The Cult of American Saison

Saison, a storied tradition now relegated to the fringes in Belgium, has found a strong revivalist movement among today’s artisan brewers all across the United States. We asked Yvan De Baets, brewer of De La Senne and Belgian beer scholar par excellence, about the trend and he replied, “I feel gratitude to the U.S. brewers for the sincere interest they have in saisons and other traditional styles, from Belgium and elsewhere. This creates a movement, with serious literature, and a solid market, leading to the rescue of styles that are almost dying in their country of origin. To put it clearly: almost no one cares about saisons here in Belgium, and I’m always touched to see the enthusiasm the Americans have for those monuments of the past.” Much of the current fervor can be traced directly to 2004 when Phil Markowski’s informative book, “Farmhouse Ales,” was published, and more pointedly, De Baets inspiring chapter on the history of saison; in fact it is hard to imagine any creative brewer reading that section without their head spinning with ideas — the book that launched a thousand saisons.

American breweries have brewed saisons for many years, including Brewery Ommegang’s Hennepin, New Belgium’s Saison and Pizza Port’s SPF 45. Increasingly, however, small breweries across the country are dedicating themselves to specializing in the production of variations on the saison theme, including Upright Brewing (Portland, Oregon), Odonata Beer Co. (Sacramento, California), Funkwerks (Ft. Collins, Colorado), Stillwater Artisanal Ales (Baltimore, Maryland) and Saint Somewhere (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Jolly Pumpkin’s (Ann Arbor, Michigan) visionary brewer, Ron Jeffries, was an early adopter of traditional farmhouse techniques. Dann Paquette, of Pretty Things (Somerville, Massachusetts), declares that traditional saison is a style lost to history. His Jack D’Or anglicizes the tradition producing what he coins a “Saison Americain.” In this new school, the term “artisan” stresses hands-on, small production marked by specialization, with a personal, uncompromising approach.

Saisons are yeast driven, phenolic beers of high attenuation, often using various cereal grains, covering the gamut from refreshing-straw-colored-quenchers to dark-complex-vinous-sippers. The romance of saison is that it offers the creative brewer great seasonal and localized variation, harking back to the time when these beers were an agricultural product of farm-life tied to the harvest.

Where the Wild Things Are

For a day of collaborative brewing, we tracked down Ryan Michaels, the head brewer at McKenzie Brew House, just outside of Philadelphia. Michaels, along with assistant Gerard Olson, has quietly been brewing one of America’s most decorated saisons. Saison Vautour has commanded gold an astounding three of the last four years at the Great American Beer Festival. Peculiarly, each of the three wins came with a different treatment of the same base recipe: clean fermented in stainless steel, Brettanomyces spiked, and wine barrel fermented with a mixed-microbe culture.

For the collaboration, we settled on a beer that would bridge the Belgo-French farmhouse traditions — a saison-bière de garde-bière de miel mashup fermented and aged in oak barrels that had all been used for mixed fermentation beers. We named it Irma. The aim was to craft a baroque beer that would offer a broad palette of elements that could be pieced back together after the beers had ripened separately. A single wort was used to produce four distinct beers: a clean version in stainless steel, a funky version in a red wine barrel, a miel version in a red wine barrel with a blend of honeys added directly to the barrel to preserve their aromatics, and a version in an apple brandy barrel to accentuate the classic caramel apple character indicative of bière de garde.

Yeast Strains

Saison is a style primarily defined by its yeast, so when planning a recipe, yeast selection should be paramount. The common traits that all saison strains share are that they produce more spicy/peppery phenols than fruity esters, have a high degree of attenuation and work well at elevated temperatures. These strains do not need to be stressed to produce their distinctive characters — the brewer aerates and pitches the wort with as many cells as for any other beer.


