Let’s get this much straight: Saison is not a style. It’s a story.
Maybe that won’t sit well with some brewers who like to see the wider beer world through a codified set of style guidelines. Such guidelines make sense for competitions (as long as the guidelines evolve with the times). But when it comes to learning about beer, they’re shorthand—a poor map. The map is never the territory.
That’s true for any style of beer, but it’s especially true for a story. Rather than an imperfect map, any static description of saison is more like a rough sketch from a single chapter of a fairy tale.
What’s really cool is that this fairy tale is essentially true.
Here’s the tale, in case you haven’t heard it: Farmers in southern Belgium brewed beer for themselves and their seasonal workers (literally, the saisonniers). The harvest and natural work cycle of a farm meant that brewing would have been seasonal—i.e., bière de saison.
The story itself provokes thirst—and the imagination. It’s easy to picture sweaty, scuffed-up peasants getting to take a break with jugs of light beer made from the same stuff they were harvesting, possibly kept cool all morning in a dark hole or some creek down the hill.
I want to drink what was in those jugs.
The Historical/Mythological Sketch
In reality, those beers would have been all over the place. Documentary evidence is scarce until the late 19th century—writers paid more attention to urban brewing, while farm brewers would have had little need to keep brewing records. Another problem: Saison wasn’t a common name for the beers out of this tradition until later. However, there is some reasonable speculation about what those beers would have been like, based on a combination of oral history and what we know about brewing in Wallonia in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Here it’s hard to overstate the influence and usefulness of Yvan De Baets’ 2004 essay, “A History of Saison,” in Phil Markowski’s book, Farmhouse Ales. Quick disclosure: De Baets and I have known each other about 15 years; we also cowrote a book on Brussels beer cafés.)
Broadly: These beers mostly would have been low in alcohol—we’re talking about starting gravities in the neighborhood of 1.025 to 1.036. This is in keeping with the regional preference of the 18th and 19th centuries—and with a taxation system that favored lower-strength beers—but in the farming context, it also makes sense: You want to refresh the workers, not intoxicate them. (At times, there also must have been stronger, more special beers made for keeping—bière de garde, incidentally, literally means “beer to keep,” and provision has a similar meaning.)
Obviously, not every farm would have brewed—and in many cases, it should have been possible to buy provision beer from other nearby breweries. The arrangements likely varied widely over time; in the 18th century, before the French Revolution, some Wallonian farmers may have had to buy beer from—or use the brewery of—a local feudal lord. Communal breweries shared by a village continued to some degree in the 19th century, and even into the 20th—as did homebrewing. Notably, there were also professional brewers who ran farms—many of Belgium’s most prestigious family breweries started out as farms. The point is this: The image of each farm brewing its own beer is nice, but it may blur the reality with the myth. Some of them certainly did—but perhaps only once or twice per year (hence, bière de saison).
The ingredients could have come from the farm or been bought or traded among neighbors. It was also possible to buy ingredients from nearby regions, and these might have been of better quality. In some cases, though, brewing may have been a way to make use of excess grain. It surely included, at times, raw grains as well as malted ones. Some rural brewers malted their own grain—but crudely, by today’s standards. Grain quality, germination, and kilning would have varied, and typically would have wound up as a more amber-colored malt—notably, brown beers were popular in 19th century Hainaut. Often these beers’ starting point was a type of six-row winter barley commonly grown in 19th century Wallonia. Furthermore, accounts of hours-long boils at Belgian breweries of that era are fairly common. How much of all that did a typical farm brewery do? We just don’t know.
The yeasts, we can suppose—remember, Pasteur’s work wasn’t until the 1850s, and this is before the age of refrigeration—would have been mixed strains likely shared and swapped among other farmers/brewers, depending on what worked best. This is an incredibly important point because it speaks to a key question: What’s the difference between saison and farmhouse ale?
It used to be that we could lazily use these terms interchangeably—I’ve been guilty of it. However, the emergence of more knowledge in recent years about farmhouse brewing traditions elsewhere—namely, in Northern and Eastern Europe—has shifted the whole paradigm. (For more on this, see Markowski’s “More Roads: Rethinking Farmhouse Ales,” beerandbrewing.com, and Lars Marius Garshol’s terrific book, Historical Brewing Techniques.)
It strikes me as important that Norwegian farm brewers continue their tradition of sharing and reusing their kveik—essentially, a unique and highly effective collection of yeast strains. It seems likely that farmhouse brewers across Europe likely did something similar—including those of Belgium and northern France, as well as other places where the traditions were lost.
Indeed, that sharing of mixed-yeast strains may well be a defining trait of farmhouse brewing—that is to say, homebrewing, but in a pastoral setting.
Now, when we talk about saison, we’re talking about the homebrewing tradition that grew out of the farms in a particular region—especially Hainaut, but also wider Wallonia and northern France—and evolved to include some commercial beers that we know today.
That’s it. That’s the story so far, in all its sepia-toned, still-a-bit-too-blurry glory. It’s not over yet, though. Brewers in Belgium and around the world have been inspired by the tradition and are taking it in new and old directions. We can do the same.
Choose Your Plot Twist
Finally, let’s talk about brewing saison. It’s time to choose your own adventure. First, a few quick suggestions, which you can take or leave:
- Remember the story. Your goal is quenching and rustic. Imagine a plane where the X axis is refreshment value and the Y axis is character, and you aim for that upper right corner. The trick, as usual, is balance.
- Skip the spices. I’ve never had a saison that was more drinkable because of spices, but I’ve had many that would’ve been more drinkable without them.
