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.
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.
Saisons are for adventurous beer drinkers. Conformity within style is not a priority; complexity, be it intentional or natural, is a badge. If you are lucky enough to get some in hand, savor, compare and share them; they are worthy of discussion.
Saisons are usually packaged in corked, 75 cl bottles, adding to the presentation. Saison demands attention from the start; it is a lively pour. If that doesn’t nab you, the aroma should. Serve in a wide-brimmed, stemmed glass to get the full sensual force. Spicy, musty, and fruity, the aroma of a saison is stimulating, and makes you wonder what a taste will reveal. The flavor is just as complex. Saison can resemble lambic with a lightly sour, cellar-like background. The hops, depending on the age, can be starkly bitter or fresh and resiny. No beer is earthier, and a hint of spice is there, leaving one wondering if the yeast or an actual spice is the responsible party.
Saison has been described as a vanishing or endangered style. Several saison-producing breweries remain in Wallonia, however, most of which are conveniently proximal to one another. The Artisan Press publishes an excellent guidebook—The Beers of Wallonia by John Woods and Keith Rigley—that concisely directs the beer traveler to the region’s brews. Many saisons are available via export, including Saison Dupont, Saison de Pipaix, La Foret, Saison de Silly, Fantôme, and Moinette to name a few. Some of them are organic.
In the United States, Hennepin by Ommegang and Southampton Saison by Southampton on Long Island are finely crafted farmhouse ales. The McKenzie Brewhouse of Chadds Ford, PA, makes a saison that is indistinguishable from a Wallonian example.
Drinking saison is like a walk in the woods. At first you notice only the forest, but then you discover the individual trees, and finally the smaller and more discreet inhabitants. Sensory stimulation is everywhere. The subtle notes sit beside the bold notes, each expressing itself. Summer is here, and there are worse ways to laze away an evening than by savoring this intricate and multifaceted brew.