You could say it’s a beer for all seasons!
Saison meaning ‘season’ in French is exactly that. Find out all about this beer, its origins, taste and so much more.
What Is the History of Saison Beer?
Saison originated in Wallonia, southern Belgium. It was brewed at the start of winter and conditioned in time for farm hands to quench their thirst during summer fieldwork. Larger farms would hire temporary labourers who would work long hours in the sun, making them very thirsty. They needed a healthy, refreshing drink that was not too high in alcohol content and this culminated in the production of Saison.
Saisons were brewed to be stored for extended periods of time and the recipe depended on the farmhouse brewery that made it and the raw materials each had on hand. Farmhouse breweries grew their own barley and malted it themselves, most commonly using six-row winter barley. This malt was full of nitrogenous material (making the malt dark during kilning) and polyphenol-rich husk which deepens the colour of the wort by oxidation. These two elements gave Saisons a degree of acridness and rusticity.
Many brewers also used buckwheat, oats, spelt and wheat to brew Saison because these were cheaper than malted barley. The grains gave Saison a pale colour, adding a smooth mouthfeel and additional esters in the aroma and flavour. Saisons were also heavily hopped because the anti-bacterial properties of hops prevented unwanted infections from contaminating the beer. It was common for sourness to develop in Saisons – a sourness that was desirable and an authentic characteristic of Saison.
The characteristic sour flavour of Saison is also due to secondary fermentation where wild yeasts are left to thrive. Brewers reused yeast from one batch to another, a process that provided a light tartness to the beer. Traditional Saison was then fermented and conditioned in wooded casks.
Two key factors in the production of traditional Saison is that they were meant to be stored until the warm season so they had to be durable for several months and they could not be so strong that the farmhands would not be able to continue working after quenching their thirst. The Saisons were unfiltered, bottle conditioned, heavily hopped and quite dry.
What Makes A Beer A Saison?
Saison, pronounced ‘say-zon’, is a pale ale that is highly carbonated, fruity, spicy, and often bottle conditioned. Although it was traditionally brewed with lower alcohol levels, modern productions of Saison have medium to high levels of alcohol. Generally classified as a farmhouse ale, Saisons use wild, top-fermenting yeast and various local ingredients, including grains. These brews range from light to dark; they can taste hoppy or malty and have fruity or spicy characteristics. They are low in bitterness and alcohol. Artisanal Belgian breweries continue to make Saison and, in the USA, it is popular among craft brewers.
Saison usually has the following characteristics:
- ABV: 4.4–8.4%
- Bitterness: 25–45 IBU (International Bitterness Units)
What is the Difference Between a Saison and a Farmhouse Ale?
It is somewhat difficult to distinguish the two – Saison refers to a specific style while farmhouse ale is a catch-all phrase for any ale that is like Saison in character. The general opinion among brewers is that for a beer to be defined as a farmhouse ale, it should have something to do with a farm and local agriculture and to a beer that is made with ingredients farmed by the brewery.
To put it another way, all Saisons are farmhouse ales, but not all farmhouse ales are Saisons. The term ‘farmhouse ale’ is an all-encompassing classification, unifying many substyles of beers, including Saison, Sahti, Gotlandsdricka and Biere de Garde.
How are Saison Beers Made?
If you ask a number of brewers to define Saison as a beer style, you will not get the same answer because no two Saisons are alike and it is brewed with ingredients that are available, representing each brewer’s own interpretation, meaning and style. Saisons are as unique as the brewer who produces them.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to list the methods used by six award-winning brewers:
- Pretty Things Beer @ Ale Project
- (Boston, Massachusetts)
- ABV 6.5%
- IBUs 57
- Jack D’Or is one of the more hops-forward Saisons around. It’s brewed with North American pilsner, wheat, malted oats, and rye and is hopped with a combination of Nugget, Styrian Goldings, Columbus, and Palisade hops. It is blended with four strains of yeast that give it a dry finish and is easily paired with many different foods.
