Saison is a beer style that is not well understood by even the most hard core of beer geeks. It has a very long and interesting history but was on the verge of dying out until the beer revival in the U.S. helped drive interest toward this odd style. Why then would we choose to brew such a confusing and archaic type of beer? It is simple; we find them fascinating and like to drink them. Not to mention it’s refreshing in the heat and has a pleasant complexity that allows for contemplation.
The BJCP style guidelines defines saison as “A refreshing, medium to strong fruity/spicy ale with a distinctive yellow-orange color, highly carbonated, well hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity.” (BJCP, 2008) Today many consider Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Vielle Provision to exemplify the style but there are many well-made interpretations on both sides of the pond.
While every beer has a story behind its development, saison’s is actually quite simple. The Flanders region of France and Belgium was and still is a fertile region full of small farms. As with most agricultural centers, much of the labor is performed by seasonal workers or saisonierres in French. Brewing has always been part of Flemish culture and it is no surprise that the majority of farms brewed their own beer for sustenance. Water in the 19th century was notoriously not potable so it was necessary for farmers to provide a safe and refreshing beverage to both hydrate and sustain the legions of saisonierres tilling the fields. Beer, being boiled, was known as a safe beverage. Furthermore, before refrigeration, beer could only be brewed in the cooler months between October and March and would have to be stored to last the summer. In Flanders, higher than normal amounts of hops were used for their antiseptic quality in order to preserve the beer throughout the year (Markowski, 2004). The end result was a low-alcohol, typically 3-4%, and highly hopped beer that could be drunk throughout the workday.
As each farm made their own Saison it is not surprising that the style varied from farm to farm, even those in the same village. As malt was taxed higher than normal grains, many farms would add a portion of un-malted barley, wheat, rye and/or spelt in the mash. Traditionally indigenous hops were used and were often aged before use, but no one variety dominated and the only commonality was the sharp bitterness imparted. The yeast is where there is the most variation, many breweries allowed for spontaneous fermentation similar to the lambics of Brussels while others began culturing their own house strain. There is even a theory that the current Dupont strain dominating the market is actually more closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisae strains used for red-wine fermentations than ale strains (Markowski, 2004). The historical use of wild and other odd yeasts led to the high attenuation, dryness, and complex ester profile being sought by today’s saison brewers.
Today’s brewers are embracing the creativity of saisons of the past and adding their own spin to the beer. The most notable change is the gradual increase in ABV over the years, with today's versions in the 5-6% range and some even higher! Our saison includes a good percentage of wheat and rye in the grist; we sought head retention and body from the wheat and peppery and husky notes from the rye. We have also experimented with different spice additions to further add to the flavour and aroma. All of this is on top of being able to use new-world hop varietals that are bursting with tropical and stone fruit flavours. The saison is basically a blank canvas that allows the creative brewer to paint their own picture of what they believe a beer can be. Some might say that the saison is the epitome of craft beer.
Beer Judge Certification Program. (2008). BJCP Style Guidelines for Beer, Mead, & Cider. 2008 Edition.
Markowski, P. (2004). Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. Boulder, Co: Brewers Publications.