Brewing Saison: The Taste of Rustic

Whether they’re working in farmhouses or warehouses, today’s saison brewers are united in their pursuit of rustic character. While that goal is abstract, they achieve it via concrete choices about ingredients and process—and the ways to get there are as varied as the brewers and beers themselves.

Kate Bernot Mar 11, 2024 - 15 min read

Brewing Saison: The Taste of Rustic Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

Earlier this year, Ale Apothecary cofounder Paul Arney was drinking beers from Funky Fauna Artisan Ales, a brewery in Sisters, Oregon, at an event that both breweries attended. Funky Fauna brewer Michael Frith had labeled one of these beers, Edwin, as a saison—but Arney was struggling to comprehend it as such.

“How is he calling these saisons?” Arney asked himself.

“Saison Dupont, my gosh, I love that beer so much,” Arney says. “So, I think when I heard the word ‘saison’ and went to drink it, I was expecting that phenolicky yeast-and-ester component. I was pigeonholing it like someone going into BJCP certification.

“But saison isn’t that paragraph description.”


Many North American brewers have had similar epiphanies in recent years: Saison isn’t a style so much as an approach or a philosophy of brewing informed by Franco-Belgian farmhouse traditions. As he sipped more of Funky Fauna’s beers—which are fermented by native yeast strains—Arney began to see the threads that connected those beers, his own Ale Apothecary beers, and yes, even Saison Dupont.

“What’s refreshing about the saison category is it is fairly wide open—one of the more wide-open categories there [is],” Arney says. “I was trying to keep it in a box, and it’s not something that can be kept in a box.”

What unites many of the new wave of American saison brewers isn’t a Saccharomyces yeast strain plucked from Dupont—instead, it’s almost the opposite. It’s the concept of rusticity, a word that’s printed on labels, tucked into brewery names, and used as a descriptor on menus.

But what is rusticity, particularly when applied to beers made by urban breweries in Denver or Chicago or Austin? What does “rustic” taste like, and what is its function within the evolving American saison-brewing realm? Such discussion can swiftly become abstract. For brewers, however, rustic character is tangible: It’s not only a saison’s raison d’être, but it’s also a sensory by-product of a brewer’s choices regarding ingredients and process.


Grounding Philosophies

Adam Paysse, founder of Seattle’s highly regarded Floodland Brewing, says that in his view, considerations about rusticity, ingredient choice, and the use of brewing technology are invariably personal—and they are particularly so for brewers of saison.

Paysse refers to contemporary American saison brewers as part of a “third wave.” The first wave was the historic farmhouse brewers of Hainaut and nearby regions, thought to produce mixed-culture beers for long keeping. The second was the modern revival of saison by producers such as Dupont, Blaugies, and Thiriez, making “clean” versions with Saccharomyces strains. And the third wave, in Paysse’s view, includes those brewers inspired by the second wave but also by writings about the first—especially the influential research of Yvan De Baets, cofounder and head brewer at Brasserie de la Senne. This third wave often embraces a revival of that mixed-culture style.

“The third wave, because it’s such a revival of old traditions, tends to have that wild diversity of perspectives,” Paysse says. “Saison as a ‘dead’ art form allows those of us who get obsessed with it to imprint our own ideas and interests on it. And I think that’s part of why we all get so sensitive and take it so seriously because it’s as much about us as individuals as it is about any objective thing that exists in the world.”

For his part, De Baets says that any saison made with Brettanomyces or bacteria will have some rustic character. A Saccharomyces strain typically associated with saison also will be phenolic—or POF-positive—guaranteeing a spicy edge that some would view as rustic.


However, De Baets says, a bigger challenge is conveying rusticity with a POF- negative—that is, non-phenolic—yeast, such as in Senne’s Saison du Meyboom. For that type, De Baets uses a wider range of grains, such as wheat, spelt, possibly oats, buckwheat, or rye, and landrace hop varieties with particularly earthy character. He says a saison should be “not too clean, with character, but certainly not unbalanced.” (For more on his views, see Yvan De Baets Explains Saison’s Greatest Myth: The Yeast.)

Averie Swanson might call this “texture.” Swanson is founder and brewer of Keeping Together, a saison and mixed-culture brand that was based in Chicago until recently moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she plans to open a brewery and taproom.

“Rusticity is very much a textural thing when it comes to beer,” Swanson says. “And when I think of a beer that is ‘rustic,’ saison is the first thing that comes to mind. … For me, texture creates friction. If I think about that as a more esoteric concept, it’s creating this tension between the raw material and the palate that is experiencing it. Something rustic and textured has a [few] more raw edges, a little more character. So, when you experience it, you’re like, ‘What is this thing I’m rubbing up against, and how does it make me feel?’”

Concepts such as “friction” and “rustic” can have negative connotations, implying that a product is unrefined or just plain flawed. However, Swanson, Arney, and many other saison brewers embrace these terms, and they appreciate how such beers may lead a drinker to pause and think.


“The very act of inadvertently slowing someone down because they consumed something that makes them ask, ‘What exactly is that flavor?’ and going back for that second or third sip … [that] very simple action and feedback loop is exactly what I’m looking to create in my beers,” Swanson says. “When it does click for people, and they can connect the friction of their sensory experience with the raw materials that created it, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Ingredients and Intention

The agrarian story of saison is the reason for its rustic character, and it’s also what that character is meant to evoke. Even if a few brewers today are making beers on working farms or in converted barns, contemporary breweries anywhere have access to stainless steel, caustic chemicals, commodity malt, yeast labs, and tanked CO2, among other modern innovations.

Thus, the choice to use particular ingredients or techniques to get some rustic character is very much that: a choice.

“I don’t necessarily feel like you need both ingredients and process to result in a rustic saison,” Swanson says, “but you have to have one or the other to reach that final product.”


