Saisons are one of my favorite styles. Not only are they a favorite, but they are a wonderful seasonal beer that has a light, dry finish, a spiciness that makes it prickly and excitingKarma
“All Saisons are Farmhouse Ales, but not all Farmhouse Ales are Saisons.” (https://beerconnoisseur.com/articles/saison-vs-farmhouse-ale)
Saisons are generally known to have originated in Belgium (or Wallonia the French speaking part of Belgium, specifically (or alternately Hainuat)) in the 18th century. (https://learn.kegerator.com/saison/). They have a complex history that got more and more complex the more I read. It was generally believed that they were more or less the same as a farmhouse ale. Just on the bitter and maybe funkier side, and believed to have been brewed using all the fruit that was going to waste on the farm. It was called a “March beer”, brewed in the fall/winter and ready for spring. It was often tied to a farm and presumed to be drunk by farmers and farm hands after a hard day in the fields and orchards. There is an article (that I’ll include in the resources) that has a lot of information that would seem to be to the contrary, showing that ingredients were often sourced in other locations, and that maybe the original location of the saison isn’t exactly correct. So, perhaps unsurprising at this point in the podcast, it would seem that there is at least some level of urban myth/oral history/marketing involved in the romantic story of the saison.
I’m not sure how important this is, and I can’t find a lot of corroborating documentation to back it up, but there is some evidence that the story is only a partially true. I sort of shut down when it got into the drama of it. But if you’re really interested, it’s worth going to the article and reading it. Essentially, the author argues that saisons really don’t have the connection to farmhouse ales that we all believe they do. That the earliest mention of the style is in the 19th century and that the ingredients sourced are from other regions and farms and made for commercial use. However, there are others that vehemently argue that this author is missing some facts, which is entirely possible. That article can be found here, and the drama unfolds in the comments (http://lostbeers.com/what-was-a-19th-century-saison-really-like/)… I don’t want to harp on this overmuch. Not because I’m personally tied to the history of the saison, even though I do adore the style, but more because this is the only article I can find refuting the claim, and I just need more before I can say DEBUNKED! So in the meantime, we’ll stick with the common narrative…
Saisons are essentially an offshoot of traditional farmhouse ales. They use many of the same methods with one large exception: By the time saisons came around, modern brewing methods were in place with cleaner malts and the wort was boiled in kettles with hops to make it more stable and give it a longer shelf life (https://www.brewingnordic.com/farmhouse-ales/history-farmhouse-ales/). As mentioned, these were brewed in the cooler seasons and put aside for the warmer temps. This also distinguishes them from traditional farmhouse ales that typically brewed and ready to drink in three or so weeks with a need for immediate consumption(https://learn.kegerator.com/saison/). (Back to the Nordic article) The addition of a wort boil and hops started as far back as the 12th century, but the saison wasn’t really documented or recognized until the 18th century in Belgium, though it is hypothesized by this article that it could have started as far back as the 17th century.
In a survey of brewers, Beer and Brewing tried to get at the hard of what makes a Saison a Saison. The highlights of the article list these as the common ground:
Rustic, Low Alcohol
“Jack D’Or, Pretty Things’s baseline beer, is “a dry beer, a bitter beer, a beer that has yeast complexities, a beer that pairs with most foods, a beer that the most cynical expert beer drinker could drink as well as someone who just had Sam Adams for the first time last night,” says Dan Paquette co-owner”
The use of local yeasts from local farms/gardens.
Light Body, Dry Finish (also, seasonal)
Trinity Brewing Co. has brewed lots of saisons and while they present in many different ways, they have a baseline commonality: Light body, dry finish. They are also brewed with seasonal ingredients, so the specifics of the flavor are tied to what is growing at the time, tying it even more to the locality.
Very Simple Recipe
Saisons were made with a low abv and simple ingredients. Meant to refresh, not weight down. The hops bring the spice, the yeast brings the fruity esters
Let the Yeast do the work
Wild, local yeasts make each saison a truly unique and regional experience.
Out of necessity
Light, drinkable, low ABV, dry. Great for the heat of summer.
A really great summation from https://learn.kegerator.com/saison/
“They were unfiltered, bottle conditioned, and often quite heavily hopped because of these same long storage times. It was also quite dry because any residual sugars would have decreased the beer’s stability during the hot summer months when it was most needed.
Beyond these few linking factors Saison’s are wide open to interpretation.
Many of the early farmer-brewers likely brewed with only things available on the farm, so there would have been noticeable variation.
Ancient brewing practices opened the door to probable infection by wild yeasts giving many of these beers a slightly “wild” edge. Sometimes spices or other “growables” were thrown in the kettle and the range of yeast; their interaction with wild strains and varying fermentation temperatures could build a rather large Saisonesque brewing palate.”
“Saisons are often pale orange but can be anywhere from a light golden into a darker amber orange. A big, rocky, and long lasting head is common, which creates iconic “Belgian lace” as it drops and fades. Clarity is usually poor because of the lack of filtering. A drifting haze is common and the beer is often quite effervescent.”
“Malt character is light to nonexistent. Instead the nose will be dominated by fruity esters, often citrus like orange and lemon. There will be little herb, spice, or alcohol aroma present and only low to moderate hop. If spicy aromas are present they will come from spices added or the peppery phenolics of the Belgian yeast. The hops may also give a low spicy or floral note. A low to moderate sourness or acidity is likely to be present”
“Mouthfeel will be light to medium with a playfulness brought on by high carbonation and an effervescent signature. A tart character is common but should not cause puckering, instead remaining as a low refreshing sensation across the palate. Alcohol can be medium to medium-high but warming should be relatively low. A dry finish and prickly acidity across the tongue should balance”
Saisons make a great “table beer”. They are refreshing and light, the flavors aren’t overwhelming, so they can be drunk with nearly anything. Slight acidity pairs well with fat.
Really interestingly to me, is that nearly every article refers to them as “hoppy” beers, and I find that intereting. I keep having to remind myself that “hoppy” and “bitter” aren’t synonymous, even though they are often used interchangeably. Sometimes hoppy just means floral, hop aromatics, etc. While saisons can absolutely be hoppy, they can also be tart or malty. That’s the beauty of the style. It is so versatile and changes from brewer to brewer/region to region.
This would suggest that saisons’ are not from Belgium and not the “same” as a farmhouse ale, contrary to popular belief. *shocked face*