The mental image evoked by saison’s story provokes thirst: In Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, farmers and their crew would refresh themselves after a long day’s work with a glass or two of this rustic brew.
Saison probably varied greatly, depending on local ingredients and yeast—which often would have been borrowed from or shared with the neighbors, evolving over time. Effervescent, at times acidic or spicy, its purpose was to quench.
I’ve heard that some Belgian brewers like to thank American drinkers and brewers for not letting this wonderful style die. I’m skeptical about this—my own travels to Wallonia showed me that saison is alive and well, and just as delicious as ever.
And there’s no reason that we extract brewers can’t take a good, solid crack at it.
Saison is most commonly a pale and highly attenuated ale, finishing dry with a light to medium-light body. It should be refreshing.
Hops and grain provide character, but the yeast tends to be the real star of the show. Its flavor and aroma are at least partly yeast-driven, often with phenolic spice notes—but the beer itself is not often spiced. Some examples can be quite hop-forward, while relatively darker versions may offer more malt character.
The strength can vary widely, too. Historically, it was probably often quite light, akin to table beer, perhaps 2 to 3 percent ABV. More modern examples tend to be more mainstream, from 5 to 6.5 percent, while the range of special-occasion “super” saisons may go as high as 10 percent, akin to rustic tripels.
My favorite examples are Saison Dupont—arguably the archetype—at 6.5 percent ABV and the spelt-based Blaugies Saison d’Epeautre at 6 percent. Both exemplify the style in their pale golden color and enticing aromas—pleasant fruit notes (orange, lemon); peppery, yeast-driven spice; and fragrant Noble hops.
Belgian-brewed saison has a dense, long-lasting, rocky-white or ivory head that gradually collapses as it is drunk. When beer enthusiasts or judges speak of characteristic Belgian lacing, they are referring to the pattern of foam that sticks to the sides of the glass as you drink the beer to the bottom. The foam and lace are signs of careful brewing and ample carbonation (and a beer-clean glass.)
Getting There with Extracts
As with most styles of beer, you can brew saison quite successfully with extract or a partial mash. Let’s break it down.
A typical all-grain grist might consist of 100 percent pilsner malt, or it may include portions of wheat, spelt, or other grains. (What did the farm have for surplus that season?) For our purposes, a straight pilsner-malt extract, or pilsner extract with a bit of Munich for color, plus flaked, malted, or torrefied grains such as oats, spelt, or wheat work nicely. Other options include rye, corn, or rice—but keep in mind that you can’t use corn grits or ground rice unless they’re pre-gelatinized. You can use a cereal cooker for that; otherwise, be sure to get the flaked versions. However, don’t over-complicate the mash bill—this is not a kitchen-sink beer.
The hops can be traditional Saazer or other Noble hops, or you can add your own spin with New World varieties. Citra or Mosaic can work well with the yeast-driven zest, while New Zealand–grown Southern Cross, Moutere, or Nelson Sauvin can play wonderfully with the spice character. Plenty of hops can work here, but keep the basic profile in mind—it can be fruity but should be balanced with more classic spicy or floral notes. Tettnang, Saaz, and Styrian Goldings are my top choices for a traditional saison. Dry hopping can add further complexity—try more Saaz, or German-grown Saphir—but be careful not to overwhelm the rest of the beer.
Now, let’s talk yeast, arguably the most important player in this style. The traditional saison strains tend to thrive at warmer temperatures; without temperature control, late spring or summer can be nice times to brew and ferment them, when other yeasts might throw off undesirable off-flavors. You don’t want too wild of a fluctuation in temperatures, so find an area to ferment this that keeps the temperature within a 5–7°F (3–4°C) swing at most.
About 75°F (24°C) works well, but I have known some to push fermentation temperatures into the high 80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit (about 31–35°C). I am not usually that brave, but if you take this route, be prepared for more expressive fruit esters and spicy phenolics.
Between the so-called “French” and “Belgian” saison strains—the names don’t necessarily correspond to their origins—I prefer the French ones, i.e., Wyeast 3711, White Labs WLP590, Lallemand Belle Saison, etc. To me, these are bigger on fruit and pepper characteristics, making for a more harmonious blend, whereas the Belgian strains—such as Wyeast 3724 or White Labs WLP565—tend to provide more subtle esters but robust attenuation. The Belgian strains leave a wonderfully dry beer; that’s my choice if I’m planning to dry hop. It’s up to you—but this might be the perfect opportunity to split a batch in half, inoculate each with a different yeast, and judge the differences yourself. You could even ferment them at different temperatures.
Want to add some funk and get some of that rustic farmhouse character? Try co-pitching a Brettanomyces strain with your saison yeast. The mixed-strain Wyeast 3763 Roeselare Ale Blend combined with French saison yeast can be terrific, too, given enough time to develop.
You can pitch Brett early or later in the fermentation, but I prefer to pitch it at the same time as saison yeast. Brett needs time and starch to start developing those rustic flavors and aromas—think cherry, barnyard, hay, or leather. Sometimes I also add some local honey at high kräusen, usually around Day 3 or 4. It imparts a distinctive, sweet, floral note in the aroma, while also aiding attenuation and drying out the beer. More conventional sugars work, too, and they can go into the boil.
To spice or not to spice? (That is the question.) Personally, I love grains of paradise, which can add a wonderful peppery note. I recently procured some pink peppercorns and plan to experiment with those, too. But be careful and choose wisely: A little spice goes a long way! If you use spice, you can add it to the boil with about 5 minutes left. Lightly toasting spices in a dry pan first can bring out some essential oils, so keep that option in mind. If you are trying a darker version with more robust malt, try some orange zest or star anise. Steer clear of vanilla, which can clash with the phenolics. Spicing is another arena where you can try splitting the batch—and keep one half unspiced—to see which you like better. Fun ideas don’t always translate to a more drinkable beer.
As you can see, there is plenty of room for experimentation. Saison is a style you can really have some fun and relax with—just as the Wallonians do.