Simply Saison

A family of farmhouse beers

slightly hazy pale beer in a stemmed tulip shaped glassware
Photo by Charles A. Parker/Images Plus

Saison is a difficult style to write about because there are so many modern variations – it’s like today if you asked someone to “tell me about IPA.” I find it easiest to think of it as a broad family of beers that happens to have a most common version. The family members have much in common, but will vary in both strength and color. It doesn’t help that the style also is interpreted in different ways, or used as the base style for other experimentation. These factors make the style interesting to the beer enthusiast but challenging for a beer judge or someone developing a sensory profile for the style.

Since there is essentially a flagship version of the style, my explanation begins around defining that example before discussing all the possible variations. That type is the pale, standard-strength version most popularly typified by Saison Dupont — indeed, a great beer, but one of many world-class examples. The 2021 BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Style Guidelines includes saison as Style 25B in the Strong Belgian Ale category along with Belgian blonde ale and Belgian golden strong ale. This category contains stronger, pale, well-attenuated beers driven mostly by yeast character.

Saison’s History

Saison has a long history, but as with most styles like this there is some disagreement about the origins and how the style has changed over time. Large and/or modern breweries often create histories that favor their products, or at least show them in the best light. So it can be difficult to be precise about origins and developments of styles before such things as styles existed.

In the craft beer era, saison is thought of as a farmhouse ale, a term not typically used in its place of origin. It is meant to invoke an image of a beer brewed on local farms for field workers and to present an artisanal image. It is here where I normally interject that farmhouse does not mean barnyard and that one should not assume that the beer was made in dirty conditions or that it has some kind of funky character. It simply means that it was produced using a variety of grains that might be grown on local farms.

Saison means “season” in French, and is likewise meant to describe a beer brewed “in season” during cold weather and stored as a provision, or stock ale, for consumption during warmer weather. Some have taken it to mean that there are different examples for each season, but that is more of a modern interpretation popularized by the Fantôme brewery.

If you consider these last two paragraphs together, you see there is a conflict in the characterizations. Beers brewed as provision ales tend to be stronger, but why would you want to get your field workers liquored up? I think maybe there are different beers being lumped together for story-telling purposes, although I do believe each statement is individually true. It’s just that they may not be describing the same thing.

Beers certainly were produced in the agricultural region of northern France, including what is now Belgium (and especially Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium), since at least the 15th century. The name saison is associated with the provisional beers that were not always produced on farms, but in breweries (that could, in fact, be on a farm) with skilled craftsman who could make beer that would keep for many months without spoiling.

Saison has a long history, but as with most styles like this there is some disagreement about the origins and how the style has changed over time

Farmers could make low-strength beers for workers as a preferred drink instead of potentially contaminated water. The imagery of this farmhouse example seems to have been combined with the historical style in modern times by larger producers after World War I. Saison Dupont was first made in the 1920s, for example. The general trend of larger breweries supplanting local artisanal breweries continued through World War II and most modern examples are made in larger breweries.

In the 20th century, different variations of the modern saison were produced. Dupont began making a stronger version (Moinette) in 1954 and a brown version in the 1980s. Fantôme started making the seasonal saisons in 1988. Modern craft saisons tend to be in the image of Saison Dupont, with possible variations of strength and color. The lower-gravity versions (including grisette, a type of beer popular with miners) have enough similarities that they can be considered within the same style family for judging purposes, even if historians might cringe at their grouping. 

Sensory Profile

I spent quite a bit of time creating the overall impression for this style for the BJCP Style Guidelines, so I’ll just use that as my main reference since I think it really hits the highlights well. A saison is a family of refreshing, highly attenuated, hoppy, and fairly bitter Belgian ales with a very dry finish and high carbonation. They are characterized by a fruity, spicy, sometimes phenolic fermentation profile, and the use of cereal grains and sometimes spices for complexity. Several variations in strength and color exist.

The BJCP style definition includes three strength variations — table (3.5–5% ABV), standard (5–7% ABV), and super (7–9.5% ABV) with two color variations – pale (gold to amber) and dark (copper to brown). The type of character grains used (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, etc.) may be declared. These variations allow grisette to be defined as a table-strength, pale saison with wheat as the character grain, for example.