The Saison Dupont strain is available from both Wyeast (3724, Belgian Saison) and White Labs (WLP565, Belgian Saison I). Dupont is the saison yeast that all other strains are measured against. At temperatures from the mid-80s °F (30 °C) into the low-90s °F (32-33 °C) it produces a spicy blend of pepper, yeast and fruit without noticeable fusel alcohol production. Patience is required because the yeast can take several weeks to attenuate a beer completely even at these elevated temperatures; at lower temperatures, fermentation often stalls with considerable gravity remaining.

“We started out with White Labs WLP565. The famed Dupont strain. It took several generations to acclimate to the brewery environment. The first few batches took a couple of weeks to fully attenuate. We now reach full attenuation, typically down to almost zero, in three days. I pitch at a much higher temperature than normal, 80 °F (27 °C), and let it rise as it will to 90 °F (32 °C) or so,” said Bob Sylvester of St. Somewhere. White Labs produces another strain, Belgian Saison II (WLP566) that is rumored to be a different isolate from Brasserie Dupont. WLP566 has a similar character to WLP565 (although it tends to be fruitier), but is less finicky to work with.

French Saison

This strain, rumored to originate from Brasserie Thiriez, is available from Wyeast (3711, French Saison). “We use the Wyeast 3711, which I love for the fact that it produces lots of different flavors in the different worts we put it in, which makes it easy for our beers to be distinct among themselves,” said Alex Ganum from Upright Brewing. “Lots of people would probably say that they love how well it attenuates, although I consider it over-attenuating and we often struggle to get the yeast to just quit at some point. It makes bottle conditioning a bit of a pain as you could imagine.”

This strain produces fully attenuated beer, with a mild pepper character and a bit more tropical fruit than other saison strains. It has gained many devotees in the U.S. because it is less temperamental than the Dupont strain. While the character of the finished beer can benefit from elevated fermentation temperatures into the 90s °F (32–33 °C), the strain will attenuate completely at temperatures as low as the mid-60s °F (18 °C). Despite rarely finishing above 1.004, it leaves a wonderful impression of body.

Bière de Garde

This release from Wyeast (3725, Bière de Garde) is only available at certain times of the year. Rumored to have been isolated from Fantôme, despite the name, it produces a cleaner character than most other saison strains, especially at lower temperatures. WY3725 is easy to work with and performs well in stronger beers with complex character, complementing spices especially well. It ferments well from the mid-60s °F (18 °C) into the high-80s °F (31 °C) and is highly attenuative, even in worts with specialty malts.


The wild yeast Brettanomyces can be used to add rustic charm to a saison. Depending on the strain, it can add flavors that include cherry, lemon peel, wet hay, leather and barnyard. The Bruery (Orange County, CA), Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY) and Boulevard Brewing (Kansas City, MO) all make saisons with Brett character.

Any of the commercially available Brett strains can work well in a saison. Brettanomyces bruxellensis is especially well suited to hoppy saisons since its earthy character makes a wonderful counterpoint to bright fresh hops. Brettanomyces claussenii contributes a subtle funky flavor which adds complexity to a saison without obscuring the flavors produced by the primary strain. You can pitch Brett at any time, but the earlier you add it, and the more healthy cells you pitch, the quicker you will get a noticeable character. Due to hyper-attenuation, be wary of adding Brett at bottling unless your beer is already below 1.002.

Blending Strains

White Labs produces WLP568 Saison Ale Yeast Blend, which maintains most of the character of the original Dupont strain while increasing the rate of attenuation. For May-June this year, White Labs is releasing WLP670 American Farmhouse Blend, which contains Brettanomyces in addition to saison yeast, but we have not had a chance to try.

East Coast Yeast, a yeast lab recently opened by Al “Bugfarm” Buck, produces two saison blends: Saison Brasserie (ECY08), a blend of several saison strains which works quickly and gives a nice spicy character, but can be a bit banana heavy when young, and Farmhouse Brett (ECY03) which has the same blend of saison yeasts with the addition of a strain of Brettanomyces isolated from Fantôme. “We basically sort out our yeast before pitching and the blend is kind of like 50%, 35%, 14%, 1% (yes, you CAN taste that last yeast in the beer),” said Dann Paquette of Pretty Things.

