Saison as we know it today is quite true to its roots, retaining its character as a rustic, unpretentious and somewhat unruly brew. It is still mostly brewed in modest farmhouse breweries that blend in well with the local culture and architecture. At least one is an operating farm, in addition to a brewery. Yet another can claim to be the only operating steam-powered brewery in the world.
Hence, this quaint, anachronistic style of ale precedes many of the tight and detailed classifications that we now use to pigeonhole almost every beer. Today’s saisons share many things. They are rambunctious, frenetic at first, in both aroma and flavor; they exhibit an earthy quality like few other brews; and they are usually bottle conditioned. Saison is also categorically pliant: its brewers making their own version at their own whim. Most saisons range from 5 percent alcohol on the low end, to as high as 8 percent. Their color traverses the spectrum from full gold to reddish-amber.
The majority of the malt grist is pale or pilsner malt, accounting for all of the malt in some of the golden saisons. Occasionally, wheat is used. Darker malts, like Vienna, Munich, aromatic, and caramel are also utilized, but would comprise a minority of the grist. The amber varieties of saison would get some of their color from these character malts. Munich malt especially contributes a rich malty flavor and aroma, with a little extra mouthfeel. While saisons are in general fairly crisp, they do present a tangible mouthfeel that assuages any impression of thinness.
Augmenting the refreshing side of saison’s multiple personalities is the bountiful tally of hops. Almost exclusively, traditional and noble continental hop varieties from England (Kent Goldings), eastern Europe (Styrian Goldings), and Germany (Hallertau) are used, often in combination. The hop blending can add even more complexity to a beer that seems intent on such expression. Hop character is usually very noticeable as a resinous, herbal, and earthy quality and is complimentary to the malt backbone.
As with most Belgian beers, yeast imparts its own footprint on the beer. In the case of saison, the yeast is often a very flavorful one, contributing many subtle notes. Combinations of yeast may be employed. There might even be an influence from some wild organisms. While most saison breweries use their own house yeast, there is no mistaking the similarities among the different brands. Perhaps some of them share a regional ancestor, or the method and conditions of fermentation have helped develop the unusual underpinning contributed by the yeast.
Being bottle conditioned, saisons age gracefully. They can become winey, tart, dry and nuanced beyond belief. Young saisons smell and taste fresh and somewhat soft, rich with the aroma of hops and malt.
Some saison brewers strive to make their product even more distinctive with some personal flair. The use of spices—running the gamut from sweet orange peel to pepper to ginger—is not uncommon. One brewer adds one or more fruit juices to the brew.