Saison, which means season in French, is among the most varied and wide-ranging styles of beer. Interpretations vary greatly from simple to complex, and from light (in color and strength) to dark and strong.
Historically, saisons can be traced back to the nineteenth century, when they were made in small farmhouse breweries in France and Belgium. Original versions are thought to have been brown beers popular in northern France, though some sources point to Liège in eastern Belgium. Regardless, modern saisons are now most commonly brewed in the French-speaking region of Belgium (southern half / Wallonia region). Of course, the style is also brewed in countless breweries across America and throughout the world.
FARMHOUSE ALES VS. SAISONS
By many accounts, both French bière de garde and Belgian saison styles stem from farmhouse ales, but for this article, I’m focusing on the Belgian saison.
Today, the differences between saisons and farmhouse ales are ambiguous at best. Some believe “farmhouse” has just become a vague marketing term. Others disagree, and believe the “farmhouse” term refers to rustic saisons, which are earthier and funkier than the more common, light and clean saisons. On the extreme end of the opinion scale, there are those who adamantly believe that if a brewer wants to call a beer a farmhouse ale, then the beer must be brewed at an actual farmhouse brewery. Although, overwhelmingly, most of these beers are not brewed in farmhouse breweries, and not all farmhouse breweries make saisons.
Technically, all saisons could be considered farmhouse ales, but not all farmhouse ales are saisons (some are bière de garde ales, for example). But for the most part, the terms farmhouse and saison are used interchangeably, and it really comes down to what brewers (or marketing departments) decide to call their beers.
A BRIEF HISTORY
As the story goes, saisons were originally brewed by farmers in the French-speaking region of Belgium for consumption during the active farming season. These rustic ales were made with local, farm-grown ingredients, and not necessarily brewed to any specific style. From there, stories seem to split. On the one hand, high-alcohol and highly hopped (relatively speaking) stock, aka provision beers, were brewed during the colder months, reducing the chance of spoilage, and then they were aged (and sometimes consumed) over the summer. Conversely, low-alcohol (2-4% ABV) beers, known as “small” or “table” beers, were brewed year-round for the farm workers. The low level of alcohol made these beers more refreshing and drinkable, and they kept the field workers from becoming debilitated. These beers were brewed and consumed so frequently that they didn’t have a chance to spoil in the heat of the summer.
Generally speaking, saisons are refreshing, dry and thirst-quenching ales with light malt flavors that are complemented by a clean hop bitterness, along with notes of spicy hops and peppery yeast esters. Here are some more details:
APPEARANCE: Pale versions tend to be blond to amber-orange, but darker versions can range from copper to dark brown. The beer’s head is often rocky, white and long lasting. Clarity tends to be somewhat cloudy and hazy, which is normal for unfiltered beers and those fermented with certain yeast strains.
MOUTHFEEL: The beer’s texture ranges from light and soft to medium bodied. Carbonation is usually high, creating an effervescent, Champagne-like level of carbonation. The finish is dry.
FLAVOR / AROMA: Malt characteristics can include flavors of grains, hay, wheat and crackers, with only a slight sweetness (typically honey, bread dough and/or light caramel). Darker versions can be caramelly and biscuity. Most saisons are not hop-forward, though bitterness levels can be relatively high. Hop aromas can be spicy, floral, earthy and/or fruity (typically lemon and/or rind-like). Yeast esters and light phenolics are common, including notes of pepper, clove, minerals and herbs.
ALCOHOL BY VOLUME (ABV): ABV percentages can range from 3% to over 10%, but many saisons fall in the 5-8% range.
Like most styles, ingredients and processes play a big role in the saison style. Malt bills usually consist of continental (i.e., European) malts and they often include wheat, and sometimes even spelt, oats and/or rye. Many saisons are not spiced (though they often have spicy characteristics derived from the yeast), but some are seasoned with spices such as grains of paradise, peppercorns, coriander, cloves and dried orange peel. Adjuncts can also be included, such as sugar or honey, mainly to increase alcohol, increase dryness and add an additional layer of flavor. When it comes to hops, many varieties are used, but Saaz, Styrian Goldings, Tettnanger and East Kent Goldings are among the most common varieties. As for yeast, there are a handful of favorites and they are usually divided between French and Belgian strains. All tend to favor high fermentation temperatures, and all feature a high level of attenuation, which contributes to the beer’s dryness. Saisons are typically not fermented with Brettanomyces yeast, though some brewers have ventured in this direction.
Saison Dupont (Vieille Provision) is considered to be the quintessential version of the style. It’s an approachable, easy-drinking beer, but it has a deep complexity with a snappy bitterness, spicy notes of pepper and tangy hints of fruit.
On the other end of the spectrum, Fantôme, which is a small Belgian farmhouse brewery, makes some super funky ales that take saison – and beer in general – to dizzyingly wild heights. We’re talking Brett-derived notes of leather, horse blanket/sweat and barnyard, which may take some getting used to.
Countless American breweries make saisons these days. Among the ones available in western Washington, my favorites include those made by Upright, Crooked Stave, Jolly Pumpkin, and Prairie Artisan Ales.
Hood River-based pFriem is another favorite of mine. pFriem Saison is clean and easy drinking with light malt flavors of bread dough, crackers and honey, complemented by gentle hints of herbs, spices and flowers, along with a white pepper-like bitterness. pFriem’s Super Saison is a 9.5% ABV throat-warmer with subtly sweet hints of honey and white cake, along with fruity notes of pineapple.
Many Bellingham breweries make saisons as well, though some are seasonals. Structures Brewing has a saison-heavy lineup, and they’re all really well made. Kulshan Brewing makes Saison Du Kulshan, which is a low-alcohol (3.75%) saison with grainy, hay-like malt flavors and a peppery finish. Also be on the lookout for Boundary Bay’s Not Shawn’s Saison, plus a variety of amazing farmhouse ales by Wander Brewing.
As mentioned before, saison is a wide-ranging style, but that only makes it much more fun to explore. And, regardless of the time of year (and whether you’re toiling on a farm or not), saisons are always in season. Happy hunting.