The saying goes that “the exception proves the rule.” For me, Saison is the beer that proves it, because for nearly every rule I follow in producing most beers, I do something different with my pale Saison. I tend to ferment cool. I make almost every beer with one of the same four or five yeast strains. I’m not a fan of Pilsner malt. I like beer on the lower-carbonation side. I don’t care for spicing when hops and yeast can do the trick (OK, I stick to that one, but you don’t have to). This is a fantastically flexible and interesting style, and as I was checking on the progress of a recent batch of Saison I made with yard-sourced hay (“Hayson Saison”), I thought to myself, “it’s about time we dove into this one for the Make Your Best series!”
I usually refer to Saison as a perfect “locavore” beer - it originated as a beer brewed by and for agricultural laborers in France and Belgium, and it retains significant elements of that rustic genesis even in its modern incarnations. The style is, as noted above, impressively broad, but there are a few key elements that are common to most (pale) Saisons (Note: I plan on revisiting the style next week with my dark Saison recipe!). These are refreshing, complex beers with varying levels of strength (this is only about 6 percent, but I’ve had 9 percent versions that are closer to Belgian Barleywines, too!), assertive and complex aromatics driven by yeast and hops, and a grainy and often wheat-derived malt character. They are also light and effervescent and, at their best, bone dry. How we get there will vary, and many incorporate spices, peels, and more to aid in their complexity, but traditional versions get the job done purely with typical brewing ingredients.
This is a perfect place to go heavy on Pilsner malt, and I start with nine pounds. Having toyed with both floor-malted and standard varieties, I come down on the “regular” Pils malt here – the floor malted are outstanding, especially in a German or Czech Pilsner, but in Saison it feels a little heavy (but feel free to try it yourself!). The base malt is augmented by nothing more complicated than a pound each of Vienna and Wheat malts. For the pale version, too, I add just a quarter pound of Victory toasted malt, which may be completely unnecessary but which I feel adds just one more light malt flavor that I think I’d otherwise miss! I also add a half-pound of either table sugar or clear Belgian Candi Syrup if I have it on hand, to aid in attenuation.
Hopping is surprisingly important to this recipe, though not especially complicated. For my money, though, a classic Saison needs a big dose of earthy and herbal hops character. It won’t be dominant, but it supports a lot of the fermentation characteristics. Add one ounce of Fuggles at 30 minutes, and then one ounce of Styrian Goldings at 10 minutes.
Finally, for yeast you want an attenuation monster, and you can’t do much better than Wyeast 3711, French Saison, which is about the most aggressively-fermenting yeast this side of Champagne yeasts.
Mashing at 152F is fine here. Lots will tell you to go lower, to 147-8F, but I’ve never noticed a real difference, and my attenuation is outstanding. Add your syrup or sugars during lauter or sparge, and stir to dissolve, then bring to a boil. Once you finish your boil, chill and pitch the yeast. At that point, let it rip: hold steady at 80F for the duration of fermentation. I’ve heard tell of folks going higher, to about 90F, but I’ve got limits. 80F is plenty to get a big burst of pepper, citrus esters, and more out of the yeast. Whatever temperature you choose, though (and by all means, try it at more “conventional” temperatures!), the important thing is to avoid big temperature swings. They will limit your attenuation and can stall out your yeast, in addition to making the beer harder to replicate and adjust in future versions.
Don’t fear the warm ferment here. The yeast can handle it, and you should see this ferment down to about 1.004 or lower! When finished, leave it be for a few days more just to be sure, cold crash, and then carbonate to 2.75-3 volumes of CO2. This should be a spritzy, effervescent beer on the tongue, and the extra carbonic bite will also increase the perception of dryness.
You can make this beer in any of dozens of ways, and variations abound, in almost all facets – grist, hopping, spicing, yeast, and process. What should always guide you, though, are your palate preferences! Those farmhands in Wallonia brewed up a beer they liked to drink, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.