The history of Saison
5 July 2016, By Jonny Garrett
I’m not sure there’s a beer that sums up craft geekery better than the saison. Sure, IPA is the biggest seller, and people love a good queue at the brewery for an imperial stout. But no one messes around with a beer style like they do with a saison. I’ve seen some bizarre things done to or added to the style, from Sichuan pepper to camomile, but far from being the preserve of beer nerds, saisons were the original beer of the people.
The name loosely comes from the French for season, but more interestingly could refer to the “saisonniers” or seasonal workers who tended the farms of Belgium’s Wallonia, where the style was conceived hundreds of years ago.
The Farmhouse ale
In this globalised, technological world we forget that beer used to be brewed seasonally by necessity. Today we can whip up a saison or double IPA any time of year using ingredients from all around the globe. But rewind to the times before refrigeration and things were much trickier. Most beers were brewed in the autumn and winter, where the low temperatures would keep fermentation steady and bugs at bay.
The saison was often brewed around Christmas, when temperatures were at their lowest, and then kept cool in caves or cellars until harvest time. Now, that’s a very long time for a beer to be sat waiting to be drunk, but the reason was that these brews were made by farmers to slake the thirst of their seasonal workers, toiling away in the summer sun. They were brewed to be robust but quaffable, and also complex yet refreshing. If that sounds like a four-way oxymoron then you then are right, but you have also stumbled across the exact reason why saisons are so awesome. Because a good saison is all those things.
Defining a saison is tricky, but there are certain hallmarks they should have – a dry spicy yeast character not dissimilar to a Belgian tripel, complemented by a plenty of floral hops and just a hint of bready sweetness for balance. On the nose it should be overwhelming, but on the palate it should dance around, and to achieve this the beer is highly attenuated (which means the yeast ate all the sugar) so there isn’t much body, and it should be very highly carbonated.
Regional variations in saisons are well documented, because they were produced individually by hundreds of farms all the way up to the First World War. Some farms worked together, sharing ingredients and even blending their beers but, as their individual yeast strains and recipes evolved, the style as diverged into all kinds of colours, grain bills, hop regimes and yeasty esters.
Saisons are one of the best beers to enjoy with food and can work with anything from a Christmas turkey dinner to a summer salad. It’s also very suited to having extra aromatic ingredients thrown in. Historically farmhouses have added all kinds of spices to their beers but since the saison’s revival off the back of the IPA revolution, experimentation with “adjuncts” has exploded. The result is a style that is very hard to pin down, but built upon the four pillars of good saisons will always excite your palate while being deeply refreshing. Here are our favourite examples:
This is the benchmark saison. One of the best beers in the world, the brasserie was founded in 1950, but on a farm that has been famous for its brewing heritage for more than 200 years. They brew using traditional methods and even equipment that dates back to the 1920s, but the magic comes from their yeast strain, which has been the subject of much speculation. It produces absurdly spicy aromas and can ferment at up to 32ºC – a good 50% higher than most ale yeasts. They use this fantastic ingredient to make arguably the world’s best saison and a selection of variations, including the annual Saison Dupont Dry Hopping – which happens to be your webmaster’s favourite beer ever.
Talking of dry hops, that is what this beer is all about. Beavertown have added bucket after bucket of simcoe and Amarillo hops to add a pithy, citrusy West Coast edge to the traditional Belgian yeast. Hovering somewhere between a saison and a pale ale it’s the kind of beer that would make a moustached Belgian say “Quelle?!” and everyone else say “AWESOME!”
It’s a distinctly unglamorous bottle but it’s what’s inside that counts. Surfine is made with three different malts, all Belgian hops and three different strains of yeast. The result is a hugely complex aroma of spice, green apple and lemon and a little caramel from the speciality malts. But it all comes together to make a bittersweet saison that’s perfectly balanced and worryingly drinkable for 6.5%.
To Ol Mr Blue
This beer is a masterclass in balance. With the mix of ingredients it could have all gone so wrong, yet is somehow so right. Gipsy brewers To Ol have managed to get loads of yeasty esters into the aroma, without taking away fro mthe tropical acidity of the nelson sauvin and earthier hallertau. Then the gorgeous addition of blueberries adds an unusual deep fruitiness to the beer, as well as a hit of acidity. A bizarre and brilliant beer.
Lost and Grounded
They may be relatively new to the scene, but being founded by the former head brewer of Camden means you hit the ground running. Taking the opportunity to spread his wings, Alex Troncoso has taken inspiration from all around the world to make updated versions of classic Belgian and German styles. His Kellerpils is killer, but our favourite is his hoppy lager and this one – a session strength saison with added coriander and orange peel, which give the beer a wit-like herbality and loads of pithy fruitiness.