As the weather turns from ‘mostly cloudy’ to ‘partially cloudy’ we can’t help but yearn for something dry, bitter, and thirst-quenching. Sure there are your usual suspects like West Coast IPAs and German lagers. Going down the path less travelled is the spicy, fizzy, fruity, quinine-like saison.
Usually when we cover a beer style, the question of ‘what is a stout’ or ‘what is lager’ is relatively straightforward (although with many evolutions). Saison is a different case.
What is clear is that the style hails from French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium. In French, saison means ‘season.’ Saison was a rustic, seasonal ale brewed in winter and drunk in early to late spring.
However, there is much more to the genetic makeup of what we refer to today as a ‘saison.’
Not as old as some beer styles we’ve written about, early mentions of ‘Biere de saison’ were first recorded in the 19th century. Funnily enough, this reputed farmhouse ale appears to have been birthed by the industrial city of Liege.
Professional brewers at the time used spelt and unmalted wheat to produce a low-alcoholic beer with complex spice characteristics. How low are we talking? Probably between 2-4% (sounds great to us).
Unlike British cask beer, these sessionable alcohol concentrations were not due to wartime rationing. To understand why saisons were traditionally low in ABV we need to go back to the 18th century.
Before biere de saison was a thing, farmers were essentially making homebrew on-site. There was no refrigeration or temperature control for fermenters. During primary fermentation, temperatures would reach between 29 and 35 °C. If you’re a home brewer or a pro, seeing those numbers would normally give you a small heart attack!
But these farmhouse ales love it near-tropical. The warmth encourages the local yeasts to pump out loads of flavour compounds. Fruity esters hinted at citrus and red fruits while big phenols draw sketches of herbal spices and medicinal notes.
These beers were typically drunk by farm workers possibly more for sustenance than attaining a buzz. Beer is liquid bread after all! Of course, you can’t have the workforce getting wankered while performing manual labour. The farm owners knew this, hence the low ABV.
Speaking of yeast, it’s likely farmers were pitching mixed strains of Saccharomyces (brewer’s yeast), Brettanomyces (wild yeast) and acid-producing anaerobic bacteria. It’s not like they would have been getting pitches from a brewing lab or following modern-day hygiene practices. (It’s likely livestock were occasionally cohabitating in shared spaces where beer was being produced and stored).
Due to these wild-like fermentations, each beer would give a drinking experience unique to the farm it came from. This is similar to the Eastern European and Scandinavian farmhouse ales still in production today.
Every brewer was free to experiment with adding locally grown and foraged ingredients. This included the addition of fruits, herbs, and spices. In this way, saisons may sound a bit like gruit—don’t worry, saisons historically have been well-hopped! Some are even dry-hopped.
Saison wouldn’t be what it is today without Brasserie Dupont and American importer Don Feinberg. Urged by legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, Feinberg visited the brewery in Tourpes during the 1980s.
Saison Dupont represented the tiniest fractions of the brewery's portfolio. Brasserie Dupont was considering scrapping the beer altogether to increase the production of its best-selling Moinette Blond.
Long story short, Feinberg convinced his bosses to bring Saison Dupont to the US. American drinkers were initially confused by the beer. A slightly hazy pale orange beer at 6.5% ABV, some marketing was needed to distinguish a saison from wheat beers, lambics, and Belgian strong ales.
For Feinberg the solution was simple, he donned (pardon the pun) Saison Dupont as a ‘hoppy farmhouse ale.’
And as they say, the rest is history.
Saison Dupont gradually spread its influence to American homebrewers and beer lovers alike. This led to the creation of the Saison beer style by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).
As expected, the original ‘saison’ category was heavily shaped by Dupont’s nearly-scrapped saison. As more Belgium farmhouse brewers have been discovered, the classification of this style has evolved and become looser to accommodate the great diversity found in the wild.
The most recent BJCP guidelines (2021) define these specifications for the beer.
