The French word for season, saison, has become a stylistic designation to distinguish a group of beers from Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Today, these historically seasonal ales are brewed year-round. Saisons present a complex character that is both aggressive and subtle. Unmistakably Belgian and unequivocally rustic, they beckon exploration.
Saison as we know it today is quite true to its roots, retaining its character as a rustic, unpretentious and somewhat unruly brew.
Brewing in Wallonia
Belgium is divided into two roughly equal regions along an east-west boundary. Flanders comprises the northern half, and Wallonia, the southern half. Wallonia boasts some world-class breweries, including three of the famous Trappist operations: Orval, Rochefort, and Chimay. Less famous are the secular farmhouse breweries that dot the Wallonian countryside. Like the monastic breweries, they are down to earth, individualistic and quite dedicated to local brewing traditions. They are also responsible for the sole purely Wallonian beer style, saison.
Saison is a relatively old style of beer, not so much for the usual stylistic guidelines like appearance and strength, but for the seasonal constraints under which it was produced. Before refrigeration, Belgian brewers had to brew in cold or cool seasons, as brewing during warm months invited too many inconsistencies and blemished batches. The beer was then stored for the warmer months.
Being brewed on a seasonal basis, these beers, which became known as saison, had to be within a specific strength range. Too strong, and they wouldn’t be a decent thirst quencher. Too weak, they wouldn’t hold up during the storage period. Moderate to medium-strong became the default potency. And, similar to other ales, like IPA, that had to endure prolonged storage, saisons were hopped liberally to combat contamination and add stability.