Fermentation Temperature

Many homebrewers without fermentation temperature control brew saisons in the summer. This approach can be risky because sudden temperature drops can cause the yeast to stall before fermentation is complete, and temperature spikes can result in the production of hot fusel alcohols or even kill the yeast if the temperature rises too high. If using ambient temperatures, try to find a location that has a relatively stable temperature 5–7 °F (3–4 °C) degrees below your target temperature. Placing the fermenter in a large reservoir of water (such as a bucket or cooler) can help to buffer the beer from fluctuations in temperature.

If the temperature is too cold, you can use a heated Brew Belt, place the fermenter in a water bath with an aquarium heater or place the fermenter in an insulated box with a ceramic reptile heater. The easiest way to regulate the temperature with these methods is to attach a temperature controller that has a heating mode.

Wort Production

An elementary recipe with just Pilsner malt and Saaz hops can make a great saison, but many American brewers opt for something more complicated. Saisons were originally refreshing beers brewed for summer consumption on the farm — the original lawnmower beer. However, these days it is rare to see a commercial example with less than 6% ABV. Even if you are aiming for a higher alcohol content be mindful of pushing original gravity too high; with the high degree of attenuation a 1.050 beer can end up at 6.5% ABV.

As a nod to saison’s agricultural past, many breweries include both malted and unmalted grains besides malted barley in their beer. Wheat is especially popular, but rye has also gained considerable acclaim in The Bruery’s Saison Rue, McKenzie’s Saison Vautour and others. Oats, spelt, and buckwheat are all options worth investigating as well. These grains impart telltale grainy flavors and beta glucans that add body without sweetness. Corn or rice can be added to increase the fermentability of the wort. These grains are nice alternatives to adding sugar to the boil because their starches are turned mostly into yeast friendly maltose, and they impart a light flavor of their own.

Malted, flaked or torrified grains can be added directly to the mash. Raw grain on the other hand must be ground to grits and boiled in a generous amount of water (3 qts./lb. or 6 L/kg) before being added to the mash. The boil gelatinizes the starch, making it accessible to the amylase enzymes provided by the malted grain.  Pilsner malt is the most common base malt because of the clean, crisp malt character it provides. If using a large portion of Pilsner malt, you should boil for at least 90 minutes to volatilize as much of the DMS as possible. Vienna or Munich malt is sometimes added for their bready flavor and a golden hue.

Specialty malts are relatively rare, especially caramel/crystal malts which contribute unfermentables. When they are used, even in heartier saisons, they should be kept to a minimum. For dark grains, we favor dehusked malts like Weyermann Carafa® Special and debittered black malt. The dry finish of saisons accentuates any aggressive malt flavors, so excessive amounts of roasted barley or black patent malt can result in a harsh flavor.

A single step infusion mash is usually adequate, but if you are using undermodified base malt, a step mash with a protein rest should be employed. The saccharification rest is usually performed below 150 °F (66 °C), sometimes as low as 142 °F (61 °C) in the case of Jack D’Or, to ensure the requisite high level of attenuation. If you use a low mash temperature, you may need to rest the mash longer than the standard 60 minutes. As insurance, some brewers employ two saccharification rests, one in the low-mid 140s °F (61–63 °C) followed by another in the mid-high 150s °F (68–72 °C) to complete conversion. If you are using a large portion of unmalted grain or a low saccharification temperature, an iodine starch test should be performed.

If you are brewing a high alcohol saison, it is beneficial to get a portion of your fermentables from kettle sugars. The neutral character of table sugar is an economical choice if your only goal is to dry the beer out. More flavorful honey, unrefined sugar, candi syrup and even dried fruit are wonderful choices if you want to impart additional flavors. If you are using malt extract, for a large portion of your gravity we suggest getting a minimum of 10% of the fermentables from sugar.


