Emily Hutto set out on a quest to find out how craft-beer brewers across the country defined “saison.” Here’s what she found.
Emily Hutto 2 years ago
Polling craft-beer artisans about what makes a saison a saison, I received diverse responses, to say the least. Dann Paquette of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project talked about sessionable English ales; Ryan Greenhagen of Mystic Brewing discussed local ingredients; Jason Yester of Trinity Brewing showed me paintings by impressionist artists; Gordon Schuck of Funkwerks elaborated on the aromatic possibilities of Opal hops; Ron Extract of Jester King Brewery quoted Yvan De Baets; and Chase Healey of Prairie Artisan Ales talked about the weather. In their varied approaches to saison, these brewers demonstrate just how versatile the style is. They’ve led me to the conclusion that a saison is whatever you make it be. Here’s how each of them has made the style his own.
Rustic, Low Alcohol
For Boston’s Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project Co-owner Dann Paquette, saison is a rustic, low alcohol style of beer. “I have spent a lot of time brewing English beers, and I think there’s some sort of English equivalent for saison—from people working in fields, that sort of thing,” he says. “I guarantee there’s a lager version or German version of this sort of beer as well.”
Jack D’Or, Pretty Things’s baseline beer, is “a dry beer, a bitter beer, a beer that has yeast complexities, a beer that pairs with most foods, a beer that the most cynical expert beer drinker could drink as well as someone who just had Sam Adams for the first time last night,” says Paquette. “Our goal going in was to make a beer that would not only be a creative outlet for us, but also a beer that everyone could share and enjoy together.”
One of the more recent seasonals from Mystic Brewing (Chelsea, Massachusetts) was brewed with native yeast cultured from blueberries grown in Maine. For Mystic’s Bryan Greenhagen, saison is about indigenous ingredients and going back in time. “Basically, it’s the realization that people had to use local yeast and propagate their own.”
Saison is a product of its environment, says Greenhagen. The beer style causes brewers to “think about where they’re from to create beer to reflect that in an original way. The overall mission for us is to try to recapture and revive the spirit of developing styles rather than just making styles. And a big influence is local ingredients.”
Light Body, Dry Finish
The fifty plus saisons that Trinity Brewing Company (Colorado Springs, Colorado) has brewed in its six years represent a huge range of ingredients, flavors, and aromas; but they all have a few things in common: they’re light in body, they’re dry in finish, and they’re harvest-driven. “Saison brings the momentum behind every harvest—supporting local growers and challenging your creativity,” says Trinity Owner Jason Yester. “One of the really fun things about saisons is that you are limited to what that harvest is. If a certain berry didn’t grow well that year, you’re you’re going to have to be very creative with it.”
The pumpkin included in Trinity Brewing’s Le Capitaine, says Yester, revs up the body of the beer while still keeping its finish light and dry, nuances he believes are integral to any saison. He says saisons should fall between 1° and 2° Plato, some even lower, inching toward zero. “Pale ale is a good association of how the body should feel on a saison,” he says. “It should be very, very light.”
Very Simple Recipe
“If there is one benchmark for the saison style, it’s Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont, Tourpes, Belgium),” says Gordon Schuck, the co-owner and brewmaster at Fort Collins, Colorado’s Funkwerks, Inc. “We’re talking a kind of golden orange-hued beer, a very simple recipe—usually with pilsner malt.”
Funkwerks’s flagship saison is structurally similar to Saison Dupont, says Schuck. “In the aroma we’re shooting for the esters, so you get a bit of fruitiness and almost a gingery kind of spiciness. In flavor, again, we want spicy and fruity. We want 90 percent attenuation‚ so it is very dry on the finish.”
The Funkwerks saison is not spiced, but instead spicy from the use of Opal hops. Its carbonation, says Schuck, is on the high side to impart this saison’s refreshing quality. “We basically want to pare down saison to just the bare, essential ingredients. That beer has three malts, one hops, and one yeast.”
Let the Yeast Do the Work
The guiding brewing principle for Austin, Texas’s Jester King is let the yeast do the work and create the right circumstances so that it can. “We’re of the Yvan influence,” says Ron Extract, referring to Yvan De Baets’s historical essay on saisons that appears in the book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewers Publications, 2004). In his essay, De Baets cites the writing of Marc H. Van Laer who advocated the use of multiple yeast strains as early as 1920.
