Belgium is home to literally dozens of styles of beer, many of them found only in Belgium. One style that is quite rare, even in Belgium, is the saison. Saisons originated as quaffing beers brewed at farmhouses during the 18th Century, but are only found sporadically in their native Wallonian region of western and southern Belgium. Today, more and more craft brewers in America brew representations of this traditional style.
Old Farmhouses and New Revivalists
Farmhouse brewing in the 19th century had quite a significant seasonal relevance and served many purposes at each farmhouse brewery. “Saison” literally translates in French as “season.” At the farmhouse, brewing served as a means to preserve the late harvest grains while occupying the time of the farm workers during the cold winters in north central Europe. This winter brew was then available to quench the thirst of the workers during the labors of working the farm in the summer.
Traditionally, farmhouse brewers used barley and whatever other grains that may be available on the farm, which included spelt, buckwheat, oats or rye. The wort was highly hopped with hops from northern Belgium and France. Any number of spices were added as well. Brasserie Vapeur, where their saison is an original recipe from 1785, has so much ginger that it is very thirst quenching, even when the beer is warm. Other spices in this historical representation include Curaçao orange peel, coriander, ginger and black pepper.
Today, a handful of old farmhouse brewers still remain in Belgium along with a recent emergence of a number of new “artisanal” breweries that produce good examples of saisons. The traditional farmhouse breweries of Dupont, Silly, Vapeur (Saison de Pipaix), and du Bocq (Saison Regal) are joined by the newer revivalists of Fantome, Blaugies (Saison D’Epeautre), and Geants (Saison Voisin). In the US, craft brewers such as Ommegang (Hennepin), Brooklyn Brewery (Saison de Brooklyn), Southampton Publik House (of Farmhouse Brews author Phil Markowski), New Belgium, Pizza Port at Solana Beach (SPF8 and SPF45 saisons), to name just a few, have saisons in their portfolio.
The Taste of Wallonia
The style today is most often identified by the Dupont offering “Saison Dupont Vieille Provision,” or just “Saison Dupont” as the new bottle label states. Saison Dupont is a cloudy golden ale with a huge mousse-like head and a complex aroma of peppery phenolics with a touch of fruits and a slight earthy hoppiness. The body of Saison Dupont is tangy from the high level of carbonation and gentle citrus fruits are highlighted by a well-balanced spicy hoppiness and an array of spicy yeast phenolics. A moderately tart and bitter finish cleanses the palate with touches of pepper and fruit lingering.
But, saison is more than just a style represented by a singular beer; it is more of a family of beers from a region, much due to local farmhouse preferences and grain availability as well as evolution of historical recipes. Dupont has stronger offerings than their saison, at 6.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), with their Moinette (at 8.5% ABV) and their massive 9.5% ABV winter offering Avec les Bons Voeux (“Best Wishes”). Other saisons such as Saison Silly, Saison Regal and Dupont’s Moinette Brune highlight darker grains such as medium and dark caramel and darker Munich malts. Saison D’Epeautre has a delicate, almost perfume-like spiciness with 30% of the grist consisting of spelt. Saison de Pipaix has a strong spicing of ginger, black pepper, sweet Curaçao orange and coriander. Fantome’s summer saison “Ete” has a stronger, but still very clean, acidity with a tropical fruitiness that resembles pineapple juice. Fantome also has a number of other seasonal selections with a wide range of top secret spices, fruit juices and “who knows what else” in their Printemps (“spring”), smoky Automne (“autumn”), fruity Hiver (“winter”), and the massive Noel (at 10% ABV).
Regardless of all of the possible variations, the best saisons display a harmonious melding of fruitiness and spiciness derived from the yeast, with a complimenting spicy and earthy hoppiness and a delicate spice character. All of this occurs in a beverage that is slightly tart and dry, refreshing, easy-to-drink, but yet still complex. Generally, saisons have an original specific gravity of 1.050 to 1.070 and finish at a specific gravity 1.005 to 1.014, resulting in a high apparent attenuation of 75 to 90%. The bittering level, higher than most Belgian styles, weighs in at 30 IBU for the lower gravity examples and can reach as high as 45 IBU. The color of a saison can be all over the charts, but most of the examples are from a straw color of 5 SRM to a copper color of 14 SRM.
The malt character for a saison should be light, but not overwhelm the hop, spice and yeast characters. Just about any Pilsner or pale malt can be used for the base malt; Pilsner malt will make a lighter, slightly less malty saison while pale malt will give the saison a slight malty character and a light orange hue. Light Munich or Vienna malt can be used up to 10–20% of the grain bill in order to add a slightly more complex and toasty malt character. Malted wheat can occupy up to 30% of the grain bill, and other cereal grains such as spelt or oats can be added in proportions less than 10% to give character and body. Historically, it is likely that unmalted wheat was also used.
A multiple-step infusion mash is used by many of today’s saison breweries. A protein rest at 131 °F (55 °C) and saccharification rests at 149 °F (65 °C) and 160 °F (71 °C) are common. But, when working with the commonly available highly-modified malts, the protein rest can be eliminated. When mashing a saison grist, the low end of the saccharification temperature range should be used to produce a drier, more fermentable beer. Temperatures between 149 °F and 153 °F (65–67 °C) are recommended.
