Saison (French, “season,”) is a broadly defined pale ale that in modern versions is generally around 7% abv, highly carbonated, fruity, spicy (sometimes from the addition of spices), and is influenced by Saison Dupont Vieille Provision. As a beer style it originated from beers brewed during the cooler and less active months in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, and then stored for drinking by the farm workers during the summer months. It is believed that these farmhouse beers would have been of a lower abv than modern Saisons – probably initially around 3 to 3.5% abv on average, rising in the early 20th century to between 4.5 and 6.5% abv. Modern Saisons are brewed in a range of countries, particularly the USA, and are often bottle conditioned. Other Belgian classic Saisons include Brasserie de Silly and La Brasserie à Vapeur.
Historically, Saisons did not share identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales made by farmers. Modern saisons brewed in the USA tend to copy the yeast used by the Dupont Brewery, which ferments better at warmer temperatures—29 to 35 °C (84 to 95 °F)—than the standard 18 to 24 °C (64 to 75 °F) fermenting temperature used by other Belgian Saison brewers.
The origin of Saison is Belgian farmhouse beers brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the summer for the farm workers, who were entitled to up to five litres each workday. Brewing outside the summer months was common for all brewers before the discovery of refrigeration, due to the likelihood of the beer spoiling while fermenting in the summer, which is the height of airborne bacteria activity. Farmers possibly also brewed during the cooler months to provide work for their permanent staff during the quieter period. After brewing, the ale was stored until the summer when the main consumers would be the seasonal workers (“les saisonniers”).
Historically, Saisons did not share identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales. Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version. Although now most commercial examples range from 5 to 8% abv, originally Saisons were meant to be refreshing and it is thought they had alcohol levels ranging from 3 to 3.5%. Because of the lack of potable water, Saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness.
The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage, but at the same time could not be so strong as to incapacitate the workers. Additionally, these beers were strongly hopped, as hops act as a preservative and have antiseptic properties. Saisons brewed in early Spring would often be blended with Saisons brewed the previous Autumn, or even blended with Lambic beers to increase the refreshing acidity of these beers. Blending also occurred to reduce the abv, and thus increase its refreshment value.
Although Saison had been described as an endangered style, there has been a rise in interest in this style in recent years, with Saison Dupont being named “the Best Beer in the World” by the magazine Men’s Journal in July 2005.
Modern Saisons are generally highly carbonated, fruity and spicy – sometimes from the addition of spices -, and are influenced by Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, the flagship beer of the Dupont Brewery, a 6.5% golden colored pale ale with noticeable yeast character. They are brewed in a range of countries, particularly the USA, and are generally bottle conditioned with an average abv range of 5 to 8% abv.
The type of malt determines the color of the Saison, and although most Saisons are of a cloudy golden color as result of the grist being mostly pale and/or pilsner malt, the use of darker malts results in some Saisons being reddish-amber. Some recipes also use wheat. Spices such as orange zest, coriander, and ginger may be used. Some spice character may come through due to the production of esters during fermentation at warm temperatures. (Article from Wikipedia: “Saison”)
Many brewers now have developed hybrids of the Saison style- (dark colored Saisons, etc.)
Saison Beer Characteristics
AROMA / BOUQUET:
High fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. Fruity esters dominate the aroma and are often reminiscent of citrus fruits such as oranges or lemons. A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present. A moderate spice aroma (from actual spice additions and/or yeast-derived phenols) complements the other aromatics. When phenolics are present they tend to be peppery rather than clove-like. A low to moderate sourness or acidity may be present, but should not overwhelm other characteristics. Spice, hop and sour aromatics typically increase with the strength of the beer. Alcohols are soft, spicy and low in intensity, and should not be hot or solventy. The malt character is light. No diacetyl.
Often a distinctive pale orange but may be golden or amber in color. There is no correlation between strength and color. Long-lasting, dense, rocky white to ivory head resulting in characteristic “Belgian lace” on the glass as it fades. Clarity is poor to good though haze is not unexpected in this type of unfiltered farmhouse beer. Effervescent.
FLAVOR / TASTE:
Combination of fruity and spicy flavors supported by a soft malt character, a low to moderate alcohol presence and tart sourness. Extremely high attenuation gives a characteristic dry finish. The fruitiness is frequently citrusy (orange- or lemon-like). The addition of one of more spices serve to add complexity, but shouldn’t dominate in the balance. Low peppery yeast-derived phenols may be present instead of or in addition to spice additions; phenols tend to be lower than in many other Belgian beers, and complement the bitterness. Hop flavor is low to moderate, and is generally spicy or earthy in character. Hop bitterness may be moderate to high, but should not overwhelm fruity esters, spices, and malt. Malt character is light but provides a sufficient background for the other flavors. A low to moderate tart sourness may be present, but should not overwhelm other flavors. Spices, hop bitterness and flavor, and sourness commonly increase with the strength of the beer while sweetness decreases. No hot alcohol or solventy character. High carbonation, moderately sulfate water, and high attenuation give a very dry finish with a long, bitter, sometimes spicy aftertaste. The perceived bitterness is often higher than the IBU level would suggest. No diacetyl.
MOUTHFEEL / PALATE:
Light to medium body. Alcohol level can be medium to medium-high, though the warming character is low to medium. No hot alcohol or solventy character. Very high carbonation with an effervescent quality. There is enough prickly acidity on the tongue to balance the very dry finish. A low to moderate tart character may be present but should be refreshing and not to the point of puckering.
A refreshing, medium to strong fruity / spicy ale with a distinctive yellow-orange color, highly carbonated, well hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity.
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Saison beer characteristic descriptives from 2008 BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) style guidelines. (http://www.bjcp.org)