Not too long ago, saison was considered rare and somewhat endangered, a stranger to all but the most enlightened. Things couldn’t be more different today. Those from Belgium are rightfully well-regarded, and North American-brewed versions are among the hottest styles. Saison, French for season, is perfectly emblematic of venerable Belgian and flourishing North American brewing culture; individualistic, locally spirited and widely interpretive. Saison, no longer a product of necessity and sustenance, still evokes rustic, unpolished vibrant personality born of agrarian roots.
Saison is the specialty of French-speaking Wallonia, especially the western Province of Hainaut. The region was one of agriculture, villages and farmhouse brewing. The economy was localized, folks making do with what could be cultivated or easily acquired. Imagine the variability from one town or farm to the next, with house character and recipe unique to each.
Brewing was usually done between December and March, when conditions favored relatively predictable fermentation. Immediately after the fall harvest, grain, hops and botanicals were at peak quality, and farmers had time to devote to brewing. Medieval farmhouse or village brews would have included barley, oats, wheat, buckwheat and spelt. Some grains were malted; others were not. Hops were a vital ingredient in provisional beers, especially for their antiseptic qualities during storage. Conveniently, there was a thriving regional hop-growing industry, one developed centuries ago when village, monastic and farmhouse breweries were the norm.
Indigenous botanicals, a remnant of pre-hop brewing, and later more exotic spices were also used. Coriander, anise, cumin, peppercorn, sage, ginger and orange peel, among others, were popular, savory supplements.
Similar to some other beers of Northern Europe of the era (witbier, Berliner weisse, gose, and lambic), fermentation and maturation included a mixture of primary yeast and secondary organisms. Old saison would have had sour and musty notes lent by Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and a menagerie of others yeasts that resided in the brewery, in wooden barrels and on dry-hop additions. Some were likely spontaneously fermented.
These wild, endemic organisms would work on the wort through spring, summer and into the following autumn. The refreshment was enhanced by the sour tang, earthy Brettanomyces and high attenuation.
Across the Border
Saison and French bière de garde are kindred farmhouse beers, a vestige of old brewing methods. Generally, both arose from similar beers in historical Flanders (comprising portions of France, Belgium and The Netherlands), and evolved into separate “styles” during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The French apparently preferred something malt-accented, stronger, darker and sweeter. Belgians desired something lighter, hoppy and more refreshing. As with most organic transformations, this evolution was gradual, generating two distinct farmhouse styles over time because of local ingredients, preferences or both. They remained largely regional and rustic, indifferent to the torrent of industrial brewing in 19th-century Europe.
Eventually, brewers would have to give in to the trends in order to survive, transforming saison from primitive to contemporary. Small breweries gave way to larger, more mechanized operations in the late 19th century and became more commercialized, but wisely kept their homey, unique image alive.
Lighter, more fermentable malt altered the color and attenuation of the wort, but the affinity for adjunct grains remained. Hops from England, Germany, Slovenia and Czechoslovakia joined those from France and Belgium in the kettle. Brewing became a year-round enterprise, goading yeast strains to adapt to warmer fermentation temperatures.
As microbiology became integral to brewing, multi-strain (spontaneous or otherwise) fermentation largely disappeared. Proprietary cultures adapted to conditions, morphing into house strains that came to define the new variety of saison.
Since saison was no longer necessarily for the saisonniers, brewers could boost the strength from its former 3 to 4% to 5% and above. Both farm (weaker) and tavern (stronger) versions were brewed.
As the influx of British and Continental beer increased in the early 20th century, Belgian’s brewers were faced with either aggressively marketing their unconventional brews or losing ground on their home turf.
A shift to paler malt helped offset the threat of ubiquitous pale lager, but the brewers kept their flavorful top-fermenting yeasts. Saison was proudly marketed as a local or regional specialty, packaged in corked bottles.
By the 1920s many operations had fully embraced modernization. Unlined wooden barrels, alive and full of flavor, gave way to stainless steel. Consistency took precedence over capriciousness. This philosophical shift transformed old, true farmhouse brews into more stylish versions, and ultimately led to the closure of many small rural breweries. Saison brewers never fully abandoned the features that made them unique in the first place, though, a policy that would serve them well in the future.
Enough Wallonian breweries survived after World War II to keep saison viable, a testament to regional loyalty that buoyed craft brewing before the recent renaissance. But saison remained an esoteric, rare style even after the cultural rejuvenation of the 1970s and ’80s brought traditional beers back into the spotlight.
