By Jack Horzempa
I took four years of French in high school (which was many years ago) and since I never use French the best I can do today is remember and pronounce some words. For some reason one of those French words is saison which translates to season. Why would a beer style be called “season” you might ask? Well, there is an interesting story here:
The Saison beer style originated in the Hainaut Province, Belgium (a French speaking part of Belgium) and the lore is that farmers would produce these beers in the winter to serve to their seasonal workers (les saisonniers in French). Saison beers were also sometimes referred to as provision beers since they would have been brewed in the winter (e.g., December – March) with the intention of being consumed during the farming season (e.g., May – September).
These beers would vary from farmer to farmer who would utilize the local ingredients they had on hand. This includes each farms unique house ale yeast strain (and perhaps other microorganisms as well). The grain bill would vary and would likely have been mostly 6-row winter barley malt but other grains such as wheat, oats, buckwheat, and spelt were likely often used based upon their availability.
So, a few questions could be posed from the above story:
Did farmers really brew beer for their seasonal workers?
I guess the real question is would farmers really take on this additional work to make beer for their seasonal workers? Farmers in Belgium a few hundred years ago are essentially the same as farmers today – small businessmen who work really hard and who are not, generally speaking, wealthy people. Could you imagine a farmer in Great Central Valley, California expending money/effort to provide beer to their seasonal workers? Unless the water in Belgium back in the day was absolutely undrinkable, I personally doubt the farmers would make an effort to provide beer to their seasonal workers.
How well did ale brewed in the winter taste in the summer?
There is some history hundreds of years ago of beer meant for keeping being brewed but generally speaking those were beers of very high gravity (i.e., high ABV). One example would be British brewed ales such as October Ales which were brewed in the 1700’s. These beers would be very strong in alcohol (8 – 12% ABV) and very heavily hopped. So, a beer intended to be consumed many months after brewing would benefit from both higher alcohol and high amounts of hops to help preserve the beer. The idea of a beer high in alcohol is not consistent with providing the seasonal workers with something to drink while performing their farm work; another reason to question the story above.
Is there a definitive answer to how Saison beers were brewed in the 1700’s/1800’s?
At HomebrewCon 2016, Dave Janssen gave a presentation about the history of both the Saison and Grisette beer styles. He had gone to Belgium to research the history of both these styles and found the following:
“Very few historical sources – no scholars cared what poor farmers and small regional brewers did in the 1800’s.
The available information is scattered and at times contradictory.
Information is biased toward larger producers.
Over-reliance on few sources.”
For the interested history student I would highly recommend visiting Dave Janssen’s website/blog:
Perhaps with continuing historical research more will be learned about the history of Saison beers but one thing which is known for certain is that Belgian farmers did indeed brew farmhouse ales that we now call Saisons. Maybe simply for their own enjoyment and/or for sale to make some money.
The eponymous modern Saison is Saison Dupont (Vieille Provision Saison Dupont) which was first brewed in the 1920’s. I have not been able to find details on how Saison Dupont was brewed in the 1920’s but today this beer is brewed in a fairly simple manner. There are only four basic ingredients:
In Phil Markowski’s book Farmhouse Ales he lists East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings hops. I am uncertain what is the third variety of hops used in the brewing of Saison Dupont.
The specific yeast strain(s) used to ferment Saison Dupont is also a bit of a mystery. Below is how the yeast is detailed on Wikipedia (source: Phil Markowski):
“The distinctive Dupont house yeast strain has been the subject of much speculation and discussion. The complexity of flavors it generates has caused some to suggest that in fact a combination of multiple strains are used, and its good performance at high temperatures and signature spiciness have led some to conjecture that it was originally a red wine strain that has been adapted to beer fermentation. While most ales are fermented at temperatures not exceeding 68-72 °F(20-22 °C), the tanks at Dupont have been observed to have reached the mid-90s(32 °C+).”
While all ingredients used to brew beer are important, for a beer like Saison Dupont I am of the opinion that the yeast strain(s) used and the associated fermentation conditions (e.g., fermentation temperature, pitch rate, etc.) are what drives this beer style. The brewers at Saison Dupont conduct a hot temperature primary fermentation as detailed in the above quoted material. The brewery also takes the step to conduct a secondary fermentation within the bottle (i.e., bottle conditioning) which also has an impact on the qualities of the finished beer.
