Flavors of the Countryside
In his magisterial The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver wrote that if he were forced to drink just one beer style with food for the rest of his life it would be a Wallonian saison. Such a sense of certainty makes perfect reasoning when you ask him what he means by a saison and hear his liberal interpretation: “In my mind, there are really only a few things truly required of a saison. It must be dry—residual sugar would have a considerable effect on the beer’s ability to keep through the summer. They should also be fairly hoppy. Moderate alcohol, 5 to 7 percent, would make them strong enough to last for a while, but not so strong that they’d stun the farm workers who drank it. So perhaps it is not a style that lends itself to orthodoxy, but rather one that originally existed to answer a question—‘What can I brew that’s nutritious, refreshing, tasty and will last for at least a year in the cellar?”’
That’s the problem with this beer—every brewer has their own idea of saison. So to get a sense of its origins and its near-amorphous sense of being, it rewards one to travel to the province of Hainault in Belgium’s Wallonia. This is prime saison country: a landscape of flat fields upon which cattle graze and stalks of ripening corn and sheaves of wheat wave in the gentle breeze. Farmhouses dot the landscape, places where farm workers once gathered the hay, working up a thirst, which a bottle or two of home-brewed saison would quench.
Southwards across the border into France was traditionally the country of bière de garde, amber-colored and malt-accented, while here, the local beer tended to be light in color, low in alcohol and high in hops. In the years leading up to World War II, these saisons were produced towards the end of the brewing season and fermented in wooden barrels. They possessed a marked bitterness, used no added sugar and were exceedingly refreshing.
In the postwar years, saisons became stronger, drifting away from their roots. Nowadays most saisons start at a robust 5.5 percent and continue upwards. However, in the past few years the beers of the saison family (grasping a firm definition is as difficult as wrestling with a ghost) have been undergoing a new revolution. Brewers both in Wallonia and further afield have kept saison’s essential nature (refreshing, golden-amber, hoppy) but used it as a template for innovation.
Keeping to Tradition
Tourpes is a village in the middle of saison country. It is home to Brasserie Dupont, one of the most venerable of saison breweries. The 6.5 percent Saison Dupont defines the beer style for many: dry and restrained in sweetness, with a nose boosted by a resiny hoppiness. It contains no spices or herbs and Pilsner malt anchors the base with a trio consisting of Belgian, English and Slovenian hops providing the seasoning while it gets a 90-minute boil in a directly fired cooper. Fermentation is a week in enclosed flat-bottomed vessels. “They are new but based on the old traditions,” says Managing Director Olivier Dedeycker. “We want more esters produced by this equipment.”
This is followed by a week’s maturation in horizontal tanks, culminating in filtration and the addition of sugar and new yeast before it goes straight into bottles. During this period of secondary fermentation, the bottles are left for six to eight weeks. “Saison Dupont is brewed the way it was 20 years ago,” says Dedeycker. His family has owned this brewery since 1920, when they bought the farm along with the traditional brewery. The farm has long since merged into the brewery.
Dedeycker is a passionate champion of saison and has clear views on what classifies this style. “From my point of view it is a historical beer, so if you want to brew it the right way, then respect the way the beer was always brewed.” Talking further with him, it is clear he would like a saison appellation, in similar vein to the one that governs Kölsch. However, there’s just one problem. “There’s no description of the saison style,” he says.
Taking a glance around the world of saison seems to confirm his view. Some, like Dupont, eschew spices, others don’t. On a visit to Dany Prignon’s brewery at Fantôme, I was presented with his saison, dark orange and hazy, bittersweet, with hints of orange peel and star anise. “Is there coriander in it?” I asked. “I don’t remember,” said Prignon disarmingly. Some are sweet (Saison de Silly seems to have swapped the deep tones of a Burgundian earthiness I noted in 2005 for high, shrill sweet notes in its current incarnation) and others are bone dry.
A Summer Beer with Seasonal Roots
At Brasserie de Cazeau I discover another interpretation, this time with elderflowers. The village of Cazeau is north of Tournai, and close to the French border. Just like Dupont, the brewery is situated in the midst of a rural heartland, on an eighteenth-century farm complete with arched gateway. Fields of maize, wheat and potatoes (and elderflowers) surround the brewery/farm, and there are long-term plans to grow hops and barley. Until the late 1960s it was the home of a brewery run by the father of founder Laurent Agache.
ﾒMy father said I was crazy when I restarted brewing,” says Agache, “but now he is very glad I did.” His regular beers are Tournay Blonde and Noire, but for three weeks of the year, between May and June, he produces the 5 percent Saison Cazeau, a sprightly brew with real elderflower character. “The flowers are cut on the morning of a brewing day,” he says, “and then put in at the end of the boil. We use two hops which work well together with the elderflower.” I ask him why he calls it a saison. “Because it is brewed for summer,” he replies. “It is different from other saisons because it is only done seasonally, which in my opinion is what a saison should be. It would be better if saison went back to its traditional seasonal roots.”