1,048- 1.065 (standard)
3.5 – 5.0% (table)
5.0 – 7.0% (standard)
7.0 – 9.5% (super)
At this point, saisons can be light or dark, and range from 3.5% to nearly 10% alcohol by volume!
Today the terms ‘saison’ and ‘farmhouse ale’ are thrown around haphazardly and used interchangeably. Which is it, saison or farmhouse ale?
Many share the mindset of Jonny Mills, co-founder of the farmhouse-inspired Mill’s Brewing. “I've always regarded Farmhouse ale as the catch-all term for saison, Biere de Garde, grisette or any country's farmhouse brewing, etc. While Saison is a specific Belgian/French beer [style].”
So farmhouse ales aren’t necessarily made on a farm but are at least inspired by farmhouse brewers of the past. The farmhouse umbrella then covers wild ales, kviek, keptinis and other strange and wonderful brews.
From this perspective, all saisons are farmhouse ales, but not all farmhouse ales are saisons.
Co-founder of Lost and Grounded Brewers, Alex Troncoso takes follows a different opinion. “Saison / Farmhouse Ale is a difficult style as it is so broad, i.e. it can be pale to light amber, can be phenolic or not, can have Brettanomyces character or not, and so on. So what even is it… I guess it is whatever the brewer wants it to be. I take [farmhouse ale] as the same style, but an interchangeable term, however, some of me tends to relate a degree of tartness or Brettanomyces character to farmhouse ale.”
Like most things with saisons, we can’t reach a consensus. Most brewers will at least agree that saisons should be dry, bitter, yeast-driven and highly carbonated. In our opinion, the most important addendum to that list is that saison is as “the brewer wants it to be.”.
There are plenty of tasty saisons from Belgium, The UK, and other parts of the world.
The Saison Universe is vast and mostly undiscovered. Here are some of our favourites.
Brasserie Dupont- Avec Les Bons Vœux de la Brasserie Dupont- After you’ve tried Saison Dupont it’s time to dive in with Avec Les Bons Vœux. This golden saison (9.5% ABV) has been brewed since 1970. Part of a New Year’s Day celebration, the beer is packed with layers of banana, citrus, and spice.
Brasserie de Blaugies- La Moneuse- a light- orange saison brewed to 8% ABV. Less hoppy and crisp than Dupont but with a rich, earthy, and vinous character. The finish is built on lingering phenolic spices (clove and pepper).
St. Feuillien- Saison- brewing for 150 years, this family-owned brewery put out a slightly hazy farmhouse ale that hits all of the expectations for the style. St. Feuillien is spicy, earthy, crisp, and highly carbonated.
Lost and Grounded Brewers- Saison D’Avon a classic ‘clean’ 6.5% saison, a homage to the original. Fruity, floral, and spice notes dance on your tongue thanks to well-paired hops and yeast. This Bristol-based saison is highly carbonated with a fluffy mouthfeel built on oats and wheat.
Burning Sky- Saison Été- Saison Été is a 4.2% straw-coloured ale brewed with fresh elderflowers. It is then aged on gooseberries with a house blend of saison and wild yeast strains that produce a tart and refreshing beer.
Mills Brewing Co.- Saison Cider Cask- this offering from Mills Brewing is the most ‘saison-y’ from the producer's eclectic portfolio. A mash bill packed with wheat is wild fermented in Herefordshire cider casks before being dry-hopped with Celiia. Every batch is unique.
We think there’s no better time to crush a bitter and crisp restorative than right now. Whether a farmhouse ale or a saison, these highly carbonated, and confusingly diverse beers will keep you coming back for more.
Now you may be a bit concerned with all of these 6/7/8% saisons floating around the craft beer ocean. Temper those anxieties because our founder Matty has been in the lab wrangling yeast to produce a non-alcoholic saison.
That’s right, all that citrus, spicy goodness packing only 0.5% ABV!
Watch this space for more details. Until then, satiate your thirst for no/ low craft beers by visiting our online store.