You can learn more about fermenting beer here: https://www.morebeer.com/articles/Fermenting_beer
What characteristics define a Saison?
Belgian brewers tend to feel free to brew the way their spirit or mood takes them. Brewing to a defined beer style is not a big motivator for them. Having stated that I think that a proper Saison should have certain attributes:
A number of grains and fermentables could be selected to homebrew a Saison.
A simple selection would be to just use Pilsner Malt like the folks at Saison Dupont choose to do with their beer. But augmenting the Pilsner Malt with other grains such as wheat, oats, or spelt would be appropriate and perhaps a nod to the way a Saison would have been brewed in the 1700’s or 1800’s. Some folks like to add some other types of barley malt (e.g., small amounts of Vienna/Munich Malt).
For brewers who prefer to brew using malt extract select a Pilsner Malt Extract.
You could also add some sugars (e.g., Belgian candi sugars, table sugar, etc.) since they will aid in creating a beer with a low final gravity (a dry finish).
Brewing a beer similar to Saison Dupont, the previously mentioned hops like East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings would be good choices. Also using Saazer type hops would be appropriate: Czech Saaz, German-grown Tettnanger and Spalt. A US hop which is a Saaz-like hop is Sterling.
Some commercial breweries choose to use more modern hops to brew their Saison with one example being Boulevard Tank 7 Saison which includes Simcoe and Amarillo hops as part of their hop schedule (including dry hopping).
For a Belgian brewed Saison the beers tend to not be too hoppy with simple hop additions for bittering and again towards the end of boil for flavor/aroma. The BJCP style guidelines lists: “IBUs: 20 – 35”.
I have no details about the mineral content of the water used to brew Saison Dupont. I have read where some brewers advocate that the brewing water be fairly neutral in mineral content. Maybe have a bit of sulfate in the water to accentuate the dryness aspect of this beer style.
I use the water spreadsheet tool MpH to estimate my mash pH and in that tool the following water profile mineral ranges are provided for a Saison. In bold I listed my personal suggestions.
· Calcium: 50 – 150 ppm (50 ppm)
· Magnesium: 10 – 30 ppm (20 ppm)
· Sodium: 0 – 150 ppm (50 ppm)
· Chloride: 0 – 100 ppm (50 ppm)
· Sulfate: 100 – 400 ppm (125 ppm)
As with all beers make water adjustments (e.g., lactic acid additions) to ensure that a proper mash pH is achieved (e.g., 5.2 – 5.4).
Yeast strain(s) selection is very important to the production of a Saison. I started homebrewing in the 1990’s and I did not homebrew my first Saison until batch number 74 in 1999. The challenge then was a lack of Saison yeast strains available by the major yeast vendors (e.g., Wyeast). That first Saison I produced used Saison yeast on a slant (from BrewTek). I had to scrape the yeast cells off the slant using an inoculating loop and perform a multistage step up (first step was a 10 mL vial). It was a time-consuming process with a bit of anxiety since I am not a trained microbiologist. It would take several years before a Saison yeast strain would be available in a more convenient format (e.g., a smack-pack). The good news is that the Saison beers I produced using that BrewTek product did indeed produce tasty Saison beers.
As previously discussed, there is speculation that Saison Dupont is fermented with multiple strains of yeast. I have read some people who have the opinion that there are four unique yeast strains within the Saison Dupont yeast mix. Both Wyeast and White Labs produce yeast which are stated to be Saison Dupont yeasts:
Are these two yeast the exact same yeast strain? According to genetic test results they are very closely related.
I have produced two batches using Wyeast 3724 and both of those batches were very tasty Saisons but the duration of primary fermentation was very long (too long for my preferences). The first batch took 7 weeks and the second batch (which I fermented without an airlock to eliminate back pressure which allegedly mitigates a stall in fermentation) took 5 weeks. I personally prefer to not have my beers sit on the yeast for that length of time to mitigate the potential effects of yeast autolysis.
