Saison is a light, refreshing ale originally brewed in farmhouses in the French speaking regions of Belgium for field workers. Now the beer is brewed in many locations around the world. Its a complex style with a mix of fruity aroma and flavor, some spiciness and even a hint of tartness.
The History of Saison
Saison originated in Wallonia, the French speaking southern half of Belgium. It was traditionally brewed for the fall season to refresh farm workers during the harvest. “Saison” is the French word for season, as Saisons were most frequently brewed in the fall/winter seasons and then stored for the following fall’s harvest. It shares some characteristics with its cousin, Biere de Garde. Saison was also moderate to highly hopped to survive the long storage period.
While modern Saison’s range from 5-8% ABV, traditional Saison had a much lower alcohol content of 3-4% ABV. The lower alcohol content made the beer refreshing during a hard work day and kept the workers relatively sober, as some farmhouses had daily allotments of 4-5 liters per worker.
Saison’s were usually brewed locally in the farmhouse for the workers, and was bottle conditioned. Many Saisons in Belgium are still bottle conditioned. Some Saisons were even blended with Belgian Lambic to increase the acidity and add complexity to the finished beer.
The Saison Beer Style
There is a fair amount of variation with Saison – with light to darker variants, some Saisons using spices, and some blended or soured slightly. The BJCP style guide describes Saison as highly fruity with a fruity-ester aroma reminiscent of citrus fruit such as oranges or lemons. It may have a moderate hop aroma and some spice aroma but only from the addition of spices.
A low to moderate sour-acidity may be present. It may have a light malty flavor with no diaceytls.
The color is golden to amber in color (4-14 SRM). Alcohol content ranges from the traditional 3.5% to a more modern 6.5%. Original gravity runs from 1.055-1.080 (14-19.5 plato). Hop bitternes is moderate to moderately assertive (20-40 IBUS) and should balance the maltiness of the beer for both the lighter and heavier versions of the style.
Saison is usually bottle conditioned, and may have a slight chill or yeast haze and is highly carbonated.
The bulk of a Saison’s grain bill is based on Pilsner malt. Vienna and Munich malts are most often added (up to 10%) to contribute color and complexity to the beer. Wheat malt is used in some Saisons but is not always included. Darker Saisons also sometimes include darker Crystal malt for color. Candi sugar or honey are sometimes used to add flavor and alcohol without increasing the body of the beer.
Some Saisons are soured or acidified using acid malt, sour mashing techniques, Lactobacillus bacteria or by blending the finished beer with Lambic.
Noble hops, East Kent Goldings and Styrian hops are most often used in Saisons. The hops should balance the malt, but not dominate the flavor of the beer. Some Saisons are dry hopped. Also some stronger versions of Saison do use spices of various kinds to add additional complexity. Most brewers recommend starting without spices, but corriander and bitter orange peel are popular additions for stronger Saisons.
The use of hard water (or gypsum), which is common in Wallonia, can accentuate the dry finish and bitterness of the finished beer.
Unique Saison or Belgian yeast strains are an important ingredient for true Saison as they generates a large portion of the fruity esters and complex flavor that defines Saisons.
Body for saisons varies from light to medium, so a mash profile in the range of 148F-154F is most appropriate.
Here are a few Saison/Farmhouse Ale recipes from the BeerSmith Recipe site: