Saison and Lambic are my two favorite types of beer, and they are more closely related than most people realize. Most beers labeled ‘Saison’ today are not Saison, they are cleverly marketed beers relying on the recent trend of Saisons being hip or cool. It is true that Saison can be a style of beer that shows a lot of variation, but it is not an anything goes type of beer.
Saison should evoke the nature of the place where it was produced. That is to say, that a Saison produced at Odd Breed should not be reproducible at another brewery. This approach and mindset is more akin to that found in wineries or Lambic breweries than beer factories making pale lagers. Most recipes for Saison are very simple. What makes a Brewers Saison unique, undefinable, and inexplicably complex is what makes his/her brewery unique: the equipment used and the processes used to produce the beer with that equipment; ingredients used to produce the beer, which of course includes the local water used, but also the type of yeast and bacteria as well as local microflora in the air and in the building; and of course, it is important to consider the style of the brewer and his/her approach to brewing.
The Saisons of old were brewed for the farmhands and family producing the beer. This was a beer made for personal tastes, not something mass marketed to large groups of people. This aspect of Saison has in my opinion, allowed such a varied approach to producing Saison, while also positioning Saison as a beer style that is perhaps the ultimate canvas for the brewer as an artist.
Saisons of old were all produced with a mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria that was reused from batch to batch, and many producers aged their Saison in wooden barrels, where they undoubtedly underwent an additional fermentation with Brettanomyces and souring bacteria. Saison producers understood that they could add a large quantity of hops to inhibit souring bacteria, and as a result, Saisons were either bracingly bitter or were relatively sour. Farmhouse brewers were some of the last brewers to adopt the pure culture technique of utilizing only a single strain of yeast in fermentation. Those that did, found that their beer lost many of the qualities that made it their beer.
Today, most beers with the word ‘Saison’ on the label, including those in Belgium, are produced with techniques more similar to those used to make Pilsener than Lambic. That marks a huge departure from the roots of Saison, and I think that is unfortunate. I think it is reassuring that some American producers are making what I believe are beautiful Saisons. Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Biere is a classic example of the style and what I believe the style should be— not a single culture Saccharomyces Belgian Blonde Ale.
When brewing a Saison, I think the mistake most people make is they produce a beer too high in alcohol. Saison was brewed to be refreshing and nourishing. A 7% beer is not a Saison. It may be a ‘farmhouse ale’ but not all farmhouse ales are Saison. There should be no such thing as an ‘Imperial Saison’—an Imperial Saison is just a strong farmhouse ale.
Saison is not a smooth beer. It should be very dry to accentuate the refreshing and drinkable nature of the beer, but it shouldn’t go down like water. If it is not bitter it should have some acidity on the palate, and Saison is typically high to very high in carbonation. Some carbonic acid bite is necessary to bring out the multitude of aromas in the beer, while also preventing such a low alcohol and light bodied beer from being lifeless. Non-barley malts like wheat, spelt, oats, and rye were used because they were available on the farm, but they also contribute to the mouthfeel of the beer while adding some unique character. Sometimes these grains were used in their unmalted form, which would have contributed a slightly different flavor and a lasting haze in the beer.
Saisons can be spiced, but using spices is not necessary. Personally, I am not usually a fan of adding spices to beer, and I feel that many American brewers add spices to compensate for a lack of interesting yeast character. Spiced Saisons are very typical in the US, but in Belgium there are only a few breweries that add spices to their Saison. Saisons that are spiced should have a subtle amount of spice. Spices that complement the yeast character should be chosen, and the spice(s) used shouldn’t be readily identifiable by the consumer.
Bottle Conditioning is a must. Saisons on draft can be enjoyable, but there is a certain aspect of the beer that is missing when a Saison is force carbonated. I also feel that Saisons should be in green bottles because they help provide a slight funk from the light struck character that simply cannot be achieved with brown bottles.
Multiple yeast strains should be used, and Brettanomyces and souring bacteria should have a role in the development of the beer. Saisons are a product of their microflora, and microflora is the most defining of the ingredients used in the production of Saison— it is the Brewers fingerprint.
Saison is a very simple beer that should have a complex undefinable character. Brewers need to ask themselves if their ‘Saison’ can be replicated at another brewery—and if it can, then that beer is not a Saison. Belgium has plenty of delicious Blonde ales, but unfortunately has few Saisons.
At Odd Breed Wild Ales, we make what I consider to be a relatively traditional interpretation of Saison. Past & Future is brewed with imported Pilsener and rye malt, and domestic raw wheat and flaked oats. We use a combination of Czech Saaz and aged Hallertau hops and bitter to about 18 IBU, which is relatively high for a dry and tart beer that has an original gravity of just 10 Plato. The beer is pitched with our mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria and the temperature rises into the upper 70s until primary fermentation slows down. Then we transfer the beer into French Oak puncheons to age until the gravity is stable and the beer is ready for bottling. While the flavor is nice, the beer really isn’t ready until after bottle conditioning and further maturation are complete, which is about 4-6 weeks later.
Parts of this blog entry were borrowed (with permission) from an interview conducted with Craft Commander about Saison. Check out the link to see the article, and see what some of our friends have to say about Saison.
By Matt Manthe
May 15, 2018