While homebrewing high-gravity, high-alcohol beer always presents challenges, making imperial saison at home may be somewhat easier than brewing other high-gravity styles. Because so much of the character of saison is driven by yeast, it’s possible to “imperialize” a saison with only minor adjustments to the basic formulation.
Forget everything you think you know when working with saison yeast. Some strains are notoriously finicky, while others are easier to use. White Labs 565 and Wyeast 3724 (reportedly descended from Brasserie Dupont’s strains) are famous for stopping partway through fermentation and may require temperatures as high as 95°F (35°C) to achieve full attenuation. White Labs 568 and Wyeast 3711 may be better choices for homebrewers who have neither the time nor the patience to attend to the demands of a high-maintenance yeast strain. Brewers who prefer dry yeast may consider Safbrew T-58 from Fermentis and Belle Saison from Lallemand.
A signature hallmark of saison is its dry finish. The BJCP and GABF style guides list terminal gravity ranges for saison at 1.002–1.012 and 1.004–1.016, respectively. Imperial saison should also finish dry, but the higher alcohol and higher hops levels demand more body and slightly more sweetness for balance.
But we’re talking only a few gravity points here, not the residual sweetness of a barleywine. Targeting a final gravity in the range of 1.006–1.015 should supply the extra backbone to support a strong, but drinkable brew. Go too low and you risk one-dimensionality; too high, and sweetness could throw the beer out of balance.
As with regular saison, the malt bill should consist primarily of Pilsner or pale malts. Some specialty malts can lend additional depth, but don’t go overboard: too many specialty malts can distract from the fruity and spicy flavors that make imperial saison so different from imperial IPA or barleywine. If you want a more robust malt flavor, including Munich or Vienna malt can lend depth without sweetness.
All-grain brewers should mash for wort fermentability. A long rest (90–120 minutes) at a relatively low mash temperature of 144°–149°F (62–65°C) gives beta-amylase enzymes a chance to work and create very fermentable wort. Brewers who prefer stepped mashes and want a very dry finish can perform individual rests that promote beta-amylase and alpha-amylase.
Extract brewers should use fresh Pilsner (extra light) malt extract and add flavor and color with specialty grains. Wort from malt extract is rarely as fermentable as wort from mashed grain, so extract and partial mash brewers should consider including simple sugar in their imperial saison formulations. Simple sugar is 100 percent fermentable and can help lighten body and encourage a low final gravity.
Now here’s a chance to have some real fun. The right selection of hops can complement the unique flavors generated by saison yeast and deliver flavor combinations simply not possible in other styles.
Some hops offer a cleaner perception of bitterness than others, but just about any variety will do for this purpose. Magnum, Warrior, Chinook, Nugget, and Galena all offer high levels of alpha acids with a clean finish. Aim for the high end of the recommended bitterness for normal saison, around 30–40 IBUs.
For flavor and aroma, the sky is the limit. Classic Continental varieties such as Styrian Goldings, Strisselspalt, Saaz, and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh are traditional for regular saison and can work well in imperial versions as well. Fruity American varieties such as Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic, and El Dorado, and southern hemisphere hops such as Nelson Sauvin, Rakau, and Riwaka can lend additional dimensions to the already spicy and fruity flavors of saison yeast.
Fermentation and Packaging
Saison strains benefit from ramped temperature profiles for full attenuation: a fermentation that starts in the mid 60s and ends in the upper 70s is recommended if you have the means to do so. The Dupont strain, in particular, may need unusually high temperatures (85–95°F; 29–35°C) to finish and may take several weeks. Patience is a virtue, but less saintly brewers may consider strains such as Wyeast 3711 that finish up more quickly.
Effervescence is a key component of farmhouse ales, and so it should be with imperial saison. Between 2.5 and 3.0 volumes of carbon dioxide is common. While brewers who keg will have no problems, those who bottle should make sure their bottles can handle higher carbonation levels.
Whether you brew a traditional, quaffable saison for summer or a strong sipper for cooler weather, the versatility of saison makes it an excellent canvas upon which to paint for your palate. Brew up your own glass of imperial joie de vivre and discover how to make imperial saison your own. You can start with this recipe for Funkwerks Tropic King.
Fermentation is where beer is made. In Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online course How to Manage Your Fermentation for Better Beer, Josh Weikert covers fermentation temperature, yeast pitching rates, and everything else you need to know about managing fermentation. Sign up today and put yourself on the road to brewing better beer.