Historically, saisons were brewed at the beginning of winter in a farmhouse brewery to quench the thirst of the farmhands who would work in the fields the following summer, the essay says. “In the winter most of the beer we brew is through spontaneous fermentation, and in the summer we brew saisons and farmhouse ales,” Extract adds. “It’s all about embracing the farmhouse mindset, the promise of the season.”
Out of Necessity
“As I was looking to step out on my own in the brewing world, I wanted to make styles that made the most sense for our climate—so incredibly hot,” jokes Prairie Artisan Ales (Tulsa, Oklahoma) Brewmaster Chase Healey. “I wanted to make complex beers that were still highly drinkable. More or less, [saisons] came out of necessity.”
Ask any number of brewers to define saison as a beer style, and you may never get the same answer twice. Ultimately, no two saisons are the same. Brian Strumke, of Stillwater Artisanal Ales (Baltimore, Maryland), offered the most poignant definition of the style that I’ve found yet: “Saison is a philosophy and not a beer style because it’s brewing what’s available however possible.” What Strumke and other saison brewers seem to be saying is that each individual beer speaks for itself. Each saison, which ultimately represents each brewer’s interpretation of this style, brings new meaning to the category.
Saisons are as individual as the brewers who brew them. These six takes from award-winning brewers showcase the range and personality possible in the style.
Pretty Things Beer And Ale Project
Jack D’Or is one of the more hops-forward saisons around, inspired by Belgium’s Brewery DeRanke’s XX Bitter and De Dolle Brouwers’ Arabier, and by Smuttynose IPA (Portsmouth, New Hampshire). It’s brewed with North American pilsner, Vienna, wheat, malted oats, and rye and is hopped with a combination of Nugget, Styrian Goldings, Columbus, and Palisade hops. “Bitterness runs through the beer from beginning to end. I think that you need bitterness for refreshment,” says Pretty Things Co-owner Dann Paquette.
Jack D’Or is fermented with a blend of four yeast strains that create its dry finish, another element that Paquette believes is critical for refreshment. This dry, bitter, and sessionable beer is meant to be a simple table beer—extremely quaffable and easily paired with many different foods.
The Saison Renaud is an unfiltered, single malt, single hop beer brewed with pilsner malt and Saaz hops. “This is your World War II–era farmhouse ale, where I think [brewers] were probably starting to steal the yeast from the pilsner makers,” says Mystic’s Bryan Greenhagen. In essence, this beer comes from a pilsner recipe. “We’ve made this recipe with lager yeast and it makes a pilsner. But then when you put in the Belgian yeast culture, you can taste the spices it brings, the herbs. I think [this beer] really shows what the yeast is doing.”
Trinity Brewing Company
(Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Le Capitaine is a Chardonnay barrel-aged golden saison brewed with “an absurd amount of pumpkin” and fermented with saison yeast and various strains of Brettanomyces, one of which was originally cultivated by Peter Bouckaert, the brewmaster at New Belgium Brewery (Fort Collins, Colorado). This beer—also brewed with candied endive, cacao nibs, and Buddha’s Hand—is Trinity Owner Jason Yester’s tribute to this renowned Belgian brewer.
(Fort Collins, Colorado)
The flagship Funkwerks Saison, which won a silver medal in 2011 and a gold medal in 2012 at the Great American Beer Festival, is modeled after Saison Dupont, with some modifications. “I’m playing with the hops,” Co-owner and Brewmaster Gordon Schuck says. “I like to use Opal; it’s a little bit citrusy for a German hops, but I think it blends well with the yeast. [It’s] a little spicy, almost a gingery kind of spiciness. It’s an aroma that you’re not sure is coming from the yeast or the dry-hopping.”
Jester King Brewery
The Noble King is a pure expression of Jester King’s yeast and fermentation process, says Ron Extract. It uses light grains (pilsner, 2-row, and wheat) and noble hops. “It’s a simple, straightforward recipe that lets the yeast—a blend of Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, and local wild strains—do its thing.”
Prairie Artisan Ales
Prairie Ale, the first beer produced by Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales, became the baseline for the rest of Prairie’s lineup. This classic saison is brewed with pilsner malt, wheat malt, flaked wheat, and cane sugar. The spiciness of the beer comes exclusively from the addition of Saaz hops. “Prairie Ale is our most elegant beer,” says Chase Healey. “It shows where we come from.”
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Color Outside the Lines
If we think of modern beer style guides as canonical coloring books for grownups, then saison is the devil on our shoulders inviting us to venture outside the lines and use all the crayons in the box. Here’s a guide to this playful style.