What is hiding behind the word “Saison”, this highly popular, perhaps THE MOST POPULAR Belgian beer style? You’ve heard of “Farmhouse Ale”, perhaps you’ve heard of “Biėre de Garde”, or even “Grisette” … in this post, we’ll explain and clarify the definitions of all these exciting related terms.
At a time when hops are going out of control in many new American ales, it is refreshing – literally – to go back to the roots of what makes a beer a classic style, such as the Saison beer style always enjoyable, drinkable and interesting.
Let’s clarify these confusing terms – Saison or Farmhouse, what’s the difference?
European people don’t easily use descriptors that are too technical or too generic to refer to a local, traditional beer, or any product for that matter. For this reason, they will come up with names originating from a certain social, geographical, cultural, or historical context.
In Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region, SAISON beers were made for the seasonal farmworkers or “saisonniers” in French. It is essentially the traditional Farmhouse Belgian Ale.
FARMHOUSE is a generic umbrella term only used in America. It encompasses the entire Ale family brewed locally, traditionally in Europe but now also in America, characterized by specific native yeasts, and sharing a broad style of dry, rustic kind of beer. The idea is that it is brewed using locally harvested and produced malt from the available grains, which may be barley but also rye, oat or wheat. The balance and style are focused on the richness, fruitiness, and purity of the malt, as well as the pleasant rusticity and authenticity aromas brought by the use of native yeasts.
Other Farmhouse Ales you should know about
In Hainaut, a more specific province of Wallonia, where coal mining used to be an important part of the local economy, GRISETTE beers were made for the miners. The name Grisette or “little grey one” refers to the grey color of the dresses of the ladies who were waiting for the men, coming back from the mine at the end of their shifts to serve them beer. Unlike mainstream Saisons and Bières de Garde, Grisettes are lighter in body and alcohol, with perhaps a little tartness.
BIERE DE GARDE is a French Farmhouse Ale. You will learn about the background and characteristics of Biere de Garde in my post on French beers. The “beer for keeping” was traditionally kept in the cellar during all the summer months, too warm for brewing. The characteristics vary between gold to red-brown color and normally show little hop aromas with a medium to full body. This is always a dry and generous beer, sometimes delicately spicy and caramel-like, to be best enjoyed with food.
Scandinavia has a long tradition, perhaps the longest – of producing Farmhouse ales.
In Norway, the style is known as MALTØL. The country is getting attention from the brewer community since the amazing Kveik yeast strain has recently been enthusiastically introduced to North America. Norwegian Farmhouse beers vary from Pale to Dark ales, they may be flavored with Juniper like their Finnish counterpart, Sahti, and they are generally brewed with hops, although the style is typically about the malt character and relative sweetness, as well as the local yeast.
SAHTI as just mentioned is made in Finland. Arguably one of the world’s oldest beer styles. It was found in sunken Viking ships dating back to the 9th
century. The interesting fact about Sahti is that wort is not traditionally boiled before fermentation. Therefore, its flavor profile offers very low levels of hop notes, if any. Juniper branches and berries are used instead to add complexity and aroma. This beer has noticeable ABV, low carbonation, a dense mouthfeel, and characteristic banana esters.
GOTLANDSDRICKA comes from Sweden, more specifically from the island of Gotland. It is closely related to Sahti. It may be boiled or not, often flavored with Juniper and hops. The malt is mainly dried in the smoke of a fire. Generally, Gotlandsdricka is an artisan beer on the sweet side and varies in alcohol content.
What makes Saison ales so popular
The style is very broad and also very flexible, therefore very appealing to beer drinkers with a lot of different tastes. This ale can be pale, or dark, lower alcohol or more generous. It is always balanced, easy-drinking, expressive, with relatively intense fruit that finishes dry. It makes you want another glass, it is food-friendly but delicate enough to drink by itself. It has the right amount of bitterness to satisfy the hop lovers, yet it remains pretty and elegant. It is a crowd-pleaser.
The imported Belgian Saisons to look for:
Brasserie DUPONT SAISON is without any doubt the benchmark and the most recognized brand when it comes to the Saison beer style. This legendary producer has maintained a high level of quality, despite the significant increase in volume since the brewery was established in 1920 in an 18th-century farm in the Hainaut province of Wallonia, Belgium, in the village of Tourpes, only a few miles away from the French border.
The energy and sense of place is always special in Dupont’s ales. The Saison Dupont is lively, pure, pleasantly rustic with a natural feel and harmonious complexity. It is fruity yet dry, complex yet harmonious, flavorful yet light. Everything that defines this classic style.
