Seasonal brews are in no short supply these days, but often we forget that seasonal brewing was once done out of necessity, framed by a limited period of agreeable conditions, and future consideration of sustenance. The style we know today as saison is a reminder of these bygone practices. French for “season,” saison was brewed under the suitable auspices of autumn through early spring, and laid down through the searing wrath of summer. They were reawakened in late summer to nourish and refresh harvest laborers and consumed well into fall and winter.
A component in the finish that is hard to describe is an impression of damp, rich organic earth, that bit of terroir often found in bottle-conditioned Belgian beers and a fitting, symbolic exclamation point in saison.
Saisons exhibited a utilitarian duality: lean enough to slake a heavy thirst, yet robust enough to fend off spoilage and revitalize the weary. Highly individualistic, saison is the quintessential artisanal brew, with loose interpretations relative to other styles. Today’s versions are more robust than the ancestors, but pay proud homage to their rustic roots. Ten years ago saison might have been considered a rare lineage of brews, but that is no longer the case. Saison production is on the upswing, from its homeland of Wallonia, Belgium, to the ever-rambunctious microbreweries of North America: a welcome and exhilarating trend for sure.
Saison is a remnant of centuries-past, rural Belgian farmhouse ales common to French-speaking Wallonia, especially in the west, and parts of Flanders. There, softly-contoured flatlands and fields of rich, dark soil buoyed prosperous agrarian communities where wheat, oats, buckwheat, spelt and barley were cultivated and included in indigenous brews. Malting was often done on site, but raw grains were also commonly used.
Each farm or cooperative made their own distinctive brew. Often farmers shared equipment and brewhouses, and pooled resources, ideas and skill to make communal concoctions. Imagine the personalized touch. Competent brewing ensured that a bumper batch of beer could be made if one crop or another was not up to snuff, lending even more variability to the native brews.
Centuries ago, beers were spiced with locally grown or culled herbs and botanicals, referred to collectively as gruit. Naturally, this would have varied regionally or locally, based on availability or preference. A thousand years ago, hops began replacing gruit in much of continental Europe, and almost entirely by the sixteenth century. Belgian brewers, though, often used hops alongside their herbal mixtures.
As trade increased, exotic spices partially replaced locally procured botanicals. Brewers employed hops as an essential ingredient for its pleasant balancing flavor and, as importantly, antiseptic qualities. This was, after all, a beer for keeping, and liberal use of hops quashed microbial invaders and infused that bitter, resinous background. One of the earliest significant hop growing regions in Europe straddled modern day France and Belgium (Poperinge and Ypres), essentially overlapping the seminal origins of French and Belgian farmhouse ales, including the sibling of saison, French bière de garde.
Every brewing region in the world made provisional beers during the centuries before refrigeration. Brewers essentially followed the blueprint of brewing in the cooler months to temper undesirable fermentation byproducts and keep bugs at bay. It was undertaken for a variety of reasons: to sequester nutrients and calories; make potentially lethal water potable; drive the modest, agrarian lifestyle and economy and offer a daily diversion. It was provisionally vital to the working class: in rural Belgium, this meant the villagers, farmers and seasonal farmhands (saisonniers).
The backbreaking labor dictated that special consideration be given to the beer offered to saisonniers. Like their English counterparts, Belgian farmhouse brewers made brews of differing strengths (the weakest were used as table beers), but the strongest farmhouse ales rarely exceeded 5 percent ABV. Often consumed throughout the day, casks were kept cool in streams or by nestling them in shaded soil. Tipsy, dehydrated farm hands would be counterproductive to efficient harvesting, and effectively reduce the work force. Toeing the line on nourishment, refreshment, and thirst-quenching was ingeniously necessary. The strongest of the bunch were robust enough to keep for months, or until they were needed for harvest. A lactic character upon aging would have augmented their refreshing nature.