For me, I look for a saison to be very dry with a low final gravity (more important to me than the percentage attenuation) and a very high carbonation that helps form a dense, rocky head. These two qualities make the beer refreshing. The body should be light to medium-low, which also keeps the beer from being heavy. 

The aroma and flavor are dominated by yeast and hops, with peppery phenols more than clove, and fruity notes associated with citrus-type fruit, or sometimes apples, pears, or apricots. Hops are continental, showing herbal, floral, or spicy notes. The malt character is relatively neutral, but can have grainy, sometimes rustic, notes. The bitterness level is moderate to high and the finish should never be sweet. Alcohol, if detected, is light.

The table strength versions have a similar character but less intensity. Stronger versions can have a little more body and alcohol noted, but still retain the refreshing quality. Darker versions add more malt character associated with darker grains, but usually more toasted and caramelly flavors and not roasted or burnt.

Some commercial versions have some sourness but this is not traditional. Those that are sour tend to be less bitter since sourness and bitterness clash on the palate. Some craft producers in the U.S. use Brettanomyces, although this is also not traditional. Those examples are better judged in the Brett Beer category under American wild ales. 

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

Following the farmhouse image, saisons typically use some cereal grains such as wheat, oats, spelt, or rye in the grist. Pale base malts, pale ale or Pilsner-type, are common for the rest — Belgians will of course use local grains as their first choice. Darker versions use more highly kilned malts or darker sugars for color and flavor. Pale sugar may be used as an adjunct to increase attenuation.

Some form of step mash to increase attenuation and dryness is typically employed, often with multiple steps. The use of cereal grains often dictates the need to use lower temperature rests to break down some of the more complex starches in grains that have not been malted. Other types of mashing can be used, as long as the mash schedule is designed to encourage fermentability and high attenuation in the final product. 

Hops are typically European, with Belgian, French, English, or German varieties common. Many varieties can be used as long as the sensory characteristics work with the chosen yeast variety. Hops typically described as herbal, spicy, or floral will work best. A bitterness addition that produces a balance on the bitter side is desired — the beer should not seem sweet due to low bitterness. Flavor additions and aroma additions are common, but should not overwhelm the yeast. Think complementary as the goal. Dry hopping is possible in this style.

The yeast selection is critical for a saison with specialized yeasts usually with saison in the name rather than a more generic Belgian strain. Many of these yeasts have a genetic variation that makes them high attenuators of beer, so if you see diastaticus or STA1 in the details, you have the right one. These yeasts should produce the desired flavor profile (spicy and fruity), not just be high attenuators. As previously noted, Brettanomyces is not typically used to produce this style. The diastatic yeast can do the job on its own. That said, Brett versions often are quite enjoyable but should be best entered in the Brett Beer category with saison as the base style. 

Some Belgians might use herbs and spices (Saison Pipaix is known for using a touch of black pepper, for instance) but most do not use these additions. Between the yeast and the hops, the beers will usually have plenty of spicy notes. If spices become individually noticeable, the beer may be better entered in the Spice, Herb, and Vegetable Beer category instead.

While I often have more concrete examples of ingredients used in style descriptions, I’ve kept these recommendations intentionally vague. Phil Markowski, in his dated but still excellent book Farmhouse Beers, says that “almost anything goes” when it comes to formulating these recipes. To be overly prescriptive limits that well-known Belgian creativity. I think having the style goals in mind when you make your choices is the best way to approach recipe development for this style.

Homebrew Example

I like my saisons like my cocktails, with some rye in them. In this case, I’m using some flaked rye but malted rye can be substituted. The bulk of the grist is Pilsner malt and, for a saison, I like to use grain from a Belgian or French maltster like Dingemans or MFB. Some additional character base malt like wheat malt, Munich malt, and a pale ale malt like Golden Promise round out the grist. I think using some of these additional character-type malts gives a stronger, grainier flavor, which seems to fit the farmhouse tradition.

