The Season for Saison
Warm weather presents something of a dilemma for brewers, as yeast is wont to misbehave under high temperatures. Rather than letting the brewhouse lie fallow, use this period to brew saison, the seasonal, quirky farmhouse brew of Wallonia in southern Belgium. Modern saison differs from its historical counterparts in some ways, and with regard to yeast, this works to the brewer’s advantage.
They were originally brewed during cooler months, taking full advantage of the harvest bounty, and put down until summer as a refresher and restorative. Saison yeast available today is quite tolerant of high temperatures, and do their finest work between 68 degrees F and 85 degrees F, depending on the strain. Since harvest larder of all manner was put to use in the production of saison, the “style” had a broad spectrum of interpretation amongst villages and farms depending on what they had at hand.
The 19th century saw farmhouse brewing dwindle to some degree, but also served to reformulate saisons for commercial enterprise, sculpting them into the variety that we love today. Still rustic, agrarian and individualistic in nature, saison offers a chance like no other beer to put a personal stamp on what is largely an interpretive style. Add to that the unique yeast strains, and one is left with a virtual oasis of brewing opportunity in an otherwise inactive time. With this in mind, they can be designed to consume lively, fresh and young, or aged, with excellent development of complexity.
Though open to whimsy, it would be wise to at least pay some passing attention to style parameters, as one would with any attempt at style. A sampling of popular and reverential examples will indeed show a wide breadth of artistic fancy and some similarities. Saisons are golden to amber in color, with burnished gold or pale orange considered the classic, distinctive cast. Saison is effervescent, with a billowing, lacy head; of moderate strength and full attenuation. Aromatically busy, saison is spicy from either the yeast and/or addition of spices, and also carries a firm, herbal hop character. The estery nose is reminiscent of tart, citrus fruit.
Saison benefits from bottle conditioning, adding to its farmhouse charm, as this adds complexity and texture, and some additional earthiness. A light-to-medium body and mouthfeel gives quenching ability, as does the lively carbonation, and sometimes a hint of sourness. The flavor of saison is as varied as the brewers who make them, a manifestation of individuality and creativity, an intricate tapestry whose sum is greater than the parts, and with no particular ingredient or facet dominating.
The malt character can be crisp and lithe or softly toasted, the hops evident without overwhelming, and any spice addition used to suggest rather than to bombard. The yeast footprint should provide some phenolic or peppery notes and a musty or earthy finish, and can itself impart loads of character.
The malt bill, extract or grain, need not be complicated to produce an excellent saison. For all-grain brewers, base malts are all that is necessary, as boil time and mash temperature can be used to provide additional mouthfeel and color. Nevertheless, dark versions (full amber) would graciously accept a small measure of medium caramel malt. Depending on the desired color, pilsner, two-row or pale ale malt alone, or blended with Vienna or Munich malt is the strategy that I’ve employed for all of my saisons.
Vienna malt meshes perfectly with the yeast and spice additions, and gives a light copper hue to the wort. Munich malt adds a touch of toasty maltiness and amber color to fuller versions of saison, though it would be best to keep the measure below 20 percent. Keep in mind that a prolonged boil of 90 minutes or more would contribute some caramelization if desired.
Additional varieties of malted, flaked or raw grains are quite at home in saison, adding their own flavor, heading qualities and especially that notion of farmhouse-brewed ale. Traditional brewing grains like wheat, rye and oats would be logical and authentic choices of course, but there’s no reason you couldn’t tailor a recipe with any cereal grain.
For those using extract, all but the palest of saisons can be brewed, though they will need a measure of character malt for body and depth. Dextrine malt and carapils would be the best option for pale saison, and caramel or crystal malt for copper to amber recipes. Munich, amber or wheat malt extract are also excellent options. Remember that any cereal grain needs to gelatinized and/or mashed to get any appreciable and desirable effect.
Though all-malt recipes are the norm, some are made with kettle additions of sugar. Virtually any kind of sugar or honey, if selected carefully, will accent nicely. Varietal honey and sugars such as Belgian dark and light candy, turbinado or even something like agave syrup might be worth exploring. Gravities of commercial saison generally range from OG 1050 to 1065, but certainly bigger ones would be great for keeping.
Those earthy, herbal varieties of hops are best for saison. Styrian and East Kent Goldings and noble Saaz, Tettnang and Hallertau are prime choices, and get along famously when blended. The soft, musty aroma and hint of floral resin is unmistakably Old World and exceptional in traditional European recipes. American hops, along with domestic malt and cereal grain, would offer an ideal opportunity to concoct an American-inspired saison. Bittering rates should be commensurate with the original wort gravity at 25 to 35 IBU.
Spices are optional, but common in saison, and should be used for subtle complexity rather than featured. Coriander, peppercorn, grains of paradise, star anise, ginger and lemongrass are spices that I’ve used in combination, at about ¼ to ½ ounce per spice per five gallons. Fresh herbs would be an interesting slant also. To enhance the aroma fully, grind or prepare them right before use, and add at the end of the boil. At least five saison yeast strains are offered by White Labs and Wyeast Laboratories, so there should be something for any condition and preference.
Saison is by far one of the most enjoyable brews to investigate, and appropriately, can be made to suit any season. Brew a brisk one for summer, and a keeper for fall, winter and spring.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.