Dupont, leader in the Belgian organic beer movement has also been producing an organic Saison sold in the US under the DUPONT LA FORÊT label. The Forêt is certified USDA organic, made with organically grown malts and hops, filtered well water that give this ale a distinctive mineral character. It is brewed with the same yeast as the one used for the regular Saison. I find the Forêt perhaps a bit more grassy, yeasty, citrusy.
Much harder to find is the Saison made by Brasserie FANTÔME that delivers intense character, mustier, full-bodied, and with a rich complexity. The production is very limited. It is imported to the US by Shelton Brothers, Inc. If you can lay your hands on this beer, grab it! Fantôme is an unusual, non-commercial brewery, where only local spring water is used, and original and secret plant or fruit-based recipes give the product its unique character. In this case, the Pissenlit Saison is brewed with an infusion of dandelions.
4 of the best American Saisons:
This brewery has been consistently releasing top-notch Belgian style beers, which is its specialty. I also love this producer based in Portland, Maine because of their community and environment oriented philosophy. Their world class Saison is brewed with a 2-Row Barley Blend, along with Rye and Oats malts, Saison yeast, Northern Brewer and Cascade hops, and Dark Belgian Candi Sugar. It offers a beautiful hazy golden color, a perfect combination of complex and detailed citrusy, fruity, yeasty aromas and flavors with a hint of spicy grassiness character. It is medium-bodied at 6.1% ABV but finishes dry
BOULEVARD Tank 7 Saison
Brewed by: Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri. There is an unmistakable American character here, with an ABV of 8.5%, it is bold and direct, however, this beer is balanced and complex, showing aromas of hay, citrus and berries. The flavors reveal notes of grapefruit and sweeter fruit. It is made with a combination of Belgian and American yeast strains, and North American hops. There are pleasant hints of white pepper on the finish. A Saison with guts, worth seeking. Now available in 16oz. cans and 12oz. bottles.
OMMEGANG Farmhouse Saison Ale
This brewery, established in New York State brings us this fruit-driven, aromatic interpretation of the style. At 7.7% ABV, this beer shows rich complexity and well-defined slightly exotic flavors of banana, citrus, clove on the palate. The mouthfeel is medium-bodied, with a pleasant, well-integrated tartness. This Saison is brewed with subtle use of coriander, ginger, orange peel, and paradise seeds. The lively effervescence contributes to a drier impression, making this style a good pairing for a variety of dishes too, such as cheeses, charcuterie or seafood.
BREWERS’ BRIDGE (DUPONT & ALLAGASH) Saison Ale
No introduction needed here, since we’re dealing with arguably the two best Saison producers in the world, one on both sides of the Atlantic. A splendid version and perfect balance between old world and new world styles. This outstanding ale showcases perfect technical brewing skills. The head is beautiful, with great retention, the carbonation is generous but not aggressive. You will find in this beer all the attribute of Belgian beer, generally speaking, and it is certainly a very good representation and introduction to the Saison style. User-friendly enough with plenty of esthery, floral and exotic aromas from the Dupont yeast strain. This medium-bodied ale possesses a creamy mouthfeel, the flavors are focused on grainy malt with very subdued bitterness and a dry finish. With 6.1% ABV, Brewers’ Bridge Saison is easy drinking, and makes you want for more.
6 key elements that make the Saison category unique
1. Refreshing, yet flavorful
Saison is a beer for easy drinking, straight-forward, “bière de soif” in French, meaning beer to drink when you’re thirsty. The overall impression of primary fruitiness, such as citrus and bright apple should be vibrant. By primary, I mean: fresh, pre-fermented, clean.
Complexity doesn’t have to be difficult to read. It can be transparent, approachable, direct. This is the case here. All the layers are harmonious and don’t obscure each other. Typically, you will find notes of flowers, spice such as white pepper, fruit mainly citrus with a touch of tartness. The complexity doesn’t come from the blend of different types of grains but the perfect balance between yeasts, hops, and malt. Certain versions of Saison rely on adding spices during the boil to create more complexity, but the genuine recipe should get its pure character from simple ingredients.
3. Aromatic, driven by yeast and floral hops
Don’t forget Saison is a Belgian beer, in fact, the most popular of Belgian beers. These ales are known for being intensely aromatic with an attractive profile. A typical Saison yeast will bring peppery, fruity, sometimes delicate bubble gummy notes. The rustic, herbal (hay) character comes from the fermentation process and temperatures. You may find traces of Bret that would come from local native yeast and open-top fermentation. Hops here are used, like in many European beers, as a seasoning and never as the main focus ingredient in brewing.
