Saving Saison

Chances are, the region you are from, and sometimes even your city, is known for a specialty. It might be a local dish, a particular celebration during the year, or even a monument. Generally speaking, locals are rather well-informed about these and are proud of them.

In Belgium, we are proud of our beers. But thanks to decades of brainwashing from the industry about what a good beer should be, people don’t know as much about beer styles as they think. The vast majority of Belgian beer sales are bland lagers, sweet abbey-branded beers, and the like. That might explain, at least in part, why the craft beer revolution in Belgium is considerably delayed in comparison to many other countries.

The situation looks even weirder from abroad when you have a look at Wallonia, the south part of Belgium, which is known as (a part of) the homeland of saisons. As shocking as it might sound, saisons represent a marginal volume of the beer consumption in Wallonia and many of the beer-drinking residents have no idea what a saison is.

A part of this is forgivable given the blurry nature of saisons, but there are a few commonly accepted characteristics that link them all together. Fortunately, saison is becoming more popular among young Walloon brewers and at Brasserie de la Sambre (of which I am the Founder and Head Brewer) we are brewing more and more saisons to raise awareness of these beers. Two other friends and young brewers are also brewing saisons with the grains grown at their family farms at Brasserie la Rogère and Ca brasse pour moi. We can only hope the trend keeps growing among new Walloon brewers.

So, what makes a saison?

Saisons were originally brewed to quench the thirst of farm workers in the field during the summer harvests. At the time, most saisons were either noticeably bitter or sour. As both characteristics help the thirst-quenching quality of beer, they were particularly welcome in saison. Also helping assist in drinkability, they would be very low in residual sugar due to highly attenuative yeast/bacteria. As the saison would serve as a refreshment for the workers during the day, it needed to be low in ABV as each worker could receive up to a gallon (4 L) of beer every day. Note that these beers were considered stronger at the time, but rarely topped 4.5% ABV. A common characteristic that is used to define saison is their vinous character, but that probably only applies to the sour saisons that benefited from extended aging periods.

Modern interpretations of saison are pale in color, highly attenuated, dry, and moderate-ABV beers. Malt presence is not overcloying and the complexity from the grain bill often comes from grains such as rye, oats, wheat, and spelt. Bitterness is moderate to high and hop character is generally moderate with earthy, spicy, and/or floral notes. Yeast display fruity esters (most notably citrus) and spicy phenols (mostly pepper and moderate clove notes). Some farm-related aromas (e.g. barnyard) are also acceptable.   

Brewing with the cereals

The grain bill is probably one of the blurriest aspects of saisons. Indeed, these local beers were brewed with whatever the farmers had on site, most of the time including grains other than barley. Among the most commonly cited grains is spelt, which has been a major grain in Walloon agriculture and was likely to be used in many saisons. The other grains were mostly, if not exclusively, unmalted. If you attempt to produce a saison with a noticeable amount of unmalted grains, here are a few tips that we use in our beers.

Cereal Mash

Briefly, cereal mashing consists of cooking the raw grain at a given temperature that depends on the type of grain, historically with the addition of a portion of malted grain. This is often followed by a brief boiling step. 

You might read in some places that cereal mashing is required when working with raw grain, although I do not recommend doing one. In the grain, starch is organized as capsules where the different components of starch (amylose and amylopectin) are packed together. As you can imagine, this ball-like organization doesn’t allow the enzymes to efficiently access the starch molecules located inside the capsule, reducing the efficiency and speed of the saccharification reaction.

Fortunately, a reaction called gelatinization helps solve this issue. Indeed, when the starch granules are in the presence of water and sufficient heat, the granules will swell and break. For most of the grains used in brewing saison (barley, wheat, spelt, rye, oats), mash temperature will be sufficient to break down the starch granules. The exception might be rice, for which gelatinization might start at 154 °F (68 °C) depending on the case. Note that the gelatinization temperature for grains can vary because it depends on the size of the granules, which can vary from crop to crop.

In order to avoid trouble, just mash with a ratio of 1.4 quarts of water per pound of grain (3 L per kg) as the thinner mash will help the gelatinization process. Then mash at your target temperature and monitor the presence of starch using the iodine test. I usually go for a 90-minute mash when using a lot of unmalted grain.

Note that this applies to raw grains that haven’t been transformed. In flaked grains, starch has already been gelatinized and therefore, there is no need for a cereal mash.