The Modern Farmhouse Ale
The Brewery Ommegang opened its doors in 1997, modeled on the farmstead heritage of Belgium. Among its first offerings was Hennepin, a golden saison considered the first brewed in North America, and an outstanding introductory representative.
Within a few years, saison was cropping up everywhere. Saison Dupont Vieille Provision was finally getting its due. True to the farmhouse ethos, it is a simple brew that coaxed unparalleled nuance and complexity out of every ingredient.
New World brewers are artfully arcing the style back to its roots, inoculating them with Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces and even culled wild yeast, and using wooden barrels, completing a perfectly grand circle of retro-brewing. Brewers exploring saison today are evoking the individualistic nature of the style with a passion to be distinctive and an eye toward the seasonal aspect. Fittingly, many are being made with locally sourced ingredients.
Saison grain bills tend to be simple blends of pale malts and adjunct grains. Pilsner malt is the undisputed workhorse, providing lithe body and lean mouthfeel. Vienna malt, and to a lesser degree, Munich or light caramel, are other typical constituents, lending burnished and orange tints and malty aromatics. The trend in North America is to keep the color rather on the lighter, golden side. Other grains, malted or raw, include wheat, oats, rye, buckwheat and spelt. Sugars or honey are also used in some.
Hop profiles can be rather deep, with low-alpha-acid, aromatic European cultivars the best suited.
Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus can also lend a pleasant background, and brewers are increasingly incorporating those into their strategy. Wild yeasts, culled from the local flora, have also found a niche among saison brewers.
If that isn’t enough, many brewers, including some from Belgium, dose their saison with spices and herbs. Even the strength of saison varies widely, with 5% ABV versions as common as 7.5% ones, and if properly brewed, saison should be heady, rambunctious, well-attenuated, naturally conditioned and unfiltered.
Today’s wide-ranging selection of saisons is nothing short of amazing, given where they were less than 20 years ago. The style is fertile ground for experimentation, which is often, ironically enough, a reversion into its history and roots. The provocative future of saison is in its past.
Saison Dupont Vieille ProvisionABV: 6.5%
Tasting Notes: The Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes, Hainaut Province, Belgium, has been making farmhouse ales since 1844, the Vieille Provision recipe has changed little since the 1920s. The beer is misty gold with copper tints; the head is lofty and persistent. The nose is a balmy bouquet of herbal, botanical notes, with lemon and pepper in the background. The light mouthfeel precedes a flavor of raw, fresh hops, light sweetness, citrus and spices and an incredibly organic, woodsy character overall. The finish is spry from the attenuation, zesty yeast footprint and firm bitterness. Vieille Provision has inspired innumerable modern brewers.
Brewery Ommegang HennepinABV: 7.7%
Tasting Notes: Historic Cooperstown, NY, is the purported birthplace of baseball and birthplace of American saison. Brewery Ommegang has been making Belgian-style beer since 1997. Hennepin is straw-gold; the billowing head releases a dessertlike perfume of vanilla, chamomile, lemon and pear. It’s more rounded than many other saisons, with less emphasis on hops, and more pale malt in the flavor. A savory blend of citrus, coriander and delicate, mellow European hops gives way to a piquant, warming jolt of ginger and grains of paradise in the finish. Versatile and eminently satisfying.
Boulevard Brewing Co. Tank 7 Farmhouse AleABV: 8.5%
Tasting Notes: This ale demonstrates perfectly an American brewer’s mastery of Old World styles while bending them ever so slightly to reflect their own tastes, namely stronger and hoppier. This hazy golden brew offers a big, aromatic nose of grapefruit, lemon and pineapple, along with cedar and cereal grain. The mouthfeel is relatively slim, yet silky. The flavor has some grain and malt sweetness beautifully countered with a citric tartness, grapefruit and piney resin. The hop profile is a perfect complement to the warming attenuation and spicy yeast impression. Tart and quenching at the back end, this is complex and strong.
Goose Island Beer Co. SofieABV: 6.5%
Tasting Notes: Sofie, billed as Belgian-style farmhouse ale, is a blend of 20% wine-barrel-aged beer and 80% nonbarreled. It is also matured with orange zest. Made with 2-row, pilsner and wheat malt, Sofie pours pale yellow and effervescent, sporting the billowing, dense head we expect from wheat-inclusive beer. The aroma has sweet lemon, tangerine, pear and vanilla, with hints of white wine lurking in the background. The tart wheat and soft maltiness complement the lemon and peppery notes. Hops are subdued, allowing the ample fruity notes to come to the forefront. Sofie is wonderfully crisp, starting with the lean body and ending in the dry finish. Champagne has nothing on Sofie.