- Mystic Brewing
- (Chelsea, Massachusetts)
- ABV 7%
- IBUs 28
- The Saison Renaud is an unfiltered, single malt, single hop beer brewed with pilsner malt and Saaz hops and is reminiscent of farmhouse ale made after World War II. This Saison is made with lager yeast and comes from a pilsner recipe with the addition of a Belgian yeast culture.
- Trinity Brewing Company
- (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
- ABV 10.4%
- IBUs 0
- This Saison is a Chardonnay barrel-aged Saison brewed with a large amount of pumpkin and fermented with Saison yeast and various strains of Brettanomyces. This beer is also brewed with candied endive, cacao nibs, and Buddha’s Hand citrus.
- Funkwerks, Inc.
- (Fort Collins, Colorado)
- ABV 6.8%
- IBUs 25
- The brewer, Gordon Shuck, uses Opal in this award-winning Saison which is modelled after Saison Dupont with modifications.
- Jester King Brewery
- (Austin, Texas)
- ABV 5.9%
- IBUs 44
- This is made using Pilsner, 2-row and wheat light grains and noble hops and the yeast is left to do its thing.
- Prairie Artisan Ales
- (Tulsa, Oklahoma)
- ABV 8.2%
- IBUs 25
- This Saison is brewed with pilsner malt, wheat malt, flaked wheat, and cane sugar. The addition of Saaz hops makes the beer spicy.
What does Saison Beer Taste Like?
Saison are usually aromatic and fruity with a hint of pepper and soil. Since Saisons are created with wild, top-fermenting yeast, and various local ingredients like grains, the taste is quite refreshing, and the alcohol level, moderate. However, there are different styles that range from light to dark, from fruity to spicy and hoppy to malty, so there is a large variety from which to choose. A number of varieties have a light and dry finish with a balance of flavours.
Many Saison types are very fizzy and have a sharp bitterness so they are good palate cleansers. Spices that go into Saisons include ginger, orange zest and coriander.
How to Serve Saison Beer?
If you are drinking a Saison, you will want a tulip glass – with its curved shape, you will get a great head of foam while volatiles and aromas are enhanced. You can also use a beer goblet or chalice which are good substitutes for tulip glasses.
What is the Most Popular Saison Beer Brand in the World?
The decision is virtually unanimous: Saison Dupont, is the benchmark of all Saisons, consistently earning high praise from industry professionals. Garret Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, named the beer saying that it spurred him to get into bottle-conditioning and that it inspired all the other Saisons that he has brewed since Saison Dupont.
Others that are highly praised include:
- Holy Mountain Witchfinder
- Blackberry Farm Brewery Fenceling
- Brewery Ommegang Hennepin
- Stillwater Stateside Saison
- Transmitter Brewing S9 Noble Saison
- Boulevard Brewing Tank 7
- Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
What Foods Can You Pair with Saison Beer?
Being a complex drink, you would be forgiven for mistaking Saison as being difficult to pair with food but the opposite is true. With so much going on in the flavour and aroma of a good Saison, it can complement most dishes except for the most delicate foods. Saison’s spicy, fruity notes can lift a barbecue to great heights. The peppery notes will bring out the flavours of any peppery or hot dish and it is an excellent choice for seafood and shellfish, particularly mussels.
A medium alcohol, pale Saison goes well with a fire-roasted chicken with golden skin and added pepper to match that of the Saison. The dry, palate-cleansing character of the beer cuts through chicken (and other) fat like a knife. Cooking country style? Bring out the Saisons. Rich, smoky ham with roasted potatoes balances Saison perfectly. It goes well with grilled red meat and cracked-pepper crusted steak.
Saisons always pair exceptionally well with seafood dishes, charcuterie boards with a wide variety of cheese, and citrusy desserts like lemon meringue. Saisons can be enjoyed with white fish, salmon, and mackerel. This ‘working man’s beer’ also complements fish soup such as bouillabaisse.
Saison Cannot Be Neatly Categorised
Saison can perhaps best be described as a ‘wild’ beer in that it doesn’t have any formal parameters or styles and it can be so many different things. Many styles are dry, fairly hoppy and have an expressive yeast quality and a rustic edge, making Saison the perfect drink to share with family and friends at an informal gathering – no matter what tie of the year it is!