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).
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.
But how do you pronounce Saison? The word 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" ales, brewed in most of the farmhouses in the Wallonia area.
This style was 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 re-ferment.
These beers were also well hopped to help with the long storage period. Traditionally they were only moderately high in alcohol by today's standards and came in at 3-4% ABV. The beer 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 versions are still made the artisanal way, in small farmhouse style breweries. They are quite a popular attraction for Belgium's growing tourist
The Style Today and Saison DuPont:
But the quintessential Saison has to be Saison DuPont. It is described here from the importer's website as "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.
There is no correlation between strength and color. Pale versions are likely to be more bitter and have more hop character, while darker versions tend to have more malt character and sweetness with more balance.
Stronger versions will often have more malt flavor, richness, and body mainly due to their higher gravity. Although they do tend to be very well-attenuated, they may not be perceived to be as dry as standard-strength saisons due to their strength.
The yeast character is a must, although maltier and richer versions will tend to mask this character more. These beers are often called Farmhouse ales in the US, but this term is not common in Europe where they are simply part of a larger grouping of artisanal ales.
To brew one yourself, the most important factor will be getting the proper attenuation. A good version of this beer 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 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 recipes. Most of the spices are added to the stronger versions, but be your own judge and make what you like.
References: Information about this article was adapted from the BJCP style guidelines for 2008 and 2015, 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 SaisonDuPont from belgianexperts.com.
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