Protein Rest

During malting, a few processes take place including modifications of the protein content. As a result, beers containing a significant proportion of unmalted grains will benefit from performing a protein rest, as these modifications of protein did not occur in the grain. 

The protein rest usually takes place between 113–131 °F (45–55 °C) and recommended duration varies from 15 to 30 minutes. At these temperatures, two classes of enzymes (peptidases and proteases) will degrade proteins and peptides into smaller fragments. It’s commonly accepted that degrading the proteins and peptides into smaller fragments through the action of the enzymes reduces/eliminates haze and improves head retention. While the positive impact of a protein rest on clarity is well established, the positive impact on head retention is more nuanced. Indeed, while it is well accepted that too long of a protein rest will result in the degradation of head-promoting proteins and decreased head retention, the gain from a protein rest depends on the degree of modification of the malt. If the malt is well modified, chances are that a protein rest won’t help much and is even likely to impede the beer’s head retention.   

Overall, the wiser approach is probably to adjust the duration of your rest to the amount of raw cereals in your grain bill. I generally use 15 minutes if raw grains make up less than 10% of the grain bill, 20 minutes if below 20%, and 30 minutes if below 30%. We have found that this yields beer without any haze and without hurting head retention, even when using large amount of unmalted grain.

Aside from the effect on haze and head retention, a protein rest will provide a pool of amino acids and small peptides called free amino nitrogen (FAN), which will be used as building blocks by the yeast and will make for a healthier fermentation.

Beta-Glucan Rest

Another potential issue when brewing with raw grain is the presence of higher amount of β-glucan. In addition to the cell membrane found in all living cells, vegetal cells harbor an additional layer of protection called the cell wall. More than 75% of the cell wall is composed of β-glucan, a polymer of glucose. Similarly to proteins, β-glucans are degraded by enzymes (called β-glucanase) during the malting.  As a result, unmalted grains and malted grain that are rich in β-glucan (oats, rye, and wheat) can significantly impact the mash, making it more gummy and viscous. The increased viscosity can cause issues during lautering. In addition, poorly degraded β-glucan can impede accessibility to starch, lowering the extract efficiency. A β-glucan rest helps lower the viscosity to avoid trouble during lautering (and should be coupled with mash out, as higher temperature decreases viscosity). Most β-glucanase are active between 98–113 °F (36–45 °C) and are inactivated above 122 °F (50 °C). The typical β-glucan rest is performed at 104 °F (40 °C) for 20 minutes. This can be adapted to the amount of β-glucan-rich grain present in the mash.

Ferulic Rest

Care should be taken when a performing protein and glucan rest, as the range for a ferulic rest is very close and even overlaps a part of them (109–113 °F/43–45 °C). Simply put, a ferulic rest will produce ferulic acid, which is later transformed by yeast in  4-Vinyl guaiacol (4VG), a phenolic compound that confers clove-like aroma to beer. 4VG is found in many saisons, including Dupont. However, this shouldn’t be a strong presence and most saison strains will produce the appropriate amount of 4VG without performing a ferulic rest. As a result, a ferulic rest might generate too much 4VG in the final beer. To avoid collateral generation of 4VG, glucan rests and protein rests should be performed away from the ferulic rest range, at 104 and 122 °F (40 and 50 °C) respectively.

Independent of the various rests that can help with your lautering, rice hulls can always be added to the mash to prevent a stuck mash. The recommended dose is usually 0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) for a 5-gallon (19-L) batch.

The Malt bill

I generally go for a simple malt bill made of Pilsner malt and small to moderate amounts of non-barley grain (5 to 30%, malted and/or un-malted). Note that many saisons were historically brewed with “Escourgeon,” a type of winter 6-row barley that was probably the dominant type of barley grown in Wallonia. Therefore, if you want to be even closer to a classic saison, try using winter 6-row malt instead of 2-row. Wheat and spelt always work great in saison, even in higher amounts. I also like rye for the mouthfeel it imparts to the beer despite a very low final gravity (FG) and for the rustic spicy notes it provides, but I find that its character is much more pronounced and so rye should be used in smaller amount (5–7% of the grain bill) to fully preserve the refreshing quality of the saison. Avoid Munich and Vienna malt for classic saisons since these will impart a more pronounced malt character, which would lower the thirst-quenching potential of the beer.

