Make Your Best Saison

Dry and lively with earthy-herbal hop flavors, saison should be refreshing, with any spicy character better driven by yeast and hops than by actual spices.

Josh Weikert May 5, 2024 - 4 min read

Make Your Best Saison Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

I break a lot of my own rules when brewing a saison. With most beers, I prefer a more characterful base malt than pilsner, I use one of just a few favorite yeasts, I ferment cool, and I keep carbonation on the low side. For saison, however, I embrace pilsner malt, I use a different yeast, I ferment warm, and I make it lively. Here’s one rule I do keep: I don’t care for spices when hops and yeast can do the trick.

Style: This is the perfect “locavore” beer—its tradition comes from the farms of Belgium and northern France, and even modern incarnations get inspiration from that rustic genesis. While the style is broad and open to interpretation—saisons can vary in color and strength, for example—there are a few key elements that are common: Saisons have assertive, complex aromatics driven by yeast and hops; they tend to have a grainy and often wheat-derived malt character; and they are light, effervescent, and—at their best—bone-dry. How we get there varies. Some like to add spices for complexity, but traditional versions get the job done purely with typical brewing ingredients. (For a deeper dive on the saison tradition, see Saison: A Story in Motion.)

Ingredients: Many classic saison grists are just 100 percent pilsner malt, so this is the perfect place to embrace it. Having toyed with both floor-malted and standard varieties, I now favor the latter—the floor-malted varieties are outstanding, especially in a pilsner, but in saison, they feel a bit heavy. I supplement that base malt with some Vienna and wheat malts, plus I like just a tad of Victory toasted malt. It may be completely unnecessary, but it adds just one more light-malt flavor that I think I’d otherwise miss. For attenuation and dryness, I also add table sugar or Belgian candi syrup (at about 5 percent of fermentables).

For my money, a classic saison needs a big dose of earthy, herbal hop character—not to dominate, but to support the fermentation character. I like Fuggles and Styrian Goldings for that. For the yeast, you want an attenuation monster, and you can’t do much better in that regard than a diastatic “French saison” strain such as Wyeast 3711.

Process: Mashing at 152°F (67°C) is fine here. Many go lower—perhaps to 147–148°F (64°C)—but you should get outstanding attenuation from this yeast anyway. Add your syrup or sugar during lauter or sparge, stir to dissolve, and boil. For the fermentation you can let ’er rip up to 80°F (27°C) and hold steady there. Some like to go up to 90°F (32°C), but this can produce rough phenolics, while 80°F (27°C) is plenty to get a big burst of pepper, citrus esters, and more out of the yeast. Avoid big temperature swings, which can limit your attenuation and stall out your yeast. Go for high carbonation when packaging, up to 3 volumes of CO2. This should be spritzy and effervescent, increasing the perception of dryness.