Saison beer, a tradition born in the rustic farmhouses of Belgium, has long intrigued beer aficionados with its complex flavors and artisanal heritage. What makes this effervescent ale a standout choice for those who appreciate craft brewing?
This guide delves into the character that defines saison beer – from its spicy, fruity essence to its highly carbonated, dry finish – exploring how brewers from its Belgian roots to American craft innovators have put their unique stamp on this versatile brew.
- Saison is a traditional, versatile farmhouse ale from southern Belgium, characterized by a complex flavor profile and a very dry finish.
- American craft brewers have enthusiastically adopted the Saison style, creating a diverse array of interpretations with varying ingredients and fermentation methods.
- Saison is a food-friendly beer, pairing well with a variety of cuisines and flavors due to its high carbonation and balanced spice, earthy, and fruity notes.
The Essence of Saison: A Farmhouse Ale Legacy
Saison, a family of traditional beers, was born in Wallonia, southern Belgium. It was initially brewed by and for agricultural laborers, embodying a rustic charm that is increasingly rare in our modern world.
Characterized by its low alcohol content, light body, and high carbonation, traditional saisons are a testament to the skill and creativity of its brewers. Typically boasting a bright golden or amber hue, this farmhouse ale is defined by its distinct Belgian yeast strain, imparting a complex profile of black pepper, fruity, and earthy aromas.
However, pinning down an exact definition for Saison proves to be challenging, as the recipe for this farmhouse ale varied across homesteads, influenced heavily by the raw materials at hand. This rich history of adaptation and improvisation has given Saison a fluid definition, with each brewer contributing their unique interpretation to the legacy of this beer style.
Saisons undergo a highly attenuated fermentation process, reflecting the historical necessity for the brew to last from the cold winter months through the summer harvest, resulting in a very dry finish that is a signature characteristic of the style.
The Belgian Tradition of Saison
A deeper exploration into the Belgian tradition of Saison reveals an ale as diverse in character as the farms where it originated. This pastoral ale, born in the farmhouses of Wallonia, is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its brewers.
The traditional Belgian Saison can contain a variety of ingredients such as:
It typically uses pilsner malt with adjuncts and is hoppier than other Belgian styles, thanks to its pale ale yeast.
Brewers like those at the Weathered Ground Brewery utilize a Belgian/French hybrid yeast strain exclusively for their Saison beers. They incorporate Riverbend Malt, specifically Cumberland Pilsner from Asheville, to create their distinct flavor profile. This beer style has even been influenced by other Belgian beers.
Some brewers take inspiration from the hoppy characteristics of XX Bitter or the complex wild fermentation typical of lambic producers. Belgian Saisons are even packaged in green glass bottles, allowing slight sunlight penetration that imparts a subtly skunky aroma to the hops, a characteristic appreciated in this beer style.
American Saison: Craft Brewers’ Canvas
Upon crossing the Atlantic, American breweries embraced the saison style, infusing their unique attributes to create an array of diverse interpretations. Breweries such as Oxbow and Ale Apothecary are just a few examples of the American craft brewers who have embraced this versatile beer style.
These brewers express their creativity through experiments with local agriculture, diverse hopping, spicing, and fermentation techniques, catering to their unique taste preferences.
This experimentation has led to the creation of American Saisons that boast higher alcohol content and complex flavor profiles, with characteristics like spicy citrusy taste, high carbonation, and a clean finish.
Crafting the Perfect Saison: Ingredients and Techniques
The art of brewing an exquisite Saison hinges on the selection of ingredients and the implementation of precise brewing techniques.
This rustic character of Saison is heavily influenced by the grains used, which traditionally include malted barley, such as six-row winter barley, and adjuncts like flaked wheat, oats, buckwheat, and spelt to create a pale color and smooth mouthfeel.
Earthy and herbal hop character, provided by varieties such as Fuggles and Styrian Goldings, along with possible additions of spices and peels, add complexity to the brew.
The addition of simple sugars, like table sugar or clear Belgian Candi Syrup, is crucial in Saison brewing to promote higher attenuation and a signature dry finish.
Brewers enjoy a significant degree of flexibility in the brewing process, choosing ingredients that align with their personal preferences, which can range across:
- the grist
- fermentation techniques
Pilsner Malt: The Foundation of Flavor
In any traditional pale Saison, Pilsner malt forms the bedrock of flavor. The grain bill of a typical Saison heavily relies on Pilsner malt, with potential augmentation from Vienna and Wheat malts.