Given the global nature of craft brewing, it is no surprise that saison is no longer confined to Wallonia. Take the vibrant and experimental craft-brewing sector in Italy. A visitor to the Piedmontese village of Piozzo, where Teo Musso weaves his magic at Le Baladin, will encounter Wayan, his light and subtle take on the style. This has 19 different ingredients, including various spices, and Musso tells me, “I make a different one every two years and contaminate the beer with lacto-bacteria and then bottle and secondary ferment.”
Further north, on the Swiss border, the restlessly experimental Beppe Vento makes Saison du Bi-Du: lemon grass, juniper berries and coriander seeds go into the boil. In Switzerland itself, Brasserie Trois Dames brew several saisons on a theme, including one that is dry-hopped and another with raspberries.
What is a Real Saison?
The saisons of American craft brewers naturally follow their own path: Victory’s 2008 V-Saison was reminiscent of a dessert wine kept in line by hops, while Boulevard Brewing’s Saison-Brett lets Brettanomyces strut its funky stuff. Such developments suggest that saison is a moveable feast, a beer style without boundaries. “That’s the 10 million dollar question: what is a ‘real’ saison?” asks Phil Markowski, author and Southampton Publick House’s brewmaster.
His Saison Deluxe is a close cousin of Dupont (pineapple and pepper on nose, flinty, creamy, honeyed and dry on palate, Long Island meets Hainault). “You could argue it is a special brew, perhaps brewed on a farm, made for a particular season, perhaps with ingredients that echo a particular time of year. They are hard to define and that is essentially the point. Saison is loose, full of individual expression, the ‘anti-style’ beer style.”
Or as Bob Sylvester at Saint Somewhere considers saison more of a brewing philosophy or process than a style. He explains “Saison Dupont has come to be the standard-bearer for saisons and while I enjoy it, I am really drawn to the more rustic and spiced versions from Pipaix [Vapeur], Fantôme and the like. These breweries were the inspiration for our Saison Athene. Is it authentic? I’d like to think so, although we get a lot of criticism here in the US for the use of chamomile, rosemary and black pepper.” He insists that the amount of spices added to the kettle is minimal and complement the esters being produced by the yeast.
“To truly grasp the spirit of Belgian brewing is to stretch the boundaries, break them even, he continues. “Most Belgian brewers scoff at brewing ‘to style.’ If everyone brewed to style there would be only one beer: bland!”
Boulevard’s Steven Pauwels broadly agrees with this philosophical approach. “We started brewing Saison-Brett out of respect for a ‘lost’ beer. Having said that, I agree that the term saison is used very loosely both in the US and in Belgium. Line up the Belgian saisons and you get a wide range of beers—sweet caramel forward, low in alcohol, to dry, spicy, fairly high-in-alcohol beers. My idea of a saison is a dry, earthy, thirst-quenching beer that you can enjoy on a hot day. Just like the traditional beer would, or could, have been.”
The Minority Brew
All this activity on the saison-brewing front is heartening, given that in the mid-1990s Michael Jackson thought that saisons might become extinct. However, the beer is still very much a minority brew in its home country. Dupont’s bestseller is its blonde ‘super saison’ Moinette, though Saison Dupont sells well in the United States, as does Brasserie Blaugies’ Saison d’Epeautre which is brewed with the spelt.
This hasn’t kept newer breweries from brewing their own adaptations. Jandrain-Jandrenouille’s IV Saison goes U.S. craft with Cascade hops, while Saison de la Senne blends a low-alcohol saison with lambic, a process that Pauwels points out would have been very traditional on farms. “I don’t think that there is any authenticity in brewing a saison with Brett as we do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some had a tart or sour finish given that they were brewed on a farm with a high probability of Brettanomyces being present.” There are even Flemish interpretations: for instance, Glazen Toren’s magnificent Saison d’Erpe Mere.
Twenty-five years after it was first brought to the attention of the wider beer-drinking world, saison, whether Wallonian, Flemish, Piedmontese or American, remains an elusive beast. It has its perimeters, seemingly wide and forever shifting, something which allows brewers to make their own mark. However, the most heartening thing about it is that nearly 15 years after Jackson’s gloomy thoughts on its future it is very much alive. As Dedeycker remarks when I ask him about the prospects for saison’s future, “I believe that within two years the public will be interested in it again. Saison is typical for this part of Belgium and people are becoming more aware of it as more brewers join in.”
Saison: a beer for our times?