After much reflection and a few bottles of tasty tasty research, I decided that saison would kick off my beer styles spotlight series. I was initially going to write about pilsener but fate conspired against me. Actually, I’ve been working on a new saison recipe recently, so I have been reading a lot about the style. I had to tell somebody about it, right? I want to preface this entire post by saying that if saison intrigues you, you need to get your hands on the holy manuscript that is Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. Markowski is the brewmaster at Southampton Publick House on Long Island, and knows his shit when it comes to saison, as well as biere de garde which he also covers in the book. I may have done some field research of my own (read: drinking all the Fantome that I can get my hands on) but Markowski’s work informs a lot of what I’m going to say here. Garret Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table is another book worth reading if you are interested in style histories and pairing beer with food. I’ll be doing plenty of re-reading of it when writing these style spotlights. Oliver is the man, and covers pretty much every classic style out there.
Saison is first and foremost the French word for “season”. Saison the beer is most likely a golden to orange colored beer of average to above average strength that has a distinctively fruity yeast profile and a dry finish. It might be funky or sour. It might be on the hoppy side, but will probably not display hop bitterness on a level that you might expect if you are a fan of American pale ales or IPAs. It might be spiced with some random stuff, though maybe that’s just the yeast producing those flavors. The main criteria is that it should be refreshing and drinkable; always finishing dry, but full of flavor and most important of all, character. That is the idea of saison, and it is completely possible to brew beers that are dark, spiced up the wazoo, flavored with any matter of oddball fruits, or somehow beyond the basic guidelines but still fall under the style in its most basic spirit. Saison is a fun beer for brewers, and is often a good window into their personality as a brewer, reflecting their influences and indulgences.
Saison traces its origins to the farms of Wallonia, the French-speaking southern part of Belgium. It was here that it developed as a refreshing and nourishing drink for the saisoners, or farmhands that worked the fields. Most farms would brew their own beer so that they could ensure a healthy supply of beer for their thirsty workers. Brewing was rustic and born of necessity. Brewers tended to use whatever they had available local to them as ingredients including various grains and sugars, and fermentation was probably by a mix of cultures including wild yeasts and some lactic acid bacteria. The old saisons have been compared to lambic in their tart, acidic flavor profile. The beers were likely to be lower in alcohol content, meant to refresh and sustain, not inebriate.
Modern brewing science has done a lot to change the flavors of beer. Since the invention of single culture fermentation in the 19th century, the flavors of beer have mostly become cleaner and lost the acidity that many displayed from lactic fermentation and wild yeast strains such as brettanomyces. The farmhouse breweries of Wallonia were late to adopt modern practices, but most of these brewers are gone in the present day, replaced by dedicated breweries that may or may not follow any of the traditional practices to varying degrees. Many modern saisons are fermented from pure ale yeast cultures and do not display the sour character of saisons past. Even so, saison yeast is one of the quirkiest and most flavorful strains (or family of strains) out there, and is most often the main driver of the beer’s character. All manners of fruity and spicy aromatics are often produced by these yeasts as they undertake fermentation at unusually high temperatures. Strength has also tended to increase over time, with improved attenuation also playing a part in higher alcohol content in modern versions. While saisons in the past were typically under 5%ABV, modern commercial examples tend to start in that range and commonly get up around 6-7%ABV. Some saison producers make specialty ales that hit the 8-9%ABV range, which have been called “super saisons” by some enthusiasts and writers.
Brasserie Dupont makes what is widely considered to be the classic example of the style coming out of Belgium: Saison Dupont. At 6.5%ABV, it hits about the median of the style, and expresses a huge bouquet of fruit and spice from the fermentation, as well as pleasant hop aroma and grainy pilsener malt. The flavor is bone dry, with a peppery, fruity, and lightly hoppy finish. Dupont bottles it primarily in corked Champaign bottles, carbonating it to a high level through natural yeast fermentation in the bottle. They don’t use spices in their beers, instead letting their expressive yeast strain provide all the necessary spicy and fruity character through an incredibly hot fermentation that has more in common with red wines than most beers. For the christmas season, Dupont also makes a “super saison” called Avec les Bons Voeux, which shares many characteristics of its smaller sibling, but ramped up into strong ale territory. Popping a bottle is a great way to celebrate during the holidays.