- Don’t skip the hops. Many examples I taste are all about fermentation—assertive spicy phenols and/or fruity esters. It can quickly become too much, especially without bitterness and hop character to balance it. I’ve heard some say that yeast is the star of the saison show. I disagree: For me, a great one manages yeast-hop balance.
- Keep the fermentation in check. With certain strains—especially the “Dupont” strain, i.e., Wyeast 3724/White Labs WLP565—it’s popular to ramp upward of 90°F (32°C) to push the yeast through an expected stall in fermentation. It may be harmless, but I don’t recommend it; the phenolics can get aggressive and unpleasant. Instead, shoot for each strain’s preferred temperature—allowing it to free-rise on its own, if it wants—and be patient.
- Let the yeast breathe—they’ll thank you for it. Consider open fermentation. Dupont uses wide, squarish fermentors with plenty of headspace. In Brussels, the same is true of Senne’s wide cylindricals. In St. Louis, Perennial recently brewed a beautiful, classically inspired saison called Hainaut using open fermentation (our blind panel scored it 95/100). At home, I simulate this using a wide-mouthed carboy or bucket, trading the lid and airlock for a sanitized sheet of foil wrapped over the top. (Anecdotally, this might also help avoid the dreaded fermentation stall of the Dupont strain.)
Now, let’s break down the elements and highlight some choices you can make along the way.
Radical suggestion: Use what you have, and work with it. You can fuss over a Wallonian water profile if you want to—it’s alkaline and high in bicarbonates—but you don’t need it to brew a great saison. Feel free to tinker with brewing salts if you’re into that—or just embrace your water and listen to what it likes.
Chucking in different grains is fully in the spirit of saison. Keep it intentional: Know what malted or unmalted grains are going to do to your flavor and body, and choose them based on the profile you want. Wheat and spelt can bring softness and nutty, lemony notes, for example. Rye tends to bring peppery notes along with a certain smoothness. Or keep it clean and bright—Saison Dupont, after all, is brewed with 100 percent pilsner malt. I like slightly under-modified malt and a step mash geared toward high attenuation and foam stability—but if I said I’d never tasted a great saison made with single-temp infusion and highly modified malt, I’d be lying.
Even some Belgian brewers are tossing in New World hops these days, in case there was any question about whether that’s fair game. There are plenty of ways to keep the beer grounded and rustic without lifting off to become a pale ale or IPA—namely, the yeast and fermentation profile. It’s a question of taste. However, don’t look past the classic Noble and Noble-ish varieties—think herbal and spicy, maybe with brighter citrus-peel edges. Delicious results can come from being generous with these classics late in the boil, in the whirlpool, or as dry hops.
How important is yeast to saison? Pretty important—but it’s not everything. To paraphrase De Baets, saison yeast is not magic powder that—abracadabra!—turns any wort into saison. That’s far too limiting, not to mention unlikely to produce drinkable beer. Think about the whole profile. Keep the story in mind but also the final product—it ought to be refreshing and evocative of farmhouse brewing. Here’s a mind-bender: I could point to Belgian brewers using clean-fermenting American strains to produce nonetheless rustic, well-attenuated, balanced farmhouse ales. Who’s going to tell them it’s not “saison”? Not me.
How about mixed fermentation? In his essay in Markowski’s book, De Baets makes the case that many of these beers were likely tart and funky, intentional or otherwise. American brewers in particular have taken that idea and run with it, in wild and sometimes beautiful directions. However, allow me a cynical observation: Beautifully constructed, balanced versions of modern “clean” saison remain rare on this side of the Atlantic. It’s as if we went from over-sweet and over-spiced examples about 15 years ago to unabashedly sour, oaky, and horsey overnight. There is room in the story for all of it, but I worry that we lose sight of its best element: refreshing the workers. It ought to be really drinkable. (Here I’m in sync with Drew Beechum—see “Saison & Funk: A Plea for Moderation,” beerandbrewing.com.)
My best advice: Get to know the available “saison” strains and what they can do—try them out, see what you like—but don’t be afraid to try others, too. We’re going for rustic, and we’re going for expressive (in balance with the rest of the beer), and there are plenty of ways to get there without relying on a few commercially available strains that happen to have the word “saison” printed on their packets. Blending different strains—and re-pitching if you like the results—strikes me as very much in the spirit of the story. Of course, you can push this further with Brett or bugs. Just keep any funk and acidity in balance, or else you’ll lose your grip on drinkability.
My Happy Ending
Here’s what I like and what I tend to brew a lot at home. (Bonus points: I currently live on a farm.) I’m not an especially consistent brewer, nor am I the type to try nailing a broad range of styles. But I’ve found that I can regularly brew the kind of saison that I enjoy drinking. In fact, it’s pretty forgiving.
My type of saison resembles a bitter, hop-forward pilsner that happens to have some moderately spicy and fruity fermentation character. I could also describe it as Saison Dupont-ish, but with more hops—like Saison de Dottignies from De Ranke, which is one of my faves and punches up to 45 IBUs.
So, I usually go with 100 percent pilsner—though I occasionally play with portions of rye or wheat—and lately I’ve gotten gorgeous results from Czech floor-malted. I like a classic step mash, including a protein rest. I never have settled on a favorite yeast strain, but I enjoy the convenience, reliability, and high attenuation of Lallemand’s Belle Saison and similar “French saison” strains. (Careful with that diastaticus—keep your sanitation regime tight.) My chosen hops include spicy Tettnanger, herbal Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, fragrant Willamette, and, especially lately, lovely lemony-floral Loral. My sweet spot for bitterness is around 38–40 IBUs.
That’s the kind of saison I wish more commercial brewers made, but I understand—they’re all busy interpreting the story in their own ways. So, I just do it myself.
And then we live happily ever after.