Saison. A beer "style" born out of necessity has transformed into one of craft beer's most complex and interpreted offerings. The beauty of saison is its ability to demonstrate the brewer's fingerprint and the brewery's sense of place. At the outset, saison was brewed in farmhouses in order to serve field workers in the summer months. Seasonal workers, or saisonniers, would be the recipients of these pale, low alcohol, and simple beers. They served their purpose. Today, brewers are taking the concept and characteristics of what the style was likely to have been in those simpler times and creating their own versions. These days, Americans are lucky to be the "saisonniers" without all the hard work.
One thing is certain about saison these days. That is, the definition or interpretation will never be the same from brewer to brewer. As we thought about the style and what we could write about its history, the characteristics, and what considerations to make when brewing your own, we ran into a dilemma - putting all the research, advice, and opinions in one neat column. Instead, we thought we'd let the brewers responsible for some of the best saisons we've been fortunate enough to try tell you in their own words what the style means to them and what they think you should do when brewing your own at home. Thanks to our contributors: Bob Sylvester (Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.); Matt Manthe (Odd Breed Wild Ales); Moh Saade (The Tank Brewing Co.); Jeffrey Stuffings (Jester King Brewing Co.); Brandon Jones (Embrace the Funk); Jesse Friedman (Almanac Beer Company).
Bob Sylvester - Saint Somewhere Brewing Co.
I’ve never really though of “saison” as a style per say, but more of a school of brewing within the Belgian school. Regardless of their make-up, they should be aromatic, predominately from the yeast as opposed to hops or malt. They should be dry and thirst quenching with a nice assertive hop presence at the end. Brett, a little light strike and that elusive cellar or musty like quality should be present in the best of them.
Brewing. Golden rules for saison. Mash low. Ferment high. Use the proper yeast!!! The US brewing industry seems to have fallen on the crutch of the French Saison yeast. I can tell you, with great certainty, that the French saison brewers don’t like that yeast. I prefer any of the Dupont variants. There are a few “Farmhouse Blends” available that I haven’t tried but look promising. Saison is a product of the yeast much more than any other element. A little stress on the yeast results in the nice esters you get from a well made saison. I usually under-pitch and over oxygenate. Start ferm temps low and let rise on their own. I used to preach letting things go as high as 90F but have seen the light on a more restrained fermentation temperature. As far as malt, Pilsen is a must. Belgian Pilsener… even better. Build from there. Keep things light. Light in color and mouthfeel. My yeast is an attenuating beast that takes the wort down to an S.G. of 1.000, so I like to add a portion of malted wheat and flaked rye to add to the body and head retention. A little Munich or aromatic malt if you like, but that’s about it. Hops. Noble! Or, at least something fairly neutral, grassy, floral. As many additions as you see fit. Dry hopping is also acceptable! Natural carbonation is a must. You just can’t force carb a Saison and get good results. They require a second fermentation to round them out and get that desired dryness.
That’s about it! #greenbottle!
Matt Manthe - Odd Breed Wild Ales
Saison and Lambic are my two favorite styles, and to me they are more closely related than most people realize. Most beers labeled ‘Saison’ today are not Saison, they are cleverly marketed beers relying on the recent trend of Saisons being hip or cool. It’s true that Saison can be a style of beer that shows a lot of variation, but it is not an anything goes type of beer.
Saison should evoke the nature of the place where it was produced. That is to say, that a Saison produced at my brewery should not be reproducible outside of my brewery. This approach and mindset is more akin to that found in wineries or Lambic breweries than beer factories making pale lagers. Most recipes for Saison are very simple. What makes a Brewers Saison unique, undefinable, and inexplicably complex is what makes his/her brewery unique: the equipment used and the processes used to produce the beer with that equipment; ingredients used to produce the beer, which of course includes the local water used, but also the type of yeast and bacteria as well as local microflora in the air and in the building; and of course, it is important to consider the style of the brewer and his/her approach to beer and brewing, along with his/her personal preferences.
