What is a Saison Beer? Defining an Iconic Summer Aleiainoldman
If you order a saison in Europe during a summer vacation, you may well end up getting a different style of beer each time depending on the region you’re in. It may be dry, peppery and noticeably crisp, or light-bodied and tart. With the taste profile all over the charts, how can you put your finger down on this beer style? What IS a saison?
Like most beer styles born in western Europe, the saison beer style has developed over centuries. Saisons express wildly different aromas and flavors across pockets of the countryside, and now brewers have myriad yeast options available to construct their saison with. Eventually, the beer style also made its way across the Atlantic Ocean where American brewers have taken to brewing the style with their own flair and flavor profiles.
Honestly, the ambiguity of the style is one of the most appealing aspects of a saison. In essence, “saison” can describe the character of a beer, or its moment in time and place. The beer means something different to a beer maker in Amsterdam than it does for a brewer in Flanders, Hauts-de-France or California.
Wherever you find a saison, though, you should be drinking a refreshing, palatable and entirely enjoyable beer. What makes a beer saison? We will pore over the history of the style and run down some of the best saisons on the market, so you can get your hands on this incredible summer beer. Finally, we have a saison recipe that you can easily make at home.
HISTORY OF SAISON
At its core, saison beer comes from humble origins. Also known as “provision beers”, saisons were originally brewed to keep for extended lengths of time—not entirely unlike biere de garde.
Saisons were first made in Wallonia, a region in southern Belgium where Belgian and French culture seamlessly intertwine. In the 19th century, farmers brewed saison to provide farmhands and regional workers as they worked the fields under the hot summer sun. According to brewer and author Yvan De Baets, these workers were called “les saisonniers”.
These beers provided to farm hands needed to be refreshing, but not so high in alcohol content that the saisonniers would be unable to finish their work; saisons are close cousins to piquettes in this regard. At this time, saisons would have also been cheap to produce and made with ingredients the farmers themselves typically had readily available. This meant that farmers often brewed saisons with wheat, oats and spelt on top of their own malted barley, giving these beers a complexity of character in the body and an inviting, pale color.
Larger scale production of “bière de saison” eventually took hold in Belgian cities, particularly in Wallonian cities like Liège and in the Belgian province of Hainaut. Early instructions for the handling of these beers said to serve saison at room temperature, and must be “poured with care.”
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WHAT IS SAISON?
Simply put, there is no tried and true, singular definition of a saison. And that’s kind of the beautiful thing about this beer. Over the years as saisons jumped from farmhouses to professional breweries, any accepted guidelines for the style became muddled.
When saisons were first made by farmers for seasonal workers, it is not hard to imagine that the brewing conditions on the farm were less than perfectly sanitary. Because these beers were made in farms under a large umbrella of varying conditions, including the presence of diverse native yeast, saisons were susceptible to infection. In order to stave off infections, saison brewers heavily hopped their beers. Hops have antibacterial properties that can help preserve beer and stave off contamination.
But not all infection in brewing is necessarily bad, and native cultures present on Wallonian farms soured some of the earliest saisons. These “mixed-culture” beers utilized both traditional brewing yeast, which was intentionally added to the wort, and “wild” yeasts, which comes from the surrounding environment such as the air, local flora and even wooden brewing barrels. Farmhouse ales with this souring effect can feature typical “wild ale” flavors and aromas like hay, apricot, lemon and horse hair.
This souring in saisons was considered (and continues to be) a desirable off-flavor. But because conditions varied so wildly from farmhouse to farmhouse, replication of the beer in mass production was not feasible.
Is a saison a sour beer? Saisons can be sour beers, but it should also be noted here that not all saisons are sour. In fact, some of the most popular and commercially available saisons feature prominent spicy ester notes with little to no perceived sourness. It also is not uncommon for some saisons to be flavored with spices, fruits and other adjunct ingredients. Common inclusions are orange zest, lemon zest and cardamom.
So saison beers can be peppery and sour, flavored with fruit and bone dry on the finish. What gives? Even style guidelines from organizations like the Beer Judge Certification Program and the Brewers Association allow for a wide window of expression in the beer. Take this excerpt from the Brewers Association guideline for Classic French & Belgian-style Saison, for example:
Fruity and spicy black pepper attributes derived from Belgian yeast are common. Diacetyl should not be present. Low levels of Brettanomyces yeast-derived aroma and flavor attributes including any of slightly acidic, fruity, horsey, goaty, or leather-like, may be present but are not required.
A saison beer should be very well attenuated, meaning it is bone dry. Regardless of any noticeable funk, the beer should not finish sweet.
So again, what is a saison? It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly what a saison is, or rather what you should expect from a “typical” saison. This becomes even more complicated when you consider the brand new range of flavors that American wild yeasts can add to farmhouse saisons.
What does a saison taste like? At their essence, saisons are refreshing and incredibly drinkable beers—the kind of beer you take down to the dock or drink after a long bout of yard work. Saisons should look bright and inviting and hold a complex body with layers of cracker, bread yeast and light caramel flavors. The expression of the hop character should be present, but even the hops can vary wildly. Traditional European saisons, of course, feature Noble Hop varieties or aged Belgian hops. But American brewers have started experimenting—with great results—with dry hopped saisons featuring North America’s contemporary hop varietals.