Saisons are quite hoppy compared to most other Belgian styles in bittering, flavor and aroma, but the hop character should not overwhelm the yeast or spice character. Varieties with a spicy character such as Saaz, Hallertauer and Styrian Goldings work well for saisons as the spiciness of the hops meld well with that of the spices and yeast. Kent Goldings is used in a few saisons as well, contributing a slight fruity and spicy character with an herbal or earthy character.
Spices are added to some, but not all, saisons and lend a complexity to the hop and yeast characters. The spice character is usually delicate — complementing the beer and adding a layer of complexity without being overly assertive. Spices such as coriander, sweet or bitter orange peel, grains of paradise, cardamom and ginger are among many that can be found in saisons. Spices are best added in late additions (with 0–5 minutes left in the boil) or added in the secondary fermenter. Since the strength and flavor of each of these spices can vary by source, it is strongly suggested to start by adding one or two spices to a recipe and adjusting based on results.
As with most other Belgian beer styles, yeast is the heart and soul of a saison. The yeast character of a saison is of a complex spicy and peppery character with earthy and subtle fruity ester notes. The attenuation is high, leaving a dry finish and a gentle acidity. Some examples show a hint of Brettanomyces-derived notes.
The White Labs WLP565 (Belgian Saison) strain and the seasonally- available Wyeast 3724 (Belgian Saison) strain provide similar results. White Labs WLP550 (Belgian Ale) and Wyeast 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) strains are acceptable substitutes, but lack some of the earthy character and acidity.
The two saison strains are notoriously slow fermenters. Six to eight weeks in the primary and secondary fermenters may be required depending on a number of factors, including starting gravity, yeast starter size, fermentation temperature and cool wort aeration. A large yeast starter is suggested — I use a 0.5 gallon (~2 L) starter for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch. Aerate the cool wort as much as possible (using pure oxygen is suggested for best results). If the starting gravity is higher than 1.070, finishing the fermentation using a neutral secondary strain, such as White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), may be necessary. An alternate solution is to add corn sugar or Belgian candi sugar to the end of the boil (from 5 to 10% of the fermentables). The simple sugars are easier to ferment and will help the yeast attain a lower finishing gravity.
All four yeast strains produce good beer at high fermentation temperatures, which is typical of the fermentation techniques of saison brewers. White Labs lists the high end of the temperature range at 75 °F (24 °C) while Wyeast lists the maximum temperature for their strain at 85 °F (29 °C). I have conducted experiments at numerous temperature ranges. At 76 °F (24 °C), both the White Labs and Wyeast strains produced saisons with delicate and balanced esters and phenolics, with very little fusel alcohols, contrary to what one might expect. The higher fermentation temperature also resulted in a drier finish and higher attenuation than at the lower temperature of 68 °F (20 °C).
Mike’s Best Saison
(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.070 FG = 1.010
IBU = 40 SRM = 4–5 ABV = 7.7%
12.0 lb (5.5 kg) Belgian Pilsner malt (1.4–1.8 °L)
0.9 lb (0.4 kg) CaraPils malt (6–9 °L)
1.5 lb (0.7 kg) Vienna malt (3–4 °L)
9.1 AAU German Perle hops (60 min) (1.3 oz./37 g of 7% alpha acids)
3.8 AAU English Kent Goldings hops (10 min)(0.75 oz./21 g of 5% alpha acids)
1.3 AAU English Kent Goldings hops (0 min) (0.25 oz./7 g of 5% alpha acids)
1.8 AAU Czech Saaz hops (0 min) (0.5 oz./14 g of 3.5% alpha acids)
1 tsp coriander (coarsely crushed)
1 tsp sweet orange peel (coarsely crushed)
White Labs WLP565 (Belgian Saison) or Wyeast 3724 (Belgian Saison) yeast
Step by Step
Mash grains at 152 °F (67 °C) for 90 minutes. Boil wort for 75 minutes adding hops per scheduled times and spices with 5 minutes left in boil. Cool wort to room temperature and drain or rack the wort off of the trub. Aerate the cool wort with as much air or pure oxygen as possible. Ferment at 75 °F (24 °C) for 3 weeks in the primary and 3 weeks in the secondary.
Brewery Ommegang Hennepin clone
By Steve Bader
(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.070 FG = 1.008 IBU = 24 ABV = 8.0%
6.6 lbs. Muntons light malt extract syrup
0.5 lbs. Muntons light malt extract powder
2 lbs. light candi sugar
6.5 AAU Styrian Golding hops (bittering hop) (1.25 oz. of 5.25% alpha acid)
1.75 AAU Saaz hops (bittering hop) (0.5 oz. of 3.5% alpha acid)
1 tsp. Irish moss
1 oz. dried ginger root
1 oz. bitter orange peel
White Labs WLP550 (Belgian Ale) or Wyeast 1214 (Belgian Abbey) yeast
O.75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
Step by step
Boil 3 gallons of water. Remove from heat and stir in the malt syrup, powder and candi sugar. Resume heating and bring the wort to a boil. Add Styrian Golding (bittering) hops, Irish moss and boil for 60 minutes. Add the ginger root and bitter orange peel for the last 15 minutes of the boil. Add 0.5 ounce of Saaz (aroma) hops for the last two minutes of the boil. When done boiling, strain out hops, add wort to two gallons of cool water in a sanitary fermenter, and top off with cool water to 5.5 gallons. Cool the wort to 80 ºF, aerate the beer and pitch your yeast. Allow the beer to cool over the next few hours to 68–70 ºF and ferment for 10–14 days. Bottle and age for 2–3 weeks. Enjoy!