Saisons can be made with a wide variety of hopping strategies from subtle to assertive. Bittering hop additions are generally moderate because the dry finish accentuates bitterness. A small addition of hops late in the boil for aroma is common. Many American brewers are foregoing the traditional European hops in favor of brighter citrusy varieties from America and New Zealand which complement the spicy qualities of the yeast. Dry hopping is a good choice because it contributes aromatics without increasing bitterness.


In some peoples’ minds, spicing is synonymous with saison. This just isn’t the case; for the most part the spicy flavors you taste are solely from the yeast. When actual spices are used they should be subtle and build character without trampling on the flavors of the yeast. Spices that complement the peppery yeast character especially well are peppercorns (black, white, or pink), grains of paradise and long pepper. Ginger can also add a bit of heat, but be careful when using dried ginger which can easily overpower a beer.

“Spicing has loads of variables, not all spices or herbs, flowers, etc. are equal. They are unique ingredients and you must know what you are working with in order to get them to do what you want. I have done both hot and cold infusions on various herbs and spices, it comes down to what and when,” said Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Flowers such as chamomile, honeysuckle, hibiscus, jasmine, chrysanthemum, lavender, marigolds and dandelions add a delicate floral character. For a holiday saison add orange zest, cinnamon, anise or other warming spices. As with dark grains and hops, a low finishing gravity can make spices taste harsh. Experiment with hot and cold extraction teas to gauge the intensity of specific spices before adding them. Alternatively these teas can be added to taste at bottling, giving you control to dial in the flavor contribution you want.

The Mother of Invention

Saison offers itself to personalization and interpretation – give it your own signature. You don’t have to stick with what has been done before; these beers are about creativity and brewing something that inspires you. If you know someone who is a skilled forager you might be able to put together a saison using locally collected herbs, or consider using locally grown hops and grains to add terroir.

Saison Recipes

Petit Saison

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.036 FG = 1.002
IBU = 30 SRM = 3 ABV = 4.5%

The inspiration for this beer was a play on De Baets’ remarks that traditional saisons were low gravity and heavily hopped. When it was still brewed with the Rodenbach strain, De Ranke’s XX Bitter was a rough approximation of a traditional saison, but with its cleaner character today you’ll have to brew your own for a taste of history. This recipe makes for a refreshing summer beer with the gravity dialed down and aromatics pushed to the fore.

7.5 lbs. (3.4 kg) Pilsner malt
0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) flaked wheat
6 AAU Sterling hops (60 min.) (0.75 oz./21 g of 8% alpha acids)
4 AAU Hallertauer hops (10 min.) (1.0 oz./28 g of 4% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Hallertauer hops (0 min.)
0.75 oz. (21 g) Sterling hops (0 min.)
1.13 oz. (32 g) Sterling hops (dry hop)
Wyeast 3711 (French Saison) or East Coast Yeast ECY08 (Saison Brasserie) yeast
Wyeast 3763 (Roeselare Blend) yeast and bacteria
5.8 oz. (164 g) table sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
Mash at 145 °F (63 °C) for 90 minutes. Boil for 90 minutes adding hops as indicated. Start fermentation at 70 °F (21 °C) with both the saison yeast and the Roeselare blend, allow to rise into the mid-80s °F (28–29 °C). Rack to secondary when primary fermentation is complete and dry hop for a week. Allow the gravity to stabilize before bottling, aim for 3.0 volumes of carbonation.

Extract Equivalent
Replace the Pilsner malt and flaked wheat with 3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) of Pilsner dried malt extract, 0.75 lb. (0.34 kg) of wheat dried malt extract, and 0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) of table sugar.