4. A pure and natural grain profile
A Saison should have that bready, grainy character. In the true Farmhouse style, Saison beer relies on whatever crop is available locally. It may be a blend of barley, rye, wheat, and oat, although common Saisons have a simple grain bill, feature mainly pale base malt, Pilsner type, sometimes complemented by a small proportion of wheat, adding to the refreshing, clean character. Certain recipes call for specialty grains, this is more to add a slightly deeper color.
5. Dry and effervescent
This beer is easy drinking and food-friendly. Saison is typically mashed at a lower temperature, 150 to 152F, and because the yeast ferments aggressively, in other words with high attenuation, a long fermentation takes place, about 3 weeks. As a result, Saison is a dry style. Combined with bottle conditioning, and its subsequent abundant effervescence, the impression of dryness on the palate is even enhanced, with a clean and refreshing finish.
6. Candi sugar, spices, Bret and lactic acid
Some Saisons recipes play with adjuncts to get sweetness, aromas, funk coming from Brettanomyces or sourness coming lactic acid. For me, the best Saisons achieve perfect balance, complexity, and flavor with simple, natural, basic ingredients. This is what makes this ale so interesting. Easy to brew, difficult to master. The quality and character of the yeast is key, the malt profile should be clean yet flavorful. Brewing with soft water will also contribute to the overall purity and balance.
Saison Standard Characteristics for homebrewing purposes
|ABV Range:||4.4 – 6.8 Mild to noticeable alcohol|
|IBU Range:||20 – 38|
|Color:||5 – 7 SRM Gold to amber|
|Aromas:||Citrusy – lemon, orange peel, spicy – white pepper, floral, fresh bread-like, grassy with a bit of rustic hay and earthy funk – a hint of Brettanomyces is acceptable.|
|Flavors:||Complex, balanced and layered flavors. Citrusy, tart and fruity – apple/ pear, elegant grainy character, bright and lively.|
|Mouthfeel:||Creamy but clean, and dry (high attenuation). Easy drinking and refreshing.|
|Carbonation:||High, producing a fast-rising fluffy head.|
Tips to master to brew a great Saison style beer.
SELECT SIMPLE PILSNER MALT – a small proportion of specialty malt may be used, however, they should be kept to a minimum in order not to overwhelm the clean, elegant mild grain taste. Ideally, no more than 10 or 12% of slightly stronger pale malts such as Vienna, Munich, and Caramunich should be part of the total grain bill. Saison should have a light and crisp malt structure. On the other hand, 5% or less wheat malt may work nicely.
PREFER ELEGANT, FLORAL, MILDLY SPICY HOPS – Hops are not the focus here, and should only be used to add another delicate layer of complexity in the same fresh, crisp tone as the malt base. Fuggles, Styrian or East Kent are good choices.
MASH LOW – the temperature shouldn’t exceed 150F. This is at the lower end of the normal mashing temperature range (148F-158F). The higher the temperature, the more residual sugars you will end up in your finished beer, on the contrary, you want high attenuation, most of the sugars converted into alcohol and a resulting drier beer.
FERMENT HIGH – the Saison yeast works well between 65F and 70F. Please follow the recommended temperature for your yeast strain. The primary fermentation should take about 10 to 14 days. Usually, two more weeks of secondary fermentation after racking are necessary at the same temperature to complete the process.
DO BOTTLE CONDITIONING – a must for this style of ale. It will produce the lively and generous carbonation you are looking for. It will also keep some of the pronounced yeasty character of this ale. A certain cloudiness is acceptable.
Sustainable home brewing tips:
Try the Brew In A Bag method, and insulate your kettle with a thermal blanket at mashing.
This will save you the step of transferring your wort into your boiling kettle.
Avoid using a plastic insulated mash tun if you can. Stainless steel is easier to clean and more durable.
What is your favorite Saison?
Perhaps you like classic and more old-world style beers, or you prefer to discover more creative versions of Saison?
There are many different versions of the Saison beer style, yet they all share that delicious, easy-drinking fruity, spicy, primary character that’s versatile, enjoyable with a meal, or as a session ale. You will find your favorite among this family of amazing beers.
I’d like to hear your comments or questions about this exciting beer style.
To our health. Cheers,