Style Profile explores a quintessentially Belgian treat.
By Michael Agnew
Illustration by DWITT
Saison as a style is notoriously hard to pin down. In this country, we have chosen Saison Dupont Vieille Provision as the benchmark. The Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines for saison describe this beer perfectly. Many American brewers who adopt the style aim to emulate it, right down to using Dupont’s famously finicky yeast strain. But this one beer, great though it is, doesn’t really capture the entire universe of saison.
Saison’s wily nature comes from its roots as a farmhouse brew. “Saison” means “season” in French. Historically the name referred more to the time of year in which the beer was made than to a particular type. Brewed in the winter and spring, saisons were meant to be kept and consumed throughout the summer when hydration was a must. Befitting this purpose, they were light, low-alcohol refreshers perfect for quenching thirst.
Saisons incorporated whatever ingredients happened to be on hand. Short on barley? Spelt, wheat, rye, or any other sugar source could substitute. Honey, perhaps? Hops are good for bringing balance, but herbs and spices from the kitchen garden will do the job as well. As kept beers, saisons picked up wild yeast and bacteria from the air or from the barrels in which they were stored. They were described as having a pleasing “rustic” character and high levels of acidity right into the early 20th century.
It wasn’t until after World War II that the profile we now identify as modern saison came about. Brewing had moved from the farm to the factory. As potable water became widely available, the need to hydrate with beer lessened, creating demand for stronger brews. The rise of clean-tasting lager beers caused a shift in consumer palates away from the rustic and the sour. Brewers obliged the market by producing higher alcohol beers with cleaner profiles.
Modern saison is perhaps most clearly defined by fermentation. Saison yeast strains bring an unmistakable blend of fruity esters – mostly citrus in flavor – and white pepper phenols that is immediately identifiable once you’ve tasted a few examples. The peppery notes are amplified by spicy and earthy hop flavors, moderate to high hop bitterness, and a high degree of attenuation that leaves many saisons with a bone-dry finish. Malt plays a mostly supporting role, bringing soft bready notes and light sweetness for balance. High carbonation adds to the refreshing nature of these beers. The BJCP guidelines list an IBU range from 20-35, but perceived bitterness may be higher due to the high attenuation. Alcohol ranges from 5%-7%.
Modern saisons have lost that rustic character of the past, but many are still brewed at farmhouse breweries. Saison Dupont is a perfect example, as are such producers as Brasserie de Blaugies and Brasserie De Silly. Some even maintain a bit of the old, barnyard funkiness. The beers of Brasserie Fantome have the unmistakable leathery notes of Brettanomyces and Boulevard Brewing Company’s Saison Brett is fermented entirely with this alternative yeast strain. At Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales every beer is aged in oak barrels. The barrels harbor the microflora that give Jolly Pumpkin beers their unique earthy and acidic flavors.
Other brewers maintain the old-school method of using alternative ingredients and flavoring adjuncts like spices and fruit. Blaugies’ Saison D’Épeautre is brewed with spelt while their Bière Darbyste uses fig juice. Florida’s Saint Somewhere Brewing Company combines a secretive blend of spices in their Saison Aethene. Funkwerks in Fort Collins, Colorado makes only saison. They utilize a wide range of grains, spices, fruits, and other ingredients like green tea.
The variability of saisons makes them versatile food beers. They are equally comfortable with a cracked-pepper crusted steak, fried fish, or Thai and Vietnamese dishes. They work well with firmer washed-rind cheese and absolutely sing with mild or aged Gouda. Rustic beers call for rustic foods, and French provincial cuisine is a great choice. A simple roasted chicken with garlic and herbs invites an easy-going table saison.
There are several great modern saisons available locally at retail. Here are a few to try.
From Belgium: Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Silly Saison, St-Feuillien Saison.
For a lighter take on the style, try Lift Bridge Farm Girl.