Approaches differ, as do brewers’ ideas about what it takes to get that character. At Denver’s Our Mutual Friend, for example, head brewer Jan Chodkowski categorizes the brewery’s saisons into three buckets: saison, mixed-culture saison, and Brett saison. It’s the yeast and bacteria that delineate those paths. However, for Chodkowski, it’s the other ingredients—grains, hops, and potentially herbs, botanicals, or even flowers such as yarrow—that determine how rustic a beer tastes.

“We use a lot of Saison Dupont yeast for our monoculture saisons,” he says, “and I don’t classify those that are straightforward pils [malt] and maybe a little bit of wheat as rustic. Those are more refined and ethereal saisons. Dupont … or de la Senne beers, those are examples of precision saisons. But rustic saisons offer another realm to explore.”

Grains that add textural intrigue—oats, wheat, rye, spelt, buckwheat, and so on—contribute to that farm-like character, especially when they’re minimally processed. If rusticity is partly defined by an expression of raw ingredients, then less intervention and manipulation of grain goes a long way toward imparting it.

Yet the simple use of local grains also can help express rusticity, as it does for Ron Extract, co-creator of Garden Path Fermentation in Burlington, Washington. “The idea of being grounded in both place and time speaks to a lot of what this sort of brewing is all about,” he says. “It’s using ingredients that are local, that are seasonal, that tie it to the land in a way you might not see in year-round beers that are made with much more consistency in mind.”


For Extract, brewing saison with local ingredients, particularly malt, means embracing variability, both in terms of what grain is available and what its technical specifications are. Garden Path’s beers get some of their character from an expression of local agricultural conditions, which by definition are mutable. Much of industrial brewing is focused on consistency and repeatability; Garden Path’s saisons explicitly reject this. Many of the brewery’s beers feature “edition numbers” on their label, indicating that while they have commonality with previous versions, they’re not the same beer. It’s a “no one steps in the same river twice” approach.

Another brewer embracing that variability is Vasilios Gletsos of Wunderkammer in Albany, Vermont. Gletsos doesn’t call any of his beers “saison,” instead describing them as mixed culture–fermented and listing any foraged ingredients he may have included in the recipe. His orientation toward rustic character is inspired by classic Belgian beers, including saison, as well as by the capricious natural landscape around him.

“The most successful and exciting interpretations [of these beers] are little time capsules, each unique and often impossible to really re-create,” he says. “It’s not the driving directions on your phone, but the sensorial experience of getting there, and all the [unfolding] landscapes you pass by on your way. Is this a by-product of their ‘rusticity’? I defiantly attribute it to their idiosyncratic yeasts, breweries, and materials.”

Whatever their tolerance for variability, great saison brewers don’t sacrifice great flavor. Instead of abandoning quality standards, Extract says, pursuing some rustic variation means thinking about quality in a way that is divorced from consistency.


“You can throw out absolute standards and still have standards,” he says. “There are still ways to evaluate things on their own terms without having to evaluate them according to predefined specs. Is it pleasant? Is it harmonious? Does the flavor journey make sense in the end? A well-told story isn’t going to be 100 percent predictable from the outset, but it’s going to make sense in the end.”

Brewing saison with minimally processed and locally grown ingredients requires honest editing, Extract says, and a willingness to accept variability while rejecting its worst results. “You still have to have standards even though they’re flexible standards,” he says. “Not everything is going to make the cut.”

Process and Intention

Just as ingredients can contribute to (or detract from) a saison’s rustic character, so can the brewer’s chosen process. A beer whose production is less forced and controlled by modern industrial means might be perceived as more rustic—but there are no rules here, and American saison brewers don’t seem interested in policing each other’s methods.

At Wunderkammer, Gletsos says he identifies with a dictionary definition of rustic that’s more related to simplicity. He refers to his methods as “plain and simple”—single-temperature mash rests, a kettle heated by wood fire, or using a coolship to chill beer overnight in winter. Gletsos uses a heat exchanger to chill during the warmer months, but he doesn’t use any glycol in his brewery, so that means no temperature control during fermentation.


The finished beer, he says, doesn’t need to conform to an ideal that he may have had when he started brewing it. Instead, it’s a purer expression of variables.

“Once the beer is in the cellar, I approach it as a new beer, not with what I had hoped it would be or where I want it to go,” Gletsos says. “I don’t find that particularly helpful [to] what the beer is and how to make it the best version of itself,” he says. “Each step is an opportunity to understand the beer better and add or take away a layer from the picture. This is true for every choice up until it goes up for release or not.”

However, Gletsos says he doesn’t reject the validity of saisons made with more modern methods and equipment—his procedural decisions are personal. “I’ve always been a Luddite,” he says, “and keeping it simple is my default mode.”

Counterintuitively, perhaps, some brewers say that more modern processes can help them achieve a rustic or agricultural expression. For example: At Dwinell Country Ales in Goldendale, Washington, cofounder Justin Leigh says he prefers to referment beer on fruit in glycol-cooled stainless steel, even after that beer has been spontaneously fermented using a coolship and oak barrels.

“If you can cool down your fruit fermentation, you can retain a lot more aromatic properties of the fruit,” Leigh says. “So, I have the tools, I have the equipment, I’m going to use it. But … I’m doing that so we can get a fuller expression of the ingredients. My goal is to express something about those agricultural products we’re using.”

If there’s any single cord that can bundle together the wide swath of rustic saison brewers across North America and around the world, and all their various and sundry approaches to their craft, this is that unifying cord: Rusticity is above all a conveyance of the elemental—the sensory impression of place, of time, of agriculture, and of the richly textured layers that such combinations yield.

How you as a brewer get there is up to you.