Saison: Beer of Heavenly Balance
When you get done mowing the lush green lawn that coats the cloud tops all over heaven, of course you’re going to need a beer to drink. And one would think that in that ultimate luxury skybox, a cool, golden, refreshing saison would have to be within easy reach. I know the song says heaven is bare of beer, but this seems to me an impossibility, given heaven’s reputation as the ultimate pleasure dome.
I like to think the Vikings had the right idea along these lines. For them, heaven didn’t just have a beer hall. Heaven was a beer hall.
Saison is an ideal, heavenly beer. I can think of few beer styles that give me more pleasure here on Earth. Crisp yet substantial, fragrantly hoppy, but underlain with a delicate maltiness, saison maintains a hair’s breadth balance among its many aspects. Hovering between weak and strong, hoppy and malty, spiced and straightforward, this beer is what you find in it, yet always adding up to a harmonious whole.
Saison is about as close to homebrew as a commercial product can get. The handful of remaining Belgian saison producers are all very small, and they brew in a traditional, even rustic fashion. The beers are usually bottle conditioned in 750-ml “champagne” type bottles, so there’s really nothing about the style that’s beyond the homebrewer’s range of technique.
Saison is the product of Francophone Belgium, specifically the western part of Hainault province. It has a long provenance as a farmhouse ale, brewed to serve as a fortifying—but not stupefying—thirst quencher for the labors of the summer field. Gravities used to be around 4 degrees Belgian (1040), but have crept up in the last half century. Now they’re at 1048 to 1062, with “speciale” versions going even higher, up to 1085. Nothing would prevent you from doing a barley wine strength interpretation.
Pilsner malt is the main ingredient. A little specialty malt adds complexity without tarnishing the lovely blond glow. Munich, Vienna, or even pale ale malt will round out the flavor. In small amounts—less than 20 percent—they won’t add too much color. I find crystal malt a little too chewy for this style, but some very light crystal might be a good idea if you’re trying to make a mostly extract version, and then, well, let the color be damned. A small amount of malted wheat—about 10 percent—adds a firm, creamy head.
With stronger interpretations, I like to use some sugar. Partially refined sugars, such as turbinado, demerara, piloncillo or jaggery, are great for this purpose, as they contribute another layer of flavor and not just extra alcohol.
Hops should be assertive but not overwhelming. Bitterness levels are usually in the 30 to 45 IBU (international bittering unit) range. All manner of European hops are used in Belgium; Kent Goldings are the signature aroma in at least one commercial saison. I think the spiciness of Saaz also goes well with this style. Northern Brewers, with their firm, neutral character, are my own choice for bittering. I would stay away from high-alpha hops of any kind, as their flavors are likely to be too intrusive.
Spices are a part of the mix, typically at a very subtle and self-effacing level. Orange and coriander are common; other “mystery” ingredients crop up as well, from black pepper to anise seed to “medicinal lichen” (Go to http://www.lichen.com/usetype.html and see if you can sort this one out). I especially like the crisp pepper flavor added by grains of paradise, a once-popular culinary spice with a pungent flavor that’s a blend of white pepper and plywood, with citrus overtones.
What to Use, What Not to Use
You may have read my rant on spices before. Much of the coriander available in the United States reeks strongly of celery seed, which I find very obtrusive in a beer. The type sold at Indian groceries is far superior, and I believe that a nice variety is sold through some homebrew channels.
Seville (usually sold as “sour”) oranges are the best, although they’re hard to find. A mix of regular orange and grapefruit peel can serve as a substitute. I find that the dried peel chunks add an awful lot of pithy bitterness and not enough orange. I just peel (with a potato peeler) the colored outer zest from fresh oranges and add them at the end of the boil.
Mashing is a straightforward infusion. The lower the gravity, the higher the main mash temperature. This will raise the percentage of unfermentables, in keeping with saison’s pedigree as a beer of sustenance. Beers at 1040 IBU should be mashed at around 155 degrees F, dropping down to 152 for beers higher than 1065. An hour should be sufficient to convert.
Saison yeasts are some of Belgium’s most ancient and earthy cultivated yeasts, often with very distinctive personalities. Both Wyeast (3724) and White Labs (WLP 565) produce a saison strain for homebrewers, and I highly recommend their use if you want an authentic taste. If you can’t get your hands on either, try another Belgian strain. Yeast character is such a part of this style that I recommend you not even bother if you can’t come up with a Belgian strain of some sort. Fermentation at the higher end of the temperature range (65 to 70 degrees F) will encourage the development of the rich fruity, aromatic character we’re after.
In the old days, these beers were often a blend of fresh beer with stale, resulting in a crisp lactic tang that counterbalanced the sweet freshness of young beer. This is obviously a difficult thing to do successfully, and as far as I know, even the commercial breweries aren’t doing it any more. Invite lactic acid bacteria into your brewery for a little snack, and the next thing you know, they’re hogging the couch, demanding more batteries for the remote, if you know what I mean. So exercise caution if you go this route.
Less threatening solutions include blending in a bottle of lambic at bottling/kegging time or adding a few milliliters of food grade lactic acid any time in the process.
Randy Mosher is a freelance art and creative director, lecturer, and author of numerous books and articles on beer and brewing.