Modern Saisons, many examples of which are still brewed by farmhouse breweries in Belgium, are a very different beer. Many regardSaison Vieille Provision: Brasserie Dupont, as the quintessential representation of the modern style; but there are still many other unique and no less valid interpretations to be found. Many Saisons are now modern industrial products, no longer confined to farmhouses or constrained by technological limitations. Some are brewed in relatively large breweries, using pure single strain cultures of yeast.
Saison has spread during the Craft beer renaissance, with brewers around the world creating unique interpretations inspired by both modern industrial Saison and the farmhouse Saisons of old. Many are creating beers that resemble archetypes of neither.
Some purists would argue that the modernization of Saison brewing has adulterated and overly-simplified the complex character and rustic nature of the original farmhouse Saisons of old. Others argue that the Saisons of old are now extinct, ingredients and techniques have changed; and although assumptions can be made, nobody alive can truly claim to know what a 17th century Saison tasted like.What virtually every brewer agrees on is that Saison should be exceptionally dry and refreshing, and that the majority of its character should be derived from fermentation with expressive yeast strains.
When thinking about Saison, I like to imagine what it was like to be a Saisonnier in 19th century Wallonia. I imagine my day beginning at the break of dawn. The first moments are spent digging a shallow hole under a tree beside the field where I would be working. Inside, I place my earthenware jug of saison to keep it cool. All morning, I’d look forward to digging it up to quench my thirst, while lying in the shade and sharing a meal with friends; the time and effort spent brewing it months earlier finally paying its due. If I were lucky, I may even have gotten the chance to squeeze in a little shut-eye during the hottest hour of the day, before I returned to my arduous labor.
For the Saisonnier, the pleasure in drinking these beers didn’t stem from thinking about which grain or hop was used to make them; or questioning whether the pervasion of strange aromas surrounding his head was from Brettanomyces in the beer, or the wet hay on which he happened to be resting. It most certainly wasn’t from relishing the chance to trade it for a rare bottle of lambic from Brussels. Drinking Saison was a moment of respite and comfort in a life filled with burden.
I believe that the true essence of Saison doesn’t reside within a specific set of ingredients and parameters, but rather: in a sense of purpose, tradition, and history. In many ways, the word “Saison” may be more useful in describing a family of farmhouse ales rather than a specific style; each beer the embodiment of a particular brewer’s inventiveness at a particular moment in time.
Although the saisons of today probably refresh more bankers, graphic designers and nurses than they do farmers, I like to think that the true essence of Saison: a simple luxury for the average person, still remains.
Approach to brewing Saison
Grain / Mash Virtually any combination of grain, malted or unmalted, is acceptable to use when brewing Saison. I imagine that farmers would have been quick to utilize unmalted grains, as they would have been much less labor intensive to produce. Many modern Saisons use light pilsner malts as a base. Darker base malts such as Munich malt can also be employed if one wants to incorporate more complex malt flavors, or to attempt to brew a beer that more closely resembles a pre-industrial farmhouse Saison. Crystal/caramel malts add unfermentable dextrins, and in many cases caramel-like flavors that I personally feel take away from the subtle, simplistic, and refreshing profile of these beers
The goal of the mash should be to produce highly fermentable wort, although the method of doing so will vary depending on your equipment, grain selection, and choice of fermentative microorganisms. A single or multi step infusion mash is typical and traditional. Dupont performs an interesting variation where they mash in at 113F and continuosly raise the temperature by ½ a degree per minute until they reach 162F. Some brewers will intentionally produce relatively dextrinous wort to supply a large quantity of nutrients for slow fermenting Pediococcus and Brettanomyces. No matter the method, the goal should be to produce a finished beer with high attenuation. I feel a Saison should finish at 1.008 (2 Plato) at the highest, but personally, I’d prefer to see 1.005 (1.29 Plato) or less.
Classical Saison would have been a low alcohol beer by today’s standards. Although some Saisons are brewed in the 7%-8% range, I feel that this can have a negative impact on the dry refreshing character of a properly brewed Saison.