This malt doesn’t just give the Saison its pale color, similar to some pale ales. It delivers a clean, crisp flavor, providing an ideal backdrop for its complex character.
In traditional Belgian saisons, Pilsner malt is often the malt of choice, and some breweries opt for floor-malted varieties to introduce a heavier malt character. Pilsner malt plays an instrumental role in creating the signature dry and refreshing nature of a Saison, contributing to its quintessential profile.
Yeast’s Role: From Fermentation to Flavor
Yeast in a Saison plays an understated yet vital role. Not only does it drive fermentation, but it also significantly contributes to the beer’s unique flavor.
Saison beers are known for their ester spice taste, driven predominantly by distinctive local yeast flavors that are:
- can even have a slight tanginess
The high attenuation characteristic of Saison yeast contributes to the beer’s supremely dry finish, creating a lively and effervescent sensory experience.
Wood casks, including red wine barrels, used traditionally in Saison brewing added complexity through Brettanomyces, and the controlled increase in fermentation temperature from around 65°F promotes the development of the desired ester and phenol profiles without aggressive off-flavors.
Saison Dupont: The Gold Standard
If Saison beer were a kingdom, Saison Dupont would undoubtedly wear the crown. This top fermentation beer undergoes refermentation in the bottle, embodying the very essence of a classic Belgian Saison.
Originally brewed during the winter at Brasserie Dupont’s farm-brewery, it was served to field workers in the summer, further cementing its reputation as a true farmhouse ale.
Saison Dupont, with its coppery blond appearance, offers the finest aromas and a pronounced bitterness, setting the gold standard for Saison beers. The selection of yeasts used in Saison Dupont creates the beer’s distinctive aromas and flavors, making it a favorite among beer enthusiasts around the world.
It is designed for prolonged refermentation in the bottle, leading to a complex and aromatic profile. Needless to say, Saison Dupont is often referred to as the classic example of Belgian season beers, embodying the style’s quintessential characteristics.
Saison’s Seasonality and Serving Suggestions
Historically, the brewing of Saisons commenced at the onset of winter, timed perfectly to be consumable by farmers during the sweltering summer months. This seasonality of Saisons offers a balance of drinkability and refreshment, perfectly suited for quenching thirst during long, hot days.
When it comes to serving a Saison, temperature plays a vital role. The beer is best served at a temperature between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, optimizing its flavors and aromatics.
The choice of glassware is equally important. A tulip-shaped glass is often chosen for serving Saison beer, as it helps to focus the aroma and support the beer’s foamy head. The appearance of Saison in the glass can be controlled by pouring slowly and deciding whether to include the yeast sediment, based on preference for a clearer or cloudier beer.
Saison’s higher carbonation levels contribute to a bubbly effervescence and dry mouthfeel, making it a joy to sip on a warm summer day.
Pairing Saisons with Food: A Culinary Adventure
Saison is more than just an ale to be savored in solitude. It’s also a fantastic companion to a variety of foods, thanks to its versatile flavor profile. Saisons can complement robust tastes like barbecued meats, enhancing the flavors with their spicy and earthy notes.
The effervescence and spice profile of Saisons also make them a fantastic partner for spicy cuisines, including:
- Cajun dishes
- Pad Thai
- other Asian specialties
Saisons with aromatic intensity are well-suited to pair with the rich texture and pronounced flavors of certain cheeses, such as Colston Bassett Stilton. They can also highlight the sweetness in saison beers when enjoyed with LaClare Dairy Goat Cheddar.
In contrast, soft ripened cheeses like Burnet with its buttery hazelnut flavors can find a counterbalance in the maltiness of Saison beers, creating a nuanced flavor experience.
Seafood pairings, including bold flavors like grilled salmon with citrus or spicy shrimp, match well with the Saison’s ability to complement without dominating, bringing balance to the richer tastes.
Home Brewing Your Own Saison
The realm of Saison extends beyond the confines of professional brewing. As a home brewer, you too can create your own Saison masterpiece. Using ingredients farmed by the brewery or sourced locally can reflect the Saison’s character based on the season it was brewed.
The basic ingredients for brewing a Saison include:
- pilsner malt
- some wheat
- other pale grains
- European hops like Styrian Golding or East Kent Goldings
- high-quality Belgian Saison yeast.
Mashing for a Saison can be done at 152°F, but some brewers opt for a lower temperature around 147-148°F to achieve a specific attenuation. Fermentation should be maintained at approximately 80°F to encourage the development of signature pepper and citrus esters, and avoiding large temperature fluctuations during this time is crucial to ensure full attenuation without stalling the yeast.
