Answering the question of what is a Saison beer is actually more difficult than one might think. Saisons are unlike other styles of craft beers in this regard. If you ask me what a Stout or an NEIPA is or any other style of beer for that matter it is quite easy to provide a proper description for them. However the same can not be said for a Saison as unlike these other styles they are very much open to the interpretation of whomever is brewing it.
Most are brewed using pilsner as the base grain and many times spices, fruit and various herbs are added. Modern versions are also usually higher in alcohol and it is not uncommon to see American breweries putting out versions with ABV percentages at 6 – 8%.
Saisons can run the whole gambit when it comes to color and taste. They can be very light or very dark. They can taste malty or be very hoppy.
The ingredient that makes a Saison what it is, is the yeast. The yeast is what gives this beer it’s very distinguishable spicy and tart flavor. A Saison might look like any other beer but when you taste one you know immediately that it is a Saison due to the yeast.
History of Saison Beers
Traditionally speaking they were originally brewed in the 1700’s on the farms and for the farmhands in Belgium’s French speaking region called Wallonia. The original variations of this beer were lower in alcohol typically 3 – 3.5%, were very light bodied, had lots of carbonation, were very dry and they had a distinct spicy flavor to them.
Some people will tell you that the name Saison was used as it is French for Season. Others will tell you that the name comes from the people it was brewed for who were seasonal workers on the farms called “Les Saisonniers”.
Regardless, it was brewed for these workers in order to quench their thirst while they were working as safe drinking water was hard to come by. They were given a daily ration of this beer to get them through the work day.
These beers were brewed throughout the winter using whatever ingredients the farm had available to them. Each farm would have different ingredients and a different style of brewing so the beers would vary from farm to farm. So there was never any exact characteristics that defined this beer. Again depending on what ingredients the farm had on hand these beers could have been brewed with barley, oats, wheat or whatever the farm actually grew. One thing they all had in common was these beers were highly hopped in order to stop them from going bad.
Over time as concerns over drinking water started to diminish, Saisons started to disappear. However, thanks to homebrewers and craft breweries who are always looking to experiment and try new styles of beers, Saisons have made a resurgence.
The Difference Between Farmhouse Ales and Saisons
When I first home brewed a Saison I gave a bottle to a buddy of mine who is a great brewer and a fan of Saisons. He tried it and told me it tasted more like a Farmhouse than a Saison.
At the time I figured he knew what he was talking about. Turns out that in my opinion he did not. Considering that traditional Saisons was brewed with any ingredient the farmer had on hand, as long as the yeast was inline it was a Saison.
So no my friend my beer was a Saison, but yes it was also a Farmhouse!
Well because a Saison is a Farmhouse Ale, but not all Farmhouse Ales are Saisons. Confused yet?
Let me explain:
If you owned a farm you could brew your own version of a Farmhouse Ale as long as you used the ingredients that you grew on your farm or at the very least you sourced them locally. That is the true example of what a Farmhouse Ale is. And that is why a Saison is a Farmhouse Ale, they used the ingredients from their farms to brew it.
Now having said that the craft brew purest amongst us will prefer the traditional explanation of what a Farmhouse is, and yes traditional this style of beer is considered to be brewed on the farms in France and Belgium. Over time two styles of beers emerged out of these farms, The Belgian people brewed the Saison and the French brewed the Biere de Garde, which has more of an earthy and sweet taste to it.
So to sum it up a farmhouse is not what you would consider one type of beer, but it encompasses many types. Whereas a saison is well a saison. Make sense?
Characteristics of a Saison
Appearance: Well as we stated they can look like any other beer out there, light to dark and everything in between. However it is generally agreed on that they are paler orange in color and have a very large white head that sticks around for a decent amount of time while drinking it. It is also not a clear beer, quite hazy in fact as these beers are not filtered and when home brewing I would not use any clearing methods such as whirlfloc or cold crashing.
Taste: The taste which comes mostly from the yeast is the characteristic that determines whether it is a Saison. It must have a spicy, tangy and almost peppery flavor to it. Spices can be added to help in achieving this taste and increasing the complexity of the beer. Light malt characteristics are typically present and hops are added to provide light to medium earthy notes. The bitterness from the hops should not overpower the traditional flavors. Depending on the ABV of the beer sweetness tends to become less and with higher percentage versions the spicy, tangy and even sour tastes start to become more prominent.
Aroma: The aroma of this beer is heavily influenced by citrus, spice and herb smells. There will not be much of a malt aroma. You will usually be able to also pick up a slight sour aroma. And there should never be any evidence of a diacetyl smell with this beer.
