2008 BJCP Style Guidelines
16C - Saison

NOTE:  In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Saison has been reclassified as Style 25B in Category 25 Strong Belgian Ale which contains the pale, well-attenuated, balanced to bitter beers, often more driven by yeast character than malt flavors, with generally higher alcohol (although a range exists within styles).

The information is still valid for the style, but if you are studying for the current BJCP exam, use this information in conjunction with the current guideline description.

Saison du Pont

Saisons are wonderfully quaffable beers which are now brewed all over the world.  It is especially popular with the American Craft Beer movement.  In fact,in the 2006 Great American Beer Festival (GABF), this was the style with the largest increase in entrants (a 76% growth over a two year period).  It's still quite popular in Belgium.  It has a typical Belgian history, dating back to the days prior to refrigeration as most older styles did.

The word "Saison" means Season in French. It originated in Wallonia, the French speaking southern part of Belgium.  As was true everywhere at the time, the water supply was not very good in Wallonia which was the area of Belgium where most of the grain was grown.  The workers who harvested all that grain needed something to quench their thirsts and beer was usually served for that purpose.  Of course you couldn't serve a thick sweet heavy beer to your workers so the style was born to fill the need. These beers were truly "farmhouse" les, brewed in most of the farmhouses in the Wallonia area.  These beers were brewed in the fall with the left over grain and were kept over the following summer to be served the next harvest season.  For a beer to survive that long, it needed to be somewhat higher in alcohol and well attenuated as sugar was likely to sour or referment.  Saisons were also well hopped to help with the long storage period.  Traditionally Saisons were only moderately high in alcohol by today's standards and came in at 3-4% ABV.  They had to be moderate because many farmers in that day would give each worker up to 5 liters per day.  Many times some sour ale was added to give the beer a refreshing "bite" which helped quench the thirst.

Quite a few Saisons are still made the artisanal way, in small farmhouse style breweries.  They are quite a popular attraction for Belgium's growing tourist industry.  But the quintessential Saison has to be Saison DuPont.  It is described here from the importer's website: "Saison Dupont is a wonderful straw color with a dense creamy head. The nose is alive, like fresh raised bread, estery with citrus and spice notes. Full-bodied and malty, it sparkles on the palate and finishes with a zesty hop and citrus attack. Incredibly compatible with food!"

Today the style is a medium to somewhat strong ale, usually pale orange in color.  They are highly hopped and highly carbonated with a good dose of estery fruitiness.  The finish is dry with a thirst quenching acidity.  To brew one yourself, the most important factor will be getting the proper attenuation.  A good saison will finish very dry.  To get the most fermentable beer possible, you must mash at a lower temperature if you are an all-grain brewer.  And don't be afraid to add some cane or corn sugar to the recipe.  Keep the fermentation temperature warm.  Start out in the 68°F (20°C) range to keep the esters in check, but ramp up the temperature to the 80°F (27°C) area to finish. A strong vital yeast is the key here.   Even with a more fermentable beer and warmer fermentation temperatures, sometimes the Belgian Saison yeast just fails to ferment to dryness.  When that happens the only option is to add another yeast such as an American Ale yeast like Wyeast 1056 or White Labs WLP001, or even a dry champagne yeast to finish out the fermentation.  Sometimes some acidity is added to the recipe by using an acid malt, Lactobacillus bacteria, sour mashing techniques or by blending the finished beer with a Lambic.  Spices are sometimes used as well.  The most popular spices are the same as used in Belgian Witbiers, coriander and bitter orange peel.  I've even heard of some brewers using a subtle hint of cumin in their Saison recipes.  Most of the spices are added to the stronger Saison versions, but be your own judge and make what you like.

Saison Style Description

  • Aroma: High fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. Fruity esters dominate the aroma and are often reminiscent of citrus fruits such as oranges or lemons. A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present. A moderate spice aroma (from actual spice additions and/or yeast-derived phenols) complements the other aromatics. When phenolics are present they tend to be peppery rather than clove-like. A low to moderate sourness or acidity may be present, but should not overwhelm other characteristics. Spice, hop and sour aromatics typically increase with the strength of the beer. Alcohols are soft, spicy and low in intensity, and should not be hot or solventy. The malt character is light. No diacetyl.
  • Appearance Often a distinctive pale orange but may be golden or amber in color. There is no correlation between strength and color. Long-lasting, dense, rocky white to ivory head resulting in characteristic “Belgian lace” on the glass as it fades. Clarity is poor to good though haze is not unexpected in this type of unfiltered farmhouse beer. Effervescent.
  • Flavor: Combination of fruity and spicy flavors supported by a soft malt character, a low to moderate alcohol presence and tart sourness. Extremely high attenuation gives a characteristic dry finish. The fruitiness is frequently citrusy (orange- or lemon-like). The addition of one of more spices serve to add complexity, but shouldn’t dominate in the balance. Low peppery yeast-derived phenols may be present instead of or in addition to spice additions; phenols tend to be lower than in many other Belgian beers, and complement the bitterness. Hop flavor is low to moderate, and is generally spicy or earthy in character. Hop bitterness may be moderate to high, but should not overwhelm fruity esters, spices, and malt. Malt character is light but provides a sufficient background for the other flavors. A low to moderate tart sourness may be present, but should not overwhelm other flavors. Spices, hop bitterness and flavor, and sourness commonly increase with the strength of the beer while sweetness decreases. No hot alcohol or solventy character. High carbonation, moderately sulfate water, and high attenuation give a very dry finish with a long, bitter, sometimes spicy aftertaste. The perceived bitterness is often higher than the IBU level would suggest. No diacetyl.
  • Mouthfeel: Light to medium body. Alcohol level can be medium to medium-high, though the warming character is low to medium. No hot alcohol or solventy character. Very high carbonation with an effervescent quality. There is enough prickly acidity on the tongue to balance the very dry finish. A low to moderate tart character may be present but should be refreshing and not to the point of puckering.
  • Overall Impression: A refreshing, medium to strong fruity/spicy ale with a distinctive yellow-orange color, highly carbonated, well hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity.
  • Comments: Varying strength examples exist (table beers of about 5% strength, typical export beers of about 6.5%, and stronger versions of 8%+). Strong versions (6.5%-9.5%) and darker versions (copper to dark brown/black) should be entered as Belgian Specialty Ales (16E). Sweetness decreases and spice, hop and sour character increases with strength. Herb and spice additions often reflect the indigenous varieties available at the brewery. High carbonation and extreme attenuation (85-95%) helps bring out the many flavors and to increase the perception of a dry finish. All of these beers share somewhat higher levels of acidity than other Belgian styles while the optional sour flavor is often a variable house character of a particular brewery.
  • Ingredients: Pilsner malt dominates the grist though a portion of Vienna and/or Munich malt contributes color and complexity. Sometimes contains other grains such as wheat and spelt. Adjuncts such as sugar and honey can also serve to add complexity and thin the body. Hop bitterness and flavor may be more noticeable than in many other Belgian styles. A saison is sometimes dry-hopped. Noble hops, Styrian or East Kent Goldings are commonly used. A wide variety of herbs and spices are often used to add complexity and uniqueness in the stronger versions, but should always meld well with the yeast and hop character. Varying degrees of acidity and/or sourness can be created by the use of gypsum, acidulated malt, a sour mash or Lactobacillus. Hard water, common to most of Wallonia, can accentuate the bitterness and dry finish.
  • Vital Statistics: OG: 1.048 – 1.065 IBUs: 20 – 35 FG: 1.002 – 1.012 SRM: 5 – 14 ABV: 5 – 7%
  • Commercial Examples: Saison Dupont Vieille Provision; Fantôme Saison D’Erezée - Printemps; Saison de Pipaix; Saison Regal; Saison Voisin; Lefebvre Saison 1900; Ellezelloise Saison 2000; Saison Silly; Southampton Saison; New Belgium Saison; Pizza Port SPF 45; Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale; Ommegang Hennepin
References: Information about this article on Belgian Saison was adapted from the BJCP style guidelines for 2008, and the book Brewing Classic Styles 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, written by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, the Beersmith Home Brewing blog entry Saison Beer – Belgian Farmhouse Ale Recipes written by Brad Smith on October 8, 2010, and the webpage on Saison DuPont from belgianexperts.com.

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