Hops (and other spices)
Flavor/aroma hops are often used, but not a necessity. Classic hop selection for a Saison is typically of the noble variety. Modern and New world varieties of hops may also be employed as long as they do not clash with the ester and phenolic profile of the yeast. Hops should support the Yeast character, but never overpower it. Citrus-y, earthy, woody, and spicy characters are all welcome. I would stay away from intensely resinous and pine-like hops such as Colombus, Chinook, and Simcoe. Medium low to moderate hop bitterness is typical for most Saisons brewed with Saccharomyces and/or Brettanomyces. However, if souring bacteria is employed, bitterness should be low. I’m sure someone out there will disagree, but I find the pairing of high amounts of bitter and sour flavors to be atrocious.
Spices other than hops are optional, and their philosphy of use should be similar to that of flavor and aroma hops: any spice character should be a subtle background note that blends seamlessly with the other characteristics of the beer. I prefer my Saisons spiced very lighty, or not at all. Some of the spices historically used in Saison were star anise, coriander, sage, green peppercorns, cumin, orange peel, and ginger.
The farmers that brewed Saison had a very limited knowledge of water chemistry, and were limited to brewing with whatever water was available in their region. Saison can be brewed with both soft and hard water. Some parts of Wallonia have water that is moderately high in bicarbonates and sulfates and I find that elevated Sulfates reinforce the desired dry finish. Targeting a sulfate range somewhere between 50-150 ppm is appropriate. I would keep Chloride below 50 ppm. It is important to modify the water (or the grist) to ensure that the mash is within the desired pH range of 5.40-5.60 (room temperature reading), for optimal fermentability.
Fermentation, The Soul of Saison
The most important factor in brewing Saison is fermentation and the microorganisms employed. It is safe to say that Saison has always derived the majority of its personality from fermentation with microrganisms that display expressive flavor profiles.
Early Saison fermentations consisted of mixed cultures*. Then again, this was true of all beers until the 1800s when isolating pure cultures of yeast became possible. Some of my favorite beers in the Saison tradition are fermented exclusively with Saccharomyces, but the incredibly diverse (and delicious) spectrum of flavors achieved from mixed fermentation is impossible to imitate. I feel there is legitimacy to either approach, and I would encourage brewers to attempt both if they so desire. The question that should be asked is “What is your goal and your inspiration for the Saison you are brewing?” Is it a modern Saison inspired by the likes of Dupont? Or are you brewing a rustic throwback to a classical farmhouse ale?
The best Saisons are made with expressive yeast strains that display estery and phenolic characteristics. The benchmark character most people associate with modern Saison is the rustic, fruity/citrus-y and spicy/peppery character of the yeast strain rumored to have originally been cultured from Brasserie Dupont.** Many brewers feel that beers that do not employ this strain of Saccharomyces (or one of similar character) are not “true Saisons”; and although I myself utilize what most would consider a classic Saison yeast strain, I must respectfully disagree with this notion. To define a tradition of beer spanning centuries based on a single strain of yeast, from a beer that only came into existence in the last century, is in my opinion a mistake. Countless strains of yeast and bacteria of mostly unknown characteristics have fermented Saison throughout its history. Overly specific constraints on yeast choice is contrary to the spirit of Saison, and fermentation with yeast of a particular character is not the sole denominator in successfully brewing one.
Although many incredible beers utilize it, brewers should be wary of falling into the trap of automatically using the ubiquitous “Dupont” yeast strain; soley for the reason that their favorite beer happens to employ it. Brewers should be open to “treading their own path” via experimentation and the creation of their own unique interpretations of Saison.
Saison is a loose family of beers open to many different interpretations. However, I often find that brewers take an approach that is overly radical, and does not reflect the Saison tradition. The best Saisons have a rich complexity of character that belies their surprisingly simple method of production. Saison is more than just a beer brewed with “Saison yeast”. Too many brewers have run Saison through a literal gauntlet of strange ingredients, processes, and misguided interpretations without ever pausing to reflect on whether they actually should. Saison is a beer too heavily steeped in tradition and history to just be appropriated and adulterated on a whim.
Saison aged in wine barrels with Brettanomyces? Excellent!
Bacon Saison? Not so much...***
*For the purposes of this article, ‘mixed fermentations’ will be defined as those consisting of microroganisms other than brewer’s yeast.
**. For more information on brewing with this yeast (and everything else “Saison”), Phil Markowski’s book, ‘Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition’ is an excellent primer.
*** Actually, from this point forward: could we please just agree that anything found in your local butcher’s case should never under any circumstance find its way into beer? Thank you.