The Saisons of old were brewed for the farmhands and family producing the beer. This was a beer made for personal tastes, not something mass marketed to large groups of people. This aspect of Saison has in my opinion, allowed such a varied approach to producing Saison, while also positioning Saison as a beer style that is perhaps the ultimate canvas for the brewer as an artist. Saisons of old were all produced with a mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria that was reused from batch to batch, and many producers aged their Saison in wooden barrels, where they undoubtedly underwent an additional fermentation with Brettanomyces and souring bacteria. Saison producers understood that they could add a large amount of hops to inhibit souring bacteria, and as a result, Saisons were either bracingly bitter or were relatively sour. Farmhouse brewers were some of the last brewers to adopt the pure culture technique of utilizing only a single strain of yeast in fermentation. Those that did, found that their beer lost many of the qualities that made it their beer.
Today, most beers with the word ‘Saison’ on the label, including those in Belgium, are produced with techniques more similar to those used to make Pilsener than Lambic. That marks a huge departure from the roots of Saison, and I think that is unfortunate. I think it is reassuring that some American producers are making what I believe are beautiful Saisons. For me, Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Biere is a classic example of the style and what I believe the style should be-- not a single culture Saccharomyces Belgian Blonde Ale.
At Odd Breed Wild Ales we make what I consider to be a relatively traditional interpretation of Saison. Our Saison is brewed with Pilsener, Spelt, Flaked Oats, and Rye malt. We use a combination of Czech Saaz and Cascade hops and bitter to 20 IBU, which is relatively high for such a dry beer that has an original gravity of just 9.3 Plato. The beer is pitched with our mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria, and after 7-10 days of primary fermentation it ages in French Oak barrels until the gravity is stable and then it is ready for bottling. By the time this beer is ready to bottle, the final gravity is right at about 0 Plato, and the pH is down to around 3.5. While the flavor is nice, the beer really isn’t ready until after bottle conditioning and further maturation are complete, which is about 10 weeks later.
When brewing a Saison, I think the mistake most people make is they produce a beer too high in alcohol. Saison was brewed to be refreshing and nourishing. A 7% beer is not a Saison. It may be a ‘farmhouse ale’ but not all farmhouse ales are Saison. There should be no such thing as an ‘Imperial Saison’—an imperial Saison is just a strong farmhouse ale.
Making a Saison too sweet is another very common flaw. Saison is not a smooth beer. It should be very dry to accentuate the refreshing and drinkable nature of the beer, but it shouldn’t go down like water. If it is not bitter it should have some acidity on the palate, and Saison is typically high to very high in carbonation. Some carbonic acid bite is necessary to bring out the multitude of aromas in the beer, while also preventing such a low alcohol and light bodied beer from being lifeless. Non barley malts and even unmalted grains like wheat, spelt, oats, and rye were used because they were available on the farm, but they also contribute to the mouthfeel of the beer while adding some unique character.
Bottle Conditioning is a must. Saisons on draft can be enjoyable, but there is a certain aspect of the beer that is missing when a Saison is force carbonated. Multiple yeast strains should be used, and Brettanomyces and souring bacteria should have a role in the development of the beer. Saisons are a product of their microflora, and microflora is the most defining of the ingredients used in the production of Saison-- it is the Brewers fingerprint.
Jeffrey Stuffings - Jester King Brewing Co.
For me, a Saison is a beer that's tied to a place, time, and people. In this modern age of brewing, it's possible to create a beer virtually anywhere on earth and have it taste more or less the same. In my experience, most brewers are getting malt and hops from the same suppliers, pure culture yeast from the same labs, and altering their water to mimic the profile of what exists thousands of miles away. There's nothing wrong with this, and this uniformity and predictability has lead to remarkably consistent and tasty beer virtually everywhere. But I believe what has been lost is a uniqueness in beer that can only exist when it's a direct product of a place, time, and people. Saison for me is inextricably tied to a place through the land, water, air, raw ingredients, and microflora, a time through seasonal variation in temperature, ingredient availability, and concentrations of different types of microflora in the environment, and a people through the uniqueness of the process and equipment they choose to adopt. At its heart, Saison is a rustic ale brewed with what surrounds the brewery and fermented with native microflora. A pure culture fermentation with highly modified ingredients from all over the country or world, with a picture of a barn, tractor, or guy in a straw hat on the label, doesn't suffice for me.