An original gravity (OG) ranging in the 1.040s to low 1.050s works perfect. FG should be low (1.000–1.006 ) as you don’t want any residual sweetness — which should be considered when mashing your grains. Saccharification rests for this style should be performed in the low 140s °F (60s °C).

The hops

What you want in a classic saison is that noble hop character with floral, spicy, earthy and/or lemony notes. Noble hops such as Saaz and Hallertau Mittelfrüh always work great. East Kent Golding and Styrian Golding also do well for a classic saison character, as shown by their use in Saison Dupont.

Modern varieties can be used with great results without ruining the identity of the saison. For instance, subtle doses of Motueka will provide a lime touch that I have found to be right at home in saison, with the added notes of lime strengthening the refreshing quality of the beer. Hallertau Blanc and Nelson Sauvin, again when used in doses that are subtle enough, will add white grape notes that’ll make the saison slightly more original without ruining its identity. Other hop varieties can be used with success as long as you apply the same logic of balance and careful dosage.

Regarding the bitterness, although it helps reinforce the thirst quenching quality of the saison, the low FG quickly leads to a high IBU/FG ratio, which informs the perceived bitterness of a beer. IBUs ranging from 20 to 35 are recommended depending on your FG and how bitter you want it to be. My impression is that 30 works well in most cases. For the bittering charge, I favor hop varieties with low cohumulone to avoid the harsh bitterness it is reported to have.

The yeast

Yeast selection plays a crucial role in saison. The logical go-to yeast is the Dupont strain, commercially available as Wyeast 3724/White Labs WLP565 (Belgian Saison). This strain will yield a classic saison profile with spicy phenolic notes and fruity esters. Recommended fermentation temperature is around 77 °F (25 °C) as it leads to a nice and balanced saison profile. The strain is notorious to cease fermenting around 1.035–1.040 before it wakes up and finishes the fermentation. What leads to this stuck momentary fermentation is still obscure to me but ramping up the temperature to 86 °F (30 °C) seems to help.

Similarly, Blaugies yeast offers the advantage of the Dupont yeast without the stuck episode and develops — in my opinion — more rustic notes and tartness. Some say that Blaugies and Dupont yeast are the same strain. While it’s wrong, it’s not coming out of nowhere. Indeed, for years Blaugies was using the Dupont strain until they made their own house strain by crossing the strain with some friends’ strains (based on personal communication with owner Pierre-Alex).

This Blaugies strain was commercially available as Wyeast Private Collection 3726 (Farmhouse Ale), but can also be obtained from the dregs of Blaugies’ bottles. It’s a beast of a yeast strain and typically leads to an attenuation rate of 90% and above. It tolerates higher temperatures, but I never had trouble making it work around 64 °F (18 °C) while still producing its expressive and unique character.

Another famous strain among homebrewers is Wyeast 3711/White Labs WLP590 (French Saison), believed to be the Thiriez strain. It’s the most aggressive strain of all three, yielding 90+% attenuation in a few days and tolerates harsh conditions including high gravities. Its high attenuation comes from the fact that the strain is a subspecies of S. Cerevisae called diastaticus. It produces enzymes called glucoamylase, which can break down starch and dextrins into fermentable sugar. The strain is also known as a high glycerol producer, which generates some body despite the low final gravity. It produces less esters than the other strains and I have found that it can produce unwanted flavors when fermented at typical saison temperature. For that reason, I recommend fermenting with it below 69 °F (21 °C).

Another interesting yeast (though not available in any yeast labs, to my knowledge) is the one used by Brasserie des Légendes. In speaking with Founder and Brewer Pierre Delcoigne, I was told they’ve been using the same yeast from batch to batch without going back to fresh yeast for the last 17 years. At the beginning, the yeast fermented down to 1.010–1.012 and after 5–6 years, it started having trouble attenuating further than 1.020. Then it progressively went down and is now reaching 100% attenuation, according to Pierre. He says the yeast is now producing an enzyme that degrades complex sugar, in a similar way to diastaticus, although he says that it remains a pure Cerevisae strain. Their strain also contains the phenolic off-flavor (POF) gene that produces 4VG.

I’m usually a partisan of the “simpler is better” and therefore use dry yeast with many beer styles, but in this case I prefer the characteristics of the liquid yeast strains.But for dry yeast users, Lallemand Belle Saison and SafAle BE-134 could be utilized.