It took me a while but I discovered White Labs WLP585 and I really loved that yeast strain. It produced a tasty Saison (a very pleasing combination of esters and phenols) and it did not take many weeks to complete primary fermentation. Unfortunately, 4-5 years ago White Labs discontinued this product (i.e., no longer a year-round, regular product). I attended HomebrewCon 2018 with the mission to find a replacement for this, my favorite yeast strain. I went to multiple yeast vendor booths (including White Labs with an impassioned plea for them to bring back WLP585). At the Fermentis booth I spoke to Napoleon Bonyouchoa and I related to him what I appreciated about WLP585 - its nice combination of fruity (esters) and spicy (phenols) flavors. He suggested that I do a co-pitch of Fermentis T-58 (Belgian Ale yeast) and BE-134 (Saison yeast) at a ratio of around 3:1 (T-58 to BE-134). I said to myself: what the heck, let’s give it a try. Later that summer I brewed my first batch of Saison using this blend and it turned out great – a nice combination of esters and phenols. In the summer of 2019, I conducted an experiment and just used the Saison (BE-134) yeast and while that batch was good it was lacking in esters. So, in 2020 it was back to using the T-58 & BE-134 blend and I once again very much enjoyed that batch.
Another Wyeast Saison yeast strain that seems popular with homebrewers is Wyeast 3711 (branded as French Saison). In years past I brewed a couple of batches using this yeast strain and a benefit of this strain is that it rapidly completes primary fermentation (less than a week for both occasions). But for my palate this yeast strain is lacking in flavor – very much one dimensional in mostly producing phenols in the beers I made.
A great resource for learning more about the choices for Saison yeast strains is Drew Beechum’s discussion here: https://www.maltosefalcons.com/tech/guide-saisons-and-saison-yeasts
One of the unique aspects of many of the Saison yeast strains is that they are a special type of ale yeast strain and are classified Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. diastaticus. They have the ability to break down long chain carbohydrates (e.g., dextrins, starches) that would not occur with regular ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). The Saison yeast strains produce an enzyme (glucoamylase) that breaks down the dextrins outside the yeast cell into simple sugars which the yeast can then metabolize. The gene encoding the enzyme glucoamylase is referred to as STA1. This aspect is beneficial for producing Saisons since the result is a very low final gravity resulting in a dry finish.
Another feature of Saison yeast strains is that they tend to have the attribute of being Phenolic Off-Flavor Positive (POF+). This means they will produce phenols (e.g., spicy flavors) during fermentation.
A number of Saison yeast strains benefit from higher fermentation temperatures and for certain strains higher fermentation temperature is a requirement for completing primary fermentation. I used to not brew in the summer since it was too hot for producing beer (ales) but since a Saison yeast strain likes hot temperatures I brew one batch of beer during the summer – a Saison.
My personal preference is for the flavor profile of my Saisons to be yeast derived flavors. Some brewers choose to augment their Saisons using a variety of spices. Some popular choices are coriander, ginger, grains of paradise, and orange peel.
I have no experience brewing my Saisons with spices but I would imagine it could be quite tricky matching the type/amount of spicing with the yeast derived flavors. But as homebrewers we can do whatever we choose to do.
Batch Size: 5.5 gallons
Target OG: 1.060
Target FG: 1.003
Color: 5 - 6 SRM
Target Bitterness: 32 IBUs
Mash at a water-to-grist ratio of 1.5 qts/lb. Adjust brewing water to be consistent with Saison water profile and add lactic acid to achieve a mash pH of 5.2 – 5.4. Mash at 153 °F for 75 minutes. Sparge until approximately 7 gallons of wort is achieved (tailor amount based upon your boil off rate to obtain 5.5 gallons of wort post boil).
Boil vigorously for 75 minutes in an uncovered brew kettle adding the German Magnum hops at the beginning of boil. Add 0.5 ounces of Styrian Goldings hops for the last 15 minutes for a flavor addition. Add 0.5 ounces Styrian Goldings hops at end of boil for aroma addition.
Ferment warm/hot per the recommended fermentation temperatures by the yeast vendor. My preference for fermenting with T-58/BE-134 is a ramped fermentation temperature: pitch at 66 °F and slowly ramp up over the next 3-4 days until the beer is fermenting in the mid- upper 70’s °F. Package (preferably via bottle conditioning) when primary fermentation is complete.
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