Saison…say WHAT? This month’s beer investigation brings us to the farmlands of Southern Belgium. The Saison (French for “season”) is a Farmhouse Ale, with an origin story situated in the French-speaking Wallonian countryside in the 1700s. It has been described as a “rustic agrarian beer.”
Fueling the Farm
One could say that the Saison was an early form of fuel on pre-industrialized farms, a crucial component to a productive harvest on the Wallonian farm and in the Wallonian farmhouse. Potable water was often unavailable in these rural areas, so developing a drinkable beverage was essential to the livelihood of the farm, farmers, and workers. Farmers brewed Saisons in the fall so that it would ferment in the winter (pre-refrigeration times and all) and would be ready in the summer. This ale was especially critical during these hot summer months, as seasonal workers (“les saisonniers”) essentially survived on Saisons while tending the crops. These Farmhouse Ales initially had a low ABV, at about 3.5%, in order to quench the thirst of les saisonniers without rendering them le wasted. (You’ll be happy to know that modern Saisons clock in between 5-7.5%.)
Each farm had its own recipe, and so early Saisons varied wildly from one another. There were some similarities, however. Saisons often contained a fair dose of hops, which helped to prevent spoilage, and many contained a slew of spices. Also, many farmers combined the new ale with older Saisons or Lambic fruit beers in order to add acidity to the beer. A funkiness also emerged in many brews, as poor farmers would re-pitch the same yeast every year. Even to date, many consider Saisons to be less of a definitive style, and instead, a collection of refreshing summer ales.
Over time, many of these small farms and farmhouses were converted into small breweries. The production and recipe of Saisons were slightly altered: they became more alcoholic as they were no longer produced for workers, and new spices and ingredients were introduced, such as beet juice and Havana sugar. Saisons became regarded as “regional specialties” as opposed to regional necessities.
Les Saisons Moderne
As farming became industrialized post-WWII, there was little need for les saisonniers on the Wallonian farms. Further, the miracle of refrigeration and drinkable water assuaged the requisite for summer ales. Thus, the production of Saisons petered out in the 1950s, with only a few small, artisanal Belgian breweries continuing the seasonal tradition. However, the popularity, production, and appreciation of Saisons has been resurrected in the last decade. In fact, Saison Dupont by Brasserie Dupont (considered to be the quintessential and model Saison) was named “Best Beer of the Year” by Men’s Journal in 2005. Dozens of American breweries have since experimented with this rustic approach to brewing, either deferring to existing Belgian models (such as the Saison Dupont) or taking the Belgian farmer’s approach to Saisons (i.e., Make It Work).
The French counterpart of the Saison is the Biere de Garde, which is a more robust, maltier brew.
What to expect
Modern Saisons are warm-fermented ales, and are generally unfiltered and bottle-conditioned, and sometimes dry-hopped. They are often brewed with Pilsner malt, and occasionally candi sugar, typical of Belgian ales, are used. Noble, Styrian, and East Kent Goldings hops are the most common in Saisons, creating the style’s characteristic dryness. The yeast strain is often temperamental and produces a tangy taste. As mentioned, there is not one singular recipe for Saisons, but many delicately include herbs and spices (such as pepper, coriander, and orange peel).
Sight: As to be expected, Saisons vary greatly in terms of sight, smell, and taste. Saisons are unfiltered and have a high yeast protein content, which gives them a cloudy, hazy appearance. While the quintessential Saison is light yellow, the color can range from straw to a deep, dark honey color. Most Saisons will produce a large, billowy white head.
Smell: Many Saisons will have a slight phenolic aroma (i.e., banana/bubble gum), like Belgian Tripels or German Hefeweizens. They will vary with the inclusion of different spices. Hops are likely to be detectable, as is a slight sour note.
Taste: Always complex, Saisons are spicy, tangy, sweet, citrusy, tart. American Saisons will be hoppier than their Belgian counterparts.
Feel: Saisons are exceptionally effervescent, with a thin-to-medium body. Some will even evoke the sensation of Champagne. Yes, please.
Saisons are one of the more complex beers out there in our fine world, partially due to the vague, ambiguous style guidelines and partially because of the unique flavor profile. They are sweet, yet tangy, and some are quite hoppy. The incredibly appealing mouthfeel and refreshing citrusness make the Saison the perfect beer to transition into summer, whether you’re lounging or working in the field.