My personal favorite brewer of Saison is Brasserie Fantome, located in Soy, Belgium. Their flagship beer, simply called Fantome Saison is on the strong side of the style at 8%ABV, but still manages the dry, hoppy, refreshing profile that you would expect in the style. Taking the opposite road as Dupont with regards to spicing, Fantome throws spices in almost all of its beers. They brew a special saison for each season, (Printemps, Ete, Autome, and Hiver) as well as several other specialties that all broadly fall under the saison family, with each one using any manner of oddball fruits or spices. One of my favorites is Pissenlit, which is a light colored saison brewed with dandelion flowers. Fantome embodies the character of farmhouse brewing to its full extent. Each beer is full of unique character, but the house yeast provides an identifiable signature that lets you know you are drinking beers from the same brewer. Fantome’s saisons often display a tart, funky character from a mix of wild as well as regular ale yeast that gets stronger with more time in the bottle. You are never exactly sure what you are going to get when you open a bottle, but that is definitely part of the allure for fans.
Although saison is a Belgian style, many of the best examples being made today are coming from American craft brewers who have taken to the style with great enthusiasm. The free-flowing framework of saison is very similar to the brewing philosophies of many American brewers, and the style seems to be finding new energy at their hands. One of the most popular and widely available is Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. A dry, spicy, and relatively clean example of the style, it is pretty easy to find and a good starting point if you are just getting acquainted with the style. Boulevard Brewing Company out of Kansas City Missouri makes an outstanding strong saison titles simply, “Saison-Brett” as a nod to the use of the wild yeast strain brettanomyces during finishing; this gives the beer a dusty, funky, and lightly tart profile that is somewhat reminiscent of Fantome. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales from Dexter, Michigan is perhaps the American brewery that most strongly reflects the Belgian farmhouse tradition. All of their beers are produced with open fermentation and see time in oak barrels where they pick up a distinctive mix of wild yeast and bacteria character that gives them a powerful signature. Bam Biere is one of their flagships and is an incredibly flavorful and refreshing saison that falls into the traditional range at only 4.5%ABV. The mix of woody and wild elements is subject to variation, and sourness develops with some time in the bottle, giving the beer a puckering and refreshing finish.
Being a California native, I have to give some credit to a few local brewers who are pumping out excellent saisons. The Lost Abbey down in North County San Diego has in recent years gained a reputation as one of the strongest American saison producers. Their standard saison, Red Barn, is a particularly peppery take on the style. Carnivale, a spring seasonal, is brewed with a mix of American hops and bottled with brettanomyces, giving it a fruity, funky profile. They even produce a strong, dark saison called 10 Commandments that stretches the definitions of the style, but still brings the true attitude of a farmhouse ale with a mix of citrus peel and rosemary spicing in addition to wild yeast. Placentia’s The Bruery brews two saisons worth seeking out: the copper colored and spicy Saison Rue, and the lighter and refreshing Saison de Lente. One of my absolute favorite saisons is Publication brewed by Russian River up in Santa Rosa. The aroma is one of the most beautiful mixes of fruity yeast, hops, and funky brett character that you will ever meet. It is only available on tap at the brewery and the bars in the Publican’s National Committee, but is well worth seeking out.
Well, that’s about it for saison. These beers are likely to be a bit different if you are just getting your feet wet in the world of craft beer, but are deeply rewarding once you get to know them. The great thing about the style is that its shining example, Saison Dupont, is available at just about every Bevmo and Whole Foods. A truly amazing beer to pair with food, I guarantee that you will fall in love if you try it with a good meal. I hear some of my homebrewed dark saison calling from the fridge… better get on that.