I believe brewing Saison should be simple. Achieving complexity through simple processes is something I believe to be true to the spirit of the style. I'll speak to our process at Jester King, which covers some considerations I think should be taken into account. We brew with raw, unfiltered, untreated well water. Our aim is to impart the character of what's directly below our feet into the beer, through the minerality of the water and the effect the minerals have on the fermentation. We use as many locally grown and malted grains as possible (from Blacklands Malt), including a significant amount of raw grains in the mash. We use both fresh hops and hops aged in our barn, and are working (both ourselves and with others in our area) to grow a portion of our own hops. Most importantly, we're incorporating native microflora into our fermentations by harvesting yeast and bacteria from both the land and air. We then allow our mixed culture of native microflora to adapt to its surroundings and change over time. We pick adjunct ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices either from our ranch or the surrounding farms. I believe Saison should be dependent on local agriculture, which again leads back to it being a product of a place, time, and people.
Brandon Jones - Embrace the Funk
Saison to me is openly complex but many times simple. I don't particularly love making a definition on Saison. The innovation many brewers use can be so exciting ad different, just like the farms this style grew from. This is why I like to try as many examples as I can plus brew my own.
For my own Saison brewing I lean to the simple layered side. I like to use mostly a nice Pilsen malt along with some spelt, oats or rye. Microbes and spices can really help add some complex layers that shine at different temperatures/carbonation levels. Using a combo of Saison/Farmhouse tagged yeast strains can certainly help with attenuation and fermentation time while adding different characters. Lately I've enjoyed using more citrus driven hops like Amarillo over using spices like orange peel. I do like to play off the microbes by accentuating them with specific American hops and spices like Grains of Paradise or Citrus peel. I think the key is to play off and not make these secondary supporting ingredients the main show. That keeps the beer light, crisp and complex while still being able to enjoy more than a glass or 2.
Jesse Friedman - Almanac Beer Co.
Saison is a fantastic beer style. Open to a huge spectrum of variety and interpretation, it’s a great example of how the exact same ingredients in can make wildly different beers because of brewer process. Pale Malt, Wheat, Yeast and some hops can create beers ranging from sweet to bone dry, hoppy to…not hoppy. And tart and wild to clean and precise. Personally, I like my saisons fermented very, very warm. Ideally in the 80s-90s with yeasts that are tolerant of the heat, and even reward going out on the bleeding edge. The result can be aromas of pineapple and pear, cracked white pepper and saltine cracker. I like my saisons lightly dry hopped for additional aroma and brightness.
For home brewers my number one piece of advice would be to get a heating blanket and wrap it around your fermenter. The resulting hot fermentation both dries the beer out as much as possible, and create delicious fruity flavors and yeast character. A nice cheap one that won’t turn off, set it to medium-high and let the yeast run wild, eating every bit of fermentable and creating delicious phenolics and flavors. Nothing wrong with finishing with a bit of brett too, adding more fruit flavor and complexity to a delicious style.
Moh Saade - The Tank Brewing Co.
Since its emergence from the Medieval farmhouses of Wallonia, to its evolution into the innovative craft brews of today, the storied tradition of Saison is one of striking change. A rustic ale of humble origin, Saison was a beer born out of necessity. Prior to the Industrial revolution, potable water was largely inaccessible, and the lack of refrigeration relegated brewing to the cooler months when staling microorganisms were less prolific. Saison was a refreshing source of water and nutrients; free of pathogens (due to the long boil), that could be imbibed by farmers while they worked the hot summer fields.
Early farmhouse Saisons were a product of the resourceful farmers who brewed them. They would have regularly improvised with almost any combination of ingredients at their disposal. Malted and unmalted grain; especially: barley, wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and buckwheat would have made up the base of the beer. Early Saisons would have been considered “pale” beers in their day, which is comparatively darker than what we would recognize as such now. Limitations in malting knowledge and equipment produced malt that was darker and undermodified by our standards. Caramel/crystal malts and pilsner malts would never have been used because they simply did not exist. All fermentations consisted of a variety of different microorganisms. Long, slow fermentations by bacteria and yeast would have led to exceptionally high degrees of attenuation. Hops were used primarily because of their bacteriostatic properties and in order to delay staling and souring by bacteria. Other spices would have been used at the discretion of the brewer for flavor, especially at times when hops were scarce.
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.