One of the defining attributes of beer styles – for better or worse, given the often-inaccurate expectations that can accompany it – is color. For most pale styles, there is a darker analog, and vice versa. Often, those styles are closely related: think Pilsner and Schwarzbier, which despite a touch of roast are pretty similar, or Dunkelweizen and Weissbier. In the case of Saison, though, the pale and the dark “live” in the same style, both in terms of the style guidelines (which split out a wide color range of IPAs but still include just a single Saison) and in terms of the overall flavor and approach to the style. Dark Saison is, well, dark, but it also still features a complex and dry flavor profile, high carbonation, and a penchant for creative ingredient use that we’ve come to expect from artisanal, farmhouse styles. Despite its seasonal history (hence the name), I tend to brew Saison irrespective of the weather – but when the first frosty morning hits, it’s hard not to think of brewing up a spicy Dark Saison!
Dark Saison doesn’t have an explicit style subcategory of its own, but that doesn’t mean the 2015 BJCP Guidelines are silent on it – quite the contrary, in fact. Laced throughout Category 25, Subcategory B is a reasonably clear picture of what a dark Saison probably ought to look like. Still spicy and complex but with more malt character than the pale Saison, there’s a significant amount of interpretative “room” here. Having said that, the guidelines are reasonably clear on roast levels in this beer: they should be very low to non-existent. That’s not to say that we can’t include some roast in the malt, for finish/mouthfeel purposes, but this isn’t some kind of Belgian Stout. At the same time, although the malt character is increasing, we should avoid the temptation to likewise increase the fruit, alcohol, or spice contributions: the guidelines are reasonably specific on this point, as they are with the roast: increasing maltiness may mask some of the traditional flavors, which means we’re shooting for a recipe that preserves them, just at a lower level.
This is not what I would consider an “intuitive” style to brew. The normal lessons for adjusting and re-balancing the recipe to account for what we’re adding don’t apply neatly, and we should instead be thinking in terms of taking a pale Saison and adding richer malt character, rather than starting from scratch with a “balanced” dark Saison that maintains the same flavors as the original, paler versions which have been increased to compete on an even playing field with the new malt flavors.
Spicy, malty, and dry – if this grist isn’t screaming for Vienna and Rye malts, then I don’t know what is! Take three pounds of each and add an additional three pounds of Maris Otter for an additional bready base malt flavor, and you have your base grist. “Why not Munich,” some might be asking? To be frank, there’s probably no reason not to, but I worry that it will end up being too rich, especially when paired with some of the character malts we’ll be adding. “Dry” still matters here, and without a nice, roasty punch it can be easy to go too far in the “rich” direction.
To those base grains we add eight ounces of chocolate rye and a quarter-pound each of Carafa Special I, Special B, and Caramunich. Each will add depth of medium-dark malt flavor but without the husky, roasty flavor of more-typical chocolate malts. That should get you to a potential ABV of about 5.1%, which is just where I like this beer: minimal alcohol sweetness, but lots of malt flavor, kind of like a spicy English Brown ale; you can always adjust the gravity with your base malts if you want a bit more warming. Color-wise, we’re right around 24 SRM, which is a deep, dark copper, bordering on brown.
In terms of hops, I don’t change a thing except amounts – 1.5 ounces instead of one of Fuggles at 30 minutes to bump up the bitterness just a bit, and then one ounce of Styrian Goldings at 10 minutes to preserve some herbal hops character in the flavor. Likewise, it’s a minor adjustment for the yeast: French Saison, but we’re going to treat it slightly differently.
Finally, I confess to some minor tinkering here. I love a little but of dried cranberry tossed into the primary (3-4 ounces, just for a bit of obvious fruit character). I’ve seen some that use black currant (which definitely works, too), or pomegranate (which is outstanding but tannic as all get out), but cranberry is just bright enough to be fruity while also being tart enough to add some structured drying in the mouth, which suits our purposes perfectly!
There’s no real change in process here, beyond fermentation temperatures. Mash at 152F for a good run at maximal attenuation, boil as usual, and chill. However, although I keep the same yeast strain, I hold this one at a much more tame 72F from start to finish. There’s some residual fruity and spicy flavors from the grist (and the fruit), so the yeast already gets a helping hand in terms of impressions of fermentation character.
Carbonation, too, stays nice and high – though a bit lower than the pale version, at 2.5 volumes of CO2.
More observant readers may note that there’s a lot of rye going on here, leading some to argue this is more of a Roggenbier than a Dark Saison. My response would be that I agree, but for one important caveat: the focus here is on spice, not fruit, and what fruit characters there are do not match what we might expect from German wheat or rye styles. That’s as it should be, given Saisons regional origins, and if you should happen to notice any banana flavor creeping in, switch up your yeast strain immediately! Otherwise, the distinction can get lost. I hope you’ll all enjoy this beer throughout your holiday season!