As brewing moved off the farms and into commercial hands, farmhouse ale producers made use of the tiny country buildings as breweries. They were still produced with painstaking local sensibilities and flavor, and individualistic whim was highly valued. Year-round brewing (thanks to refrigeration) and bottling became more common. Perhaps the availability of Champagne bottles helped shape the shape the effervescence of saison. They were no longer brewed exclusively for farm hands and everyday family consumption, but as regional “specialties” as well. Often an existing, traditional recipe was retained, but the gravity was increased up to as much as 8 percent. Dosage with local beet sugar or exotic cane “Havana” sugar offered a lively and complex brew.
Farmhouse brews met the same fate that other regional specialties did in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Macro-brewing, imports and the infatuation with pale lagers shoved smaller operations aside, if only by making indigenous products seem unglamorous (imagine that!). The two World Wars cut even more into the quaint brew houses. Nonetheless, a smattering survived until after the war and Belgian saison made an unhurried comeback. Modern technology allowed single proprietary yeast, or blends thereof, and a consistent product, but brewers kept all of the charm and character of traditional farmhouse ales. That fragile hold on market share remained for 50 years, until the most recent renaissance.
A Brew For All Seasons
Though precisely defining saisons is problematic, they are, in essence, a perfect definition of Belgian brewing philosophy, and an epiphany to many. Restraint is a relative notion, but they are tethered tenaciously enough to their collective pastoral past to share some stylistic similarities. This family of beers is less like a “style,” and more like kindred souls. They share that uniquely Belgian spirit of unashamedly borrowing from others to craft their masterpiece. Malts from Germany, Belgium and France, and hops from virtually every producer in Europe can find their way into the recipe, as can personalized spice blends. Pilsner-style malts dominate the grain bill, but Vienna, Munich and aromatic varieties can add some juicier malt character and color. They are usually all-malt, but odd examples feature a less common brewing grain or candi sugar.
Saisons can be gold to copper, but the unique orange-tinted versions are considered classics. A billowing, rocky head speckled with yeast and a slight haziness is conventional, being unfiltered and bottle conditioning in corked 750 ml bottles. Hops are chosen for their earthy, spicy and floral qualities, and various combinations of East Kent and Styrian Goldings, Czech Saaz and German noble varieties do rather nicely. While not considered an overly hoppy brew, saison should present a firm hop backdrop with a lending noticeably to the aromatic milieu. Proprietary yeasts may share an ancestor in some cases, but in any event, they are robust, aggressive and prominent in the sensory tapestry with woodsy, zesty, fruity and phenolic contributions. Musty notes may in fact come from secondary Brettanomyces fermentation.
Saison takes a back seat to no other brew when it comes to overall complexity. The nose is rife with spice and fruit, the former an artifact of the yeast or actual spice additions, or both, and the latter a definite product of yeast and the modern practice of fermenting quickly at warm temperatures. Spice additions may include peppercorns, coriander, ginger, anise and bitter orange, but are not limited to those. Given the nature of the yeast, it is often hard to tell which have been spiced. Faint clove, vanilla and banana may also be present, reminiscent of German weissebier. Often a mild citrus, lactic, or acetic tartness accompanies the aromas.
The hop nose, as described above, is yet another brushstroke. The flavor of saison is always eventful, and fairly mimics the aroma, though it is yet another opportunity to contemplate the handiwork. Highly-attenuated, the mouthfeel should be on the lighter side with some residual fullness and sweetness. The finish is crisp and quenching. Bracing, but not overwhelming hop bitterness ties things together and heightens the finish. A component in the finish that is hard to describe is an impression of damp, rich organic earth, that bit of terroir often found in bottle-conditioned Belgian beers and a fitting, symbolic exclamation point in saison. In short, modern saison is everything its forbears were, simply more hearty. Most will have the designation of saison or farmhouse ale on the label, and many of the best are relatively new. They are exquisite with a diverse array of food.
The popularity of saison is nothing short of remarkable, given its lot just a few years ago. It is yet more evidence that these historical styles are being recognized for what they are, natural and flavorful products that offer a sum much greater than the parts. The bustle surrounding them reaches far, and their versatility and enjoyment knows no season.