After primary fermentation completes, allowing the beer to rest, followed by cold crashing and carbonation to 2.75-3 volumes of CO2, creates the characteristic spritzy and effervescent mouthfeel of a good Saison.
Selecting Hops and Spices
Selecting the appropriate hops and spices forms a critical step in brewing a well-rounded Saison. Hops should complement the Saison’s yeast character, not overpower it, as they are the supporting cast to the yeast’s starring role.
Preferred hop choices for Saison include:
- Styrian Goldings
The bitterness level of a Saison should be moderate, with total IBUs around 30 for a beer with an OG of 1.060 and a BU:GU ratio of approximately 0.5. Implementing a hopping schedule that includes bittering hops like Mt. Hood early in the boil and aromatic hops like Willamette and Crystal later can help to maintain a balanced flavor profile.
A strong grasp on the fermentation process is pivotal to the success of a Saison. Open fermentation, using methods such as covering the fermenter with sanitized foil, can help prevent stalls in the fermentation process, a common issue in brewing Saisons.
The characteristic dryness of Saison beer requires high attenuation, typically fermenting to a gravity of 1.004 or lower.
Maintaining a consistent fermentation temperature, ideally around 80°F, is critical to develop the desired flavor profile and achieve a successful fermentation without fluctuations. The shape and size of fermenters, such as using large, open vessels, may contribute to the success of the Saison fermentation process.
The Diverse World of Saison Beer
The universe of Saison beer presents a dynamic mosaic of flavors and styles. Saison beers display a spectrum of strength, varying from a lighter 6 percent to stronger varieties that approach the potency of Belgian Barleywines around 9 percent.
Brewers have considerable latitude in crafting Saison beers, which can range from:
- fruity and spicy
- tart and funky
- earthy and rustic
This wide range of flavors and styles makes Saison beer a versatile and exciting choice for beer enthusiasts, including those who enjoy table beer.
Certain Saisons exhibit a clear golden hue with potential haziness, attributed to specific brewing practices or the use of unique grains and malts. Use of hops like:
- New Zealand’s Motueka
- Pacific Jade
- Pacific Gem
- Sorachi Ace
- Nelson Sauvin
Lemon peel contributes to the diversity in Saison flavor profiles. Jester King Brewery explores new territory with Saison by collaborating with experts like Chef Yoshi Okai and integrating unconventional ingredients such as Sansho pepper.
Experimenting with fermentation, Jester King’s Grim Harvest is aged on blackberries, producing a Saison that integrates flavors from another barrel-aged wild ale.
Casey Brewing and Blending, a farmhouse brewery, emphasizes wood influence in Saisons, aging their farmhouse ales in neutral oak barrels and showcasing the effects of extended maturation. Casey Brewing’s dedication to the craft results in unique offerings like the ‘Wedding Blend,’ a symbol of Saison’s versatility and equity for memorable occasions.
We’ve embarked on a journey through the world of Saison beer, exploring its rich history, diverse flavors, and the artistry involved in brewing this rustic beer. From its origins in the farmhouses of Wallonia, Belgium, Saison has evolved into a canvas for brewers worldwide, each adding their unique interpretation to this timeless brew.
Whether you’re savoring a glass of the classic Saison Dupont, experimenting with homebrewing your own Saison, or exploring the diverse flavors of contemporary Saison beers, one thing is clear – Saison is a testament to the timeless art of brewing.
It embodies a balance of tradition and innovation, rustic charm and refined complexity, making it a truly unique beer style. So, here’s to Saison, a farmhouse ale with a legacy as rich and varied as its flavor profile!
Frequently Asked Questions
What does saison taste like?
Saison beers can taste peppery, sour, and may have flavors of orange zest, lemon zest, and cardamom, with a bone-dry finish.
Is a saison like an IPA?
No, a Saison is not like an IPA. While IPAs are all about the hops, Saisons are about the yeast, resulting in different flavor profiles.
Is saison similar to sour?
Saisons can be sour, but not all of them are. Some saisons have spicy flavors with little to no sourness.
What is the origin of Saison beer?
Saison beer originated in Wallonia, southern Belgium, and was initially brewed for agricultural laborers. It’s a traditional beer with a rich history.
What are the key ingredients in brewing a Saison?
The key ingredients in brewing a Saison are pilsner malt, wheat, pale grains, European hops like Styrian Golding or East Kent Goldings, and high-quality Belgian Saison yeast. Enjoy brewing your own Saison!