McKenzie’s Saison Vautour clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.057 FG = 1.006
IBU = 30 SRM = 4 ABV = 6.7%

Saison Vautour is named for the vultures that ominously circle the brewery on brew days. This is the recipe for McKenzie’s Brew House’s multi-gold-medal-winning rye saison from head brewer Ryan Michaels. It’s a good example of how a very simple recipe can result in a beer of extraordinary complexity. The clean version has a wonderful rustic character from the rye and yeast, while the barrel aged version adds some tartness and funk.

9 lbs. (4.1 kg) Pilsner malt
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) rye malt
0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) soft blond candi sugar
5.1 AAU Hallertau Tradition hops (60 min.) (1.3 oz./37 g of 4% alpha acids)
1.5 AAU Hallertau Tradition hops (15 min.) (0.35 oz./10 g of 4% alpha acids)
1.25 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (15 min.) (0.25 oz./7.1 g of 5% alpha acids)
1.5 AAU Hallertau Tradition hops (5 min.)
1.25 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (5 min.)
White Labs WLP566 (Belgian Saison II) yeast
4.5 oz. (127 g) table sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
Mash at 145 °F (63 °C) for 60 minutes. Boil for 90 minutes adding hops as indicated. Start fermentation at 60 °F (16 °C) and allow to rise into the mid-80s °F (28–29 °C). When the gravity is stable, bottle with enough priming sugar to reach 2.5 volumes of CO2.
To mimic the barrel aged version, rack to secondary and add 1 oz. (28 g) of medium toast French oak cubes (boiled to extract excess tannins and to sanitize), along with either a pack of Wyeast Lambic Blend (WY3278) or the dregs from two bottles of your favorite unpasteurized sour beer. Allow the gravity to stabilize before bottling, aiming for 2.5 volumes of carbonation.

Partial Mash Equivalent:
Replace the Pilsner malt with 0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) of table sugar and 4.25 lbs. (1.9 kg) of Pilsner dried malt extract. Mash the rye malt for 45 minutes at 150 °F (66 °C) before adding the extract and sugar.

Dark Winter Saison

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.066 FG = 1.004
IBU = 24 SRM = 23 ABV = 8.3%

Saisons are traditionally a warm weather drink, but a few of us have a tradition of getting together each fall to brew a strong, dark, spiced saison. Each year’s version has a different dried fruit and dark malt. The blend of spices along with the earthiness of the Brettanomyces and buckwheat honey make for an almost savory beer. Brett C is a good complement to the Dupont strain because it helps to dry out the beer.

9.5 lbs. (4.3 kg) German Pilsner malt
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) German Munich malt
0.50 lbs. (0.23 kg) flaked oats
6 oz. (0.17 kg) Carafa® Special II malt
6 oz. (0.17 kg) Caramunich® malt
4 oz. (0.11 kg) Special B malt
0.0088 oz. (0.25 g) anise
0.035 oz. (1.0 g) star anise
0.018 oz. (0.50 g) cinnamon
1 lb. (0.45 kg) dried figs
4 oz. (113 g) buckwheat honey
7.5 AAU Simcoe hops (80 min.) (0.58 oz./16 g of 13% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP565 (Belgian Saison I) yeast
White Labs WLP645 (Brettanomyces clausenii) yeast
4.2 oz. (120 g) table sugar (priming)

Step by Step
Mash at 156 °F (69 °C) for 60 minutes. Boil for 90 minutes adding hops as indicated. With 5 minutes left in the boil add the ground spices. Simmer the figs with some of the wort for 20 minutes and purée, add at flame out along with the honey. Start fermentation at 68 °F (20 °C) and allow to rise into the low-80s °F (27–28 °C). When the gravity is stable, bottle aiming for 2.4 volumes of carbonation.

Extract Equivalent
Replace the Pilsner malt with 4.75 lbs. (2.2 kg) of Pilsner dried malt extract, and the Munich with 1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) of Munich liquid malt extract. Steep the remaining grains, omitting the oats, for 30 min at 156 °F (69 °C) before adding the malt extract.

Issue: July-August 2011