I’ve played around with a variety of mash programs in a saison and I think a traditional step mash is quite reliable. The lower rests help with unmalted starches while the main rest temperature encourages maltose production that subsequently makes the beer dry when fermented out. The mash program, combined with the yeast I describe later, helps the beer finish at a lower gravity. If you find that you cannot reach the lower final gravity levels, try adding some white sugar or turbinado sugar.

For the hops, I’m using a more modern variety, Pacific Jade from New Zealand. The description talks about lemon rind and black pepper flavors, which is what I want from my saisons. If you substitute hops look for something that is described as citrusy and peppery. Avoid yeast that produce clove-, smoke-, or plastic-like phenolic compounds. First wort hopping provides a smooth bitterness and moderate hop flavor followed by a late addition to provide some additional aroma.

My favorite saison yeast is Wyeast 3711 (French Saison), which is a diastaticus yeast strain – meaning it can ferment additional carbohydrates that normal brewer’s yeast cannot, which leads to a drier finish. If you substitute yeast, look for one described as diastatic or having the STA1 gene. The other strains I list in the recipe also have this characteristic. I found the French saison yeast to work at normal to warm room temperature and not requiring any special fermentation procedures. 

Remember, the final balance of the beer should be dry, highly attenuated, and fairly bitter with a fruity and spicy yeast and hop character. The low final gravity creates more alcohol so be careful about increasing the starting gravity — it will make a bigger beer, but also may give it more body and less perceived dryness. Finally, a high level of carbonation accentuates the dryness and spiciness of the beer, so be sure to use heavier bottles or keep the beer in a keg.

Saison by the Numbers

OG: 1.048–1.065
FG: 1.002–1.008
SRM: 5–14
IBU: 20–35
ABV: 5–7%


(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.055  FG = 1.006
IBU = 28  SRM = 5  ABV = 6.5%

9 lbs. (4.1 kg) Pilsner malt
8 oz. (227 g) pale ale malt
8 oz. (227 g) Munich malt
8 oz. (227 g) wheat malt
1 lb. (454 g) flaked rye
6.5 AAU Pacific Jade hops (first wort hop) (0.5 oz./14 g at 13% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Pacific Jade hops (5 min.)
Wyeast 3711 (French Saison), White Labs WLP590 (French Saison), Wyeast 3726 (Farmhouse Ale), or LalBrew Belle Saison yeast
1 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 0.5 tsp. of calcium chloride and 0.5 tsp. calcium sulfate to the mash.

This recipe uses a step mash. Use enough water to have a moderately thick mash (1.5 qts./lb. or 3.1 L/kg). Mash in the malts at 131 °F (55 °C) and hold for 15 minutes. Raise to 144 °F (63 °C) and hold for 60 minutes. Raise the temperature to 158 °F (70 °C) and hold for 15 minutes. Begin recirculating, raise the mash temperature to 169 °F (76 °C) for mash out then recirculate for an additional 15 minutes.

Put the first wort hops in the boil kettle, then sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort. 

Boil the wort for 60 minutes adding hops at the time indicated in the recipe ingredients list. 

After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 72 °F (22 °C), pitch the yeast, aerate if using a liquid yeast strain, and ferment at this temperature until complete. 

Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 3 v/v.


(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.055  FG = 1.006
IBU = 28  SRM = 5  ABV = 6.5%

4 lbs. (1.8 kg) extra light or Pilsen dried malt extract 
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) weizen/wheat dried malt extract
6.5 AAU Pacific Jade hops (first wort hop) (0.5 oz./14 g at 13% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Pacific Jade hops (5 min.)
Wyeast 3711 (French Saison), White Labs WLP590 (French Saison), Wyeast 3726 (Farmhouse Ale), or LalBrew Belle Saison yeast
1 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Heat 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle to 158 °F (70 °C). Turn off the heat. Add the malt extracts and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Turn the heat back on, add first wort hops, and bring to a boil. 

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the time indicated.

After the boil is complete, chill the wort to 72 °F (22 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment at this temperature until complete. 

Rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate to 3 v/v.

Issue: January-February 2023