HIGHEST RATED SAISONS
There are several saisons both from Europe and North America that perfectly showcase how diverse and appealing this beer style can be. Saisons have become consumer favorites in both continents for their approachability and character—it seems that no two saisons are the same from glass to glass.
Saisons are also typically bottle conditioned. This means that saisons should do well in a cellar environment. If they are imported in good conditions, saisons from Europe can still make the journey across the Atlantic in fine drinking condition for the American consumer. This means that many of the European bottles of saison you find on shelves are still incredibly expressive.
Here are a few notable examples of highly rated saisons to keep an eye out for.
Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
Widely considered to be the benchmark and template for saisons everywhere, Saison Dupont is perhaps the premier example of a saison with prominent esters. Saison Dupont expresses spicy and fruity aromas and noticeable hop bitterness that people have come to associate with typical saisons. The beer is bottle conditioned in green and brown bottles and finished with a champagne cork and wire cage, now signature for some saisons.
Perhaps best of all, Saison Dupont is widely distributed and not difficult to find at beer stores (and even some grocery stores). If you want to start out with a baseline saison beer that you can readily get your hands on, Saison Dupont is one of the better options out there.
Brewery Ommegang Hennepin
Ommegang’s Hennepin saison is one of the most readily available—and popular—American saisons. The New York brewery, well known for its Belgian offerings, spices its saison with coriander, ginger, orange peel and grains of paradise.
Allagash Brewing Company Interlude
One of America’s most famous saisons, Interlude derives its balance from a mix of cultures—and some aging in red wine barrels. Because Allagash introduces two yeast strains into this beer, each pour of Interlude will find complex fruit flavors complemented with bready notes and a dry finish.
This beer from Funkwerks may be the most balanced bottle of saison on this list. Funkwerks’ Saison is simultaneously peppery and holds notes of stone fruit with a slight funk. This bottle checks off everything you’re looking for in a saison.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales Bam Bière
Named after the brewery’s dog, Bam Bière is a complex but perfectly balanced beer. Jolly Pumpkin masterfully combines oak aging, malt character and hop selection in a can of wholly delicious farmhouse-style saison.
Jester King Brewery Le Petit Prince
This table beer from Jester King Brewery in Austin is a spectacular encapsulation of the original spirit of farmhouse saisons. Clocking in at just 2.9% alcohol-by-volume, Le Petit Prince is a refreshing bottle of beer that can be enjoyed with lunch, in the vineyard or after dinner. Look for strong barnyard tasting notes in this beer with aromas of straw, funky lemon and even a bit of honey.
Brasserie de Blaugies Saison D’Epeautre
This Belgian saison harkens back to the origins of saison by including a generous portion of spelt in its grain bill. Saison D’Epeautre has a complex, vibrant body that is the star of the show. For beer drinkers that like malts front and center, Brasserie de Blaugies made this saison for you. Expect strong grain aromas and flavorful breadiness and yeast character.
Brasserie Fantôme Fantôme Saison
Brasserie Fantôme produce some of the most sought-after bottles in the U.S., and if you’re lucky enough to find a bottle in the wild you’ll be well rewarded. Fantôme Saison is an incredibly expressive beer that bursts with flavor, regardless. Look for funky complexity with tasting notes such as white wine grapes, apricot, lemon zest and slight spiciness.
One of the most fun aspects of making a saison is how much agency the brewer has over their own recipe. Because the guidelines of saisons are generally broad, there are many ways a brewer can add their own flair or dictate their personal tastes into the beer.
Do you want an incredibly hoppy saison with fruity, dry-hopped flavors? Go for it. Are you looking for a funkier beer with a light body and low alcohol? That’s totally acceptable, too. Saisons are incredibly fun to brew, and equally as enjoyable to consume.
For Brewvana’s saison recipe, we are including some specialty grains in the mash to harken back to the days when farmhouse brewers added whatever malted grains they had available. The base of our grist bill is basic American pilsner malt, which creates a very clean body that can be complemented with hops or additional flavorings, such as lemon zest or coriander.
We are also adding Red Wheat and Crystal Malt to the mash. These two specialty grains will both add an incredible depth of flavor and color to your saison. Using wheat is also a great way to improve the head retention of your homebrew. This is because the proteins found in malt form complex bonds with the tannins found in hops. Therefore, higher protein malts (such as wheat) will produce a stronger head.
Advanced brewers may want to try step-mashing for this beer. Step-mashing is a technique in which the mash temperature is gradually increased throughout the brewing process through a series of rests and mash times. This brewing process creates a noticeably dry beer with a complex malt character in the body. Brewers who want a bone-dry saison may also consider adding Candi Sugar near the end of the boil.
Our recipe uses WLP590 French Saison yeast from White Labs for fermentation. This yeast produces a traditional Belgian saison that should be crisp, slightly fruity and spicy.
WLP590 also helps amplify hop flavors, which will set you up well to dry hop with New World hops. The traditional hop profile for this recipe calls for European and Noble hops. Add some Saaz at the beginning of the boil as a bittering hop and then some Styrian Goldings hops with 15 minutes left in the boil for traditional aromas. If you are chasing down more citrus-forward hop aromas from American hops, replace the Styrian Goldings with your American hops and then dry hop to your liking.