This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.
Brewer, author, gastronome, and beer critic Garrett Oliver said, “[I]f I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it.” It’s one of my favorites too, and one of the most fascinating families of beer to brew and taste.
Saison is arguably the epitome of a “farmhouse beer.” According to many beer historians, its roots lie in the past of the French-speaking Belgian province of Wallonia, where self-sufficient farmsteads brewed their own ales during the cold months to keep their cellars stocked during the planting, growing and harvesting seasons. Although many fine examples are now brewed outside Belgium, the use of a variety of cereal grains – barley, wheat, oats, spelt – and a range of available botanicals underscore saison’s locavore, agricultural heritage.
Mapping the sensory descriptors of a saison on a spider chart makes it look on paper like the flavor explosion that it is in the glass: fruity, citric, spicy, earthy, musty, grainy, peppery, hoppy, herbal, bitter, tart, prickly with effervescence, perhaps funky or slightly sour from some elective non-Saccharomyces action. These yeast-derived impressions are very prominent, and there’s no such thing as a boring (or adjective-deficient) saison.
Saison is a multi-headed beast of a beer. There’s an incredible diversity of expression under this single-word stylistic umbrella: 3-4% session-strength table saisons, the classic 5-6% formulation, stronger “provision” and/or holiday seasonals, dry-hopped, spiced or unspiced, tinged with Brettanomyces, golden to orange in color with deviations into black … however, some shared commonalities are a “rustic” quality, dryness (from high attenuation, hard water, or both), a high level of carbonation, and – most importantly – yeast-driven complexity.
Going by numbers
As the wide range of strength, color, and ingredients suggest, this is a style where the numbers can’t tell the whole story, but for the sake of pinning something down, let’s look at “classic” saison, what the Beer Judge Certification Program’s style guidelines consider a textbook example:
An original gravity of 1.048–1.065 ahead of a potentially extremely-attenuated final gravity range of 1.002–1.012 makes for an alcohol by volume content of 5–7%. Bitterness can run from 20 up to 35 IBU, but will often seem higher than that due to the combination of high attenuation and high carbonation. The color in the glass goes from a golden 5 SRM up to a russety-orange 14 SRM (but as mentioned before, we’ll find commercial examples all over the map).
What makes it tick
In a word: it’s the yeast.
Without the right strain, the authentic peppery, earthy, “rustic” quality essential to this style is lost, and it’s just not a saison. Fortunately, there are a plethora of good saison-specific yeasts homebrewers can choose from (some of which include sour or wild bugs as part of a blend). More on this later.
The archetypal saison yeast comes from what many consider to be the hallmark brewer, Brasserie Dupont. In Great Beers of Belgium, author Michael Jackson relates a quote: “A brewer with the Dupont yeast is touched by God.” It is justifiably famous for the immensely complex bouquet with which it gifts a wort; it’s also justifiably famous for being a finicky bastard – more on this later, too.
And, since this ale originates in Belgium, European ingredients are traditional – Pils and Vienna malts for a base, Munich malt and perhaps the aforementioned wheat/oats/spelt/what have you in a supporting role; maybe a small dose of simple sugar to ensure high attenuation and reinforce the dry finish; finally, noble, low-alpha continental and/or English hop varieties throughout the boil (and sometimes dry-hopped). The use of herbs and spices is not required, but not unheard of either – coriander and grains of paradise are just a couple of many possibilities.
Having said all that, many of the “dank tropical fruit” hops now available from the Southern Hemisphere (Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Wakatu …) work very nicely in a saison, especially its lighter, paler iterations.
A recipe to try:
Saison Classic – 5 gallons, all-grain
Target OG: 1.054
Target IBU: 30
5 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt (sub German Pils if Belgian not available)
4 lbs Belgian Vienna malt (sub German Vienna if Belgian not available)
1 lb Wheat malt
1.75 oz East Kent Goldings
0.75 oz Styrian Goldings
I’m going to pitch Wyeast 3711 for its ease-of-use and high attenuation; feel free to take your pick of any saison strain or blend that suits your fancy
Key Points for Key Pints:
Mash low for high attenuation. In my book, there’s no such thing as a too-dry saison. Chaptalizing the wort with a small percentage of table sugar or honey won’t hurt either, but the 3711 strain I’m going with in my batch should have no problem finishing its work south of 1.010 on its own.
Touched by the Dupont yeast? If you want to try your hand at this strain, inquire at your friendly neighborhood LHBS for availability. My personal bias is that this is a fantastic yeast that reliably produces a wonderfully authentic saison – if you can wait for it. It’s notoriously slow to ferment out and known to freeze up in the middle of primary and then start again days later. In my experience, the best approach is to overpitch with a big starter, give it plenty of O2, ferment hot (not warm, hot … >80°F), and remain patient – it’s made me wait before, but never let me down.
Touched by another strain? Many other saison yeasts will give solid results with less fuss and in less time – again, solicit opinions at your LHBS or from fellow homebrewers.
To the homebrewery!
Note: these steps are general guidelines and assume you’re already familiar with the all-grain brewing process – refer to the instructions for your brew system, and adjust as needed based on experience with your own particular equipment.
Make a yeast starter prior to brew day – this is especially critical if using the Dupont strain.
On brew day, collect strike water and heat to approx. 156°F.
Mill the grains, or have it done for you at the shop
Mash & Sparge
Add all grains to strike water and mix to achieve a uniform temperature of approximately 148°F. Rest the mash at this temperature for 60 – 90 minutes.
While the mash rests, collect and heat sparge water.
When the mash rest is complete, heat it to 170 F for mashout.
Sparge and collect the wort in the boil kettle.
Bring the wort to a boil. Add 1 oz East Kent Goldings hops when the wort begins to boil, and boil for 60 minutes.
Add 0.5 oz of East Kent Goldings and 0.5 oz Styrian Goldings 15 minutes before the end of the boil.
Fermentation and beyond
Transfer the cooled wort to a sanitized fermenter, aerate well, and pitch yeast.
Depending on the yeast strain being used, aim for a fermentation temp no lower than 70°F, and possibly even above 80°F – consult the yeast lab’s specs for your strain. Depending on yeast strain and temp, primary should be completed in 7 to 30 days (remember, patient!).
Rack to a secondary fermenter (if desired), and dose with the dry hops – 0.25 oz East Kent Goldings and 0.25 oz Styrian Goldings. Leave the beer in contact with the dry hops for 5 days (or to your taste), then rack and package – aim for a high level of CO2 in the keg or bottle, between 2 and 3 vols.
Our saison will be ready to drink as soon as it’s carbonated, but – since this was a style meant for laying down and keeping – it will stay sound and continue to evolve in a cool cellar or fridge for many months.
Until next time: drink it like you brewed it.
Like this recipe? You can find it and 63 other witty and detailed homebrew recipes in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” In each recipe, Dawson includes suggestions on how to modify and customize each beer, along with all-new essays on Malt, Hops, Yeast, and Water, giving readers critical insight into the building blocks of every successful brew. On sale now for $24.95 at mashmakerbook.com.