look at six specific yeast strains that work well for saisons and bières de garde. (Another lab that offers similar type yeast strains is White Labs.)
First let’s look at my personal favorite—Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison. At temperatures near 70°F (21°C), this yeast produces spicy notes, bubblegum aromatics, dry, crisp, and mildly acidic flavors. If you kick up the temperature to the 80s and 90s, increased phenolics, fruity esters, earthy notes, and a particular “funky” mustiness show up. Of the six strains described here, this strain benefits the most from high-temperature fermentation. I’ve used it in a 1.080 OG saison that was fermented at 95°F (35°C). I expected rocket-fuel fusels, but got none. According to Dawson, fermenting Wyeast 3724 hot gives the best character with this yeast.
Wyeast 3711 French Saison is best known for its ultra-high attenuation properties and moderate levels of esters and spice production in the 70–75°F (21–24°C) range. Increased temperatures in the 80s to 90s produce higher levels of phenols, fruity esters, and the spicy notes that I crave in a saison.
Bière de Garde Yeasts
Although you can use the next four strains in the production of saisons, their forte is the bière de garde style.
Wyeast 3522 Ardennes produces ester, phenol, and spicy profiles similar to Wyeast 3711 at 70°F (21°C) fermentation temperatures and increases all these factors at temperatures of 80–85°F (27–29°C). However, it may produce some fusels at higher temperatures.
Wyeast 3463 Forbidden Fruit at 63–70°F (17–21°C) produces phenolics and a subdued ester profile. At increased fermentation temperatures up to 80°F (27°C), it produces fruity ester and clovey, peppery phenols. I’ve used this strain in one of my saisons with additions of Asian white pepper and bitter orange. It was a good marriage of flavors, and the subtle spice the yeast produced blended well with the citrus and pepper.
Wyeast 3726 Farmhouse is similar to Wyeast 3724 fermented at lower temperatures, but produces elevated earthy and musty notes at higher temperatures. It is also very attenuated, producing a dry finish.
Wyeast 3725 Bière de Garde fermented at lower temperatures produces considerable earthy notes, but also some corky and musty aromas. Higher temperatures will give light phenol and spicy characters. This yeast is susceptible to fusel production, so you need to watch that your upper fermentation temperatures don’t get too elevated.
Note that some bière de garde brewers use lager strains at various temperatures. It’s the brewer’s choice.
As you can see from this basic overview, ester, phenols, and spicy aromas are similar in both of these beer styles. The possibility of a fusel character is a reality, so you need to monitor temperatures, but more importantly you should experiment with these various strains and fermentation temperatures. I did just that in a bière de garde/saison I brewed a few summers ago. I used four distinct yeasts in an order of inoculation that would capture the character of each strain. It is a combination saison and bière de garde and is my personal Farmhouse Ale.
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