The Water

Saisons were brewed very differently at each farm, so a “typical water profile,” per se, does not exist. However, we know that the water from Hainaut is generally quite hard. Table 1, below, includes the most recent data from relevant breweries in western Hainaut. Please note that these are values from the distribution system. Most breweries are drawing the water directly from groundwater below the breweries. However, the values do show some trends that are also found in groundwater from the area.

As shown, most profiles are hard to very hard and ion levels are low except for calcium and sulfate. Personal communication with Dupont and Brasserie des Légendes confirmed that the groundwater they use is hard and not softened before being used in brewing. While the groundwater is similar to the distribution water in most cases (e.g. there is a 5% difference at Brasserie des Légende’s when comparing the two sources), it seems a bit different in the case of Blaugies’ groundwater. Indeed, they told me that their water is quite acidic and goes untreated as the pH falls straight within the right range for brewing.

While many breweries in this region have ignored the classic saison, it is the younger generation and homebrewers who may bring it back. I, for one, certainly welcome its return.

Belgian-Style Saison

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.048   FG = 1.003
IBU = 26.1   SRM = 4  ABV = 5.9%

This saison is very dry, with a balanced lemony tartness from the yeast. Flaked wheat adds complexity, body, and smoothness. Rye adds complexity, mainly in the form of spiciness. No aroma hops are used in this version, which focuses on the yeast and grains. For more hop character, I would recommend dry hopping with a noble hop variety or a moderate amount of Motueka and/or Nelson Sauvin.

6.6 lbs. (3 kg) 2-row Pilsner malt
2.2 lbs. (1 kg) flaked wheat
14 oz. (0.4 kg) rye malt
7.4 AAU Hallertau Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.53 oz./15 g at 14% alpha acids)
Wyeast 3726 (Farmhouse Ale) or Wyeast 3724 (Belgain Saison) or starter from the dregs of a bottle of Blaugies beer
1 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
The brewing starts with a 20-minute protein rest performed at 122 °F (50 °C) in 3.5 gallons (13.2 L) of water. At the end of the protein rest, raise mash up to 145 °F (63 °C) to reach the saccharification rest. Maintain the temperature for 75 minutes and before getting to the mash out, make sure to perform an iodine test. This should not be a problem since the amount of unmalted grain is rather limited, but taking extra safety is rarely a bad idea. If the test is negative, bring the mash to 172 °F (78 °C) for 15 minutes. Proceed to vorlauf,  with the flow at a moderate speed to avoid a stuck sparge. Sparge with 4.5 gallons (17 L) of water at 172 °F (78 °C).

Bring the wort to a boil and add the bittering hop charge. Maintain the boil for 60 minutes and then proceed to the cooling. Pitch the yeast, aerate, and ferment for four days at 64–68 °F (18–20 °C) or higher if you’re willing to (Blaugies can be fermented at 78+ °F/25+ °C without any trouble). After the initial four days, you can raise the fermentation to 75 °F (24 °C) to help the yeast end fermentation efficiently. Total fermentation usually lasts for 10 to 15 days, depending on the conditions. A maturation of 10 to 15 additional days with stable gravity before cold crashing is highly advised. If you want to add any hop aroma, add a dry hop charge for 4 days before proceeding to the cold crash step. Cold crash at 39 °F (4 °C) for 7–10 days. Bottle or keg as usual.

Belgian-Style Saison

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.048   FG = 1.003
IBU = 26.1   SRM = 4  ABV = 5.9%

4 lbs. (1.8 kg) Pilsen dried malt extract
14 oz. (0.4 kg) 2-row Pilsner malt
2.2 lbs. (1 kg) flaked wheat
14 oz. (0.4 kg) rye malt
7.4 AAU Hallertau Magnum hops (60 min.) (0.53 oz./15 g at 14% alpha acids)
Wyeast 3726 (Farmhouse Ale) or Wyeast 3724 (Belgain Saison) or starter from the dregs of a bottle of Blaugies beer
1 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Place grains in a grain bag. The brewing starts with a 20-minute protein rest performed at 122 °F (50 °C) in 1-gallon (3.8-L) of water. At the end of the protein rest, raise mash up to 145 °F (63 °C) in order to reach the saccharification rest. Maintain the temperature for 75 minutes and then perform an iodine test. If the test is negative, bring the mash to 172 °F (78 °C) for 15 minutes. Wash the grains with 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water at 172 °F (78 °C). Top off to 5 gallons (19 L) and add the dried malt extract. Stir until completely dissolved. Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.

Issue: March-April 2018