Mouthfeel: This is a light and refreshing beer, remember it was meant to quench the thirst of farmhands. Alcohol warming is very low. You will feel the carbonation as it is intended to be high. There will be a spicy or tart like feel to the beer, but it will not be overpowering. And the beer should have a dry finish.
How to Drink a Saison
Saisons are typically served in a Belgian style tulip-shaped beer glass, often referred to as a chalice. Ideally you would serve them somewhere between 45 – 55 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are pouring from your bottle pour slowly if you want to have a clearer beer leaving as much of the yeast behind as possible. If you want a cloudy beer let the yeast pour into your glass.
Water: The water in the Belgium Wallonia region was typically hard. So if you have softer water try adding some gypsum. You also want to make sure you are not using any chlorinated water.
Yeast: As discussed, the yeast you use is going to determine if the beer you are brewing is a Saison. So long story short, get yourself a Saison yeast. There are lots on the market these days. White Labs and Wyeast both sell different types. Experiment, try one batch with one and the next batch with the other, save a couple of bottles from each batch and drink them side by side to determine which you prefer.
One thing to note is that many of these yeasts take a long time to finish fermentation as compared to traditional ale yeasts. 6 to 8 weeks is not uncommon. Check your gravity readings on a weekly basis to see where the beer is at. These yeasts also like to ferment at higher temperatures than other ale yeasts, typically around the mid 70’s Fahrenheit.
Grains: As you have seen, pretty much any beer can be considered a Saison as long as you use the right yeast. So the grain bill is really up to the brewer. Many home brewers will typically use Pilsner malt combined with some specialty grains such as Crystal. Depending on how dark you want your Saison would determine which Crystal you want to use. Many times Munich and Vienna are included in the grain bill as well as Wheat. This will add complexity and body to the beer. Keep the specialty grains to under 20% of the grain bill.
Hops: Belgian beers are not typically considered hoppy beers at least by American standards, however Saisons would be considered the hoppiest Belgian style. But even still the hops need to meld with the spicy flavors and aromas and not over power them. Most Saisons will use some kind of combination of East Kent Goldings, Tettnanger, Styrian Goldings, Saaz, Northern brewer, Hallertauer and Styrian.
Spices: My recommendation is that for your first batch do not add any additional spices, get a feel for how the grains, hops and yeasts interact with each other to create this style of beer. Later on if you want to experiment some of the spices that brewers add are ginger, coriander, cardamom, and bitter orange peel. These can be added towards the end of the boil or during fermentation.
Saison Beer Recipe
The following is a pretty classic 5 gallon Saison beer recipe you can try if you wish:
Target OG: 1.048
Target FG: 1.009
Pre Boil Volume: 6.25 gallons
Post Boil Volume: 5.5 gallons
Fermenter Volume 5.25 Gallons
Brewhouse Efficiency 70%
- 8 lbs American Pilsner Malt
- 1 lb Munich
- 8 oz Wheat Malt
- 2 oz Caramel/Crystal 30L
- 1 oz Fuggles (30 min)
- 1 oz Styrian Goldings (10 min)
White Labs Belgian Saison Yeast II WLP566 (or any Saison yeast you prefer)
Mash your milled grains at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes.
Vorlauf your first runnings back onto the grain bed until the runnings are clear. Sparge with 170 degrees Fahrenheit water bringing the water level up to the pre boil level of 6.25 gallons (depending on your boil off rate you might need to have a higher or lower pre boil level).
Boil for 75 minutes, add hops as per the recipe.
At the end of the boil whirlpool for 10 minutes. Cool wort down to yeast pitching temperature of below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Transfer the wort to your fermenter.
Ferment the beer at the temperature listed on the side of the yeast pack, typically between 68 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit for a Saison.
When fermentation has completed, cold crash for 2 days at 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit. Bottle and keg. Condition for as long as you desire.
Ingredients & Equipment
The following is a link to a post where I share my top 5 online vendors that I buy from. If you order from them they actually provide Big Robb with a referral fee for sending you to them. This is at no extra charge to you, the price is the same for you whether Big Robb sent you or not. The support is appreciated and it keeps this site up and running and allows me the odd pint at the pub. Cheers!
As for equipment I brew on all-in-one brewing systems. I own two of them actually. I have brewed on many systems and this style is my favorite by far. Brew day is simple, clean up is even simpler and the beer is delicious. You can learn about these systems here.
There you have it my friend you now know exactly what a Saison beer is and you have a recipe to be able to brew your own.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments in the section below.
Now go get your brew awnnn…
Cheers Big Robb is out!