Currently enjoying a worldwide renaissance, the saison style was in danger of dying out as recently as the 80s and 90s. Stefanie Collins investigates the origins of this farmhouse brew.
Saison is a farmhouse style of ale that originated in Wallonia, the grain-growing, French-speaking area of Belgium. The beers were originally brewed at the end of the cold season to last through the refrigeration-free summers of the days of yore. The lack of cooling meant the beers had to be robust enough in alcohol terms to last through the warmer months, but also needed to be thirst quenching and refreshing enough for consumption in the hot weather.
Brewed in the agrarian communities of Wallonia and into Flanders, farmers used whatever grains were on hand, often malting their own. This meant that the beer’s ingredients varied from farmhouse to farmhouse, and in an area known for the cultivation of wheat, oats, buckwheat, spelt and barley that made for some interesting combinations. Beers were also spiced with locally sourced herbs and botanicals, including hops, though these local inclusions were gradually usurped by an influx of more exotic spices, creating even more variation as farmers got creative.
The most famous saison-producing brewery is easily Brasserie Dupont. Operating since 1844, the brewery is the yardstick by which all other saisons are measured. An old farm property, the brewery uses propriety yeast and local springwater to create the world’s most imitated saison. While the copper brewing kettles used in the brewhouse date from the 1920s, the brewery has moved with the technological times, ensuring its survival while so many other saison breweries during the 20th century foundered.
Pinning Down a Definition
There are few beer styles that are as varied as saison. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) the style is a “refreshing, medium to strong fruity/spicy ale… highly carbonated, well-hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity”. But even they struggle to pin down exact features, noting an extraordinary array of options. Very generally saisons are refreshing, dry, effervescent and bitter, with notes of peppery spice. The defining feature, however, has to be the fruity and flavourful notes delivered by the yeast. So important is yeast that the search for the perfect culture drove Costa Nikias to a secret town in Belgium to track down the yeast for his exclusively saison producing brand La Sirène.
“We sourced our yeast from a small town in Belgium and we harvested and cultured that original mother strain and continue to use it,” he says. “And now it is a hybrid, it’s been mixed with other yeasts that are already here at this site, so it’s very much a La Sirène yeast.”
So why the sudden fascination with this finicky and difficult to brew style? According Nikias he is intrigued by the style’s sensitivity and the challenge of long fermentation periods and fickle yeasts. And he loves drinking them.
“I’m on a saison crusade. Without question. I really believe that this is the style that people should be drinking as their default style,” he says. “At the moment it is pale ale or IPA, but I really believe that saison has a place as people’s first choice when it comes to beer style because it is such an approachable, complex style without being overbearing in any way. It should be a ‘daily occurrence’ kind of beer.”
Nikias also believes that style is perfect for the Australian climate, something Grant Wearin of new Sydney brewery Modus Operandi agrees with.
“We really think it’s a style that’s under done and we think it’s a style that suits our climate, particularly with us being close to the beach – it’s light, tart, easy to drink,” he says. “We wanted to highlight to new drinkers that saison is an approachable style.”
Interestingly, the brewery’s MOFOS (Modus Operandi Funky Orange Saison) was specifically brewed to appeal to wine drinkers with subtle orange notes and a distinct dryness – and it’s really taken off. Nikias also believes that saison is a great beer to convert non-craft beer fans, with La Sirène appealing to a broad range of drinkers.
A Dying Style
Homebrewed beers like saison served a variety of uses back in the day, with the most common being to provide a nutritional boost to the seasonal farmhands (or saisonniers) who carried out backbreaking work on farms. However, the commercialisation of brewing, the arrival of imported macro lagers, and two world wars began to take their toll on the small farmhouse breweries. Suddenly saison was in danger of dying out entirely.
Fortunately, a few tenacious breweries hung on and as technology increased breweries like Brasserie Dupont were able to scale up. Then came an unlikely knight on a shining white steed: the American craft beer industry. Hungry for the next big thing, craft brewers all over the US latched onto this obscure, yeast driven style and the rest is history.
And where America goes, Australia is sure to follow. Interestingly an increasing number of new breweries have chosen to buck current trends, throwing open the gates with a saison or two, following on from the few established breweries, like Bridge Road or Temple Brewing, that have been quietly making saisons for years. While La Sirène has made the saison style its own and ignited consumer interest, Modus Operandi opened its doors this year with a seven beer line-up that included two saisons, and Melbourne-based Exit Brewing opened up with the #001 Saison.
A Beer For All (Food) Seasons
Love beer and food? Saison is the perfect choice. With its yeast-driven flavour saison is a many and varied style, making it the perfect accompaniment for pretty much any cuisine you would care to whip up. One aspect of the saison style to pay close attention to is whether or not your brew has any spices added to it. This can dramatically effect a pairing, so remember the general rules of compare, contrast and cleanse – do you want the peppery notes to contrast with a creamy dish or perhaps compliment a spicy meal? As always, planning your match is key – but then again flying by the seat of your pants is always entertaining.
Saisons are robust enough to take on full-flavoured winter cooking – think rich, meaty dishes – but are also simultaneously not too heavy for something lighter during the summer – think spicy Asian cuisine. Just don’t go too light on or the beer will overwhelm your palate… but you don’t make friends with salad as a general rule.
As always cheese is a favourite pairing – if you haven’t done this yet, seriously get off your butt and get thee to a dairy counter. Saisons work very well with creamy, ripe cheeses that will set your nose hairs cracking like stockwhips. Yes, really. The effervescence of the style will scrub your palate clean of fatty residues and leave you ready for the next mouthful. Try a stinky washed rind or a particularly blooming goat cheese to get started on the path to enlightenment. Or if you’re a newbie to whiffy cheese, get your hands on a proper French brie – just smelly enough to expand your horizons and delightfully gooey enough to spread over crusty bread. And alongside your cheese platter be sure to stock up on some quality charcuterie – thin slices of air-dried beef, chunks of chorizo, and a smattering of peppery salami will pair perfectly with your saison of choice.
If You Like Saisons…
Bière de Garde: A fairly strong, malt-accentuated, lagered farmhouse beer. Related to the saison style, but a richer, more malt-focused beer.
Belgian Golden Strong Ale: A perfect marriage of fruity and spicy yeast flavours with a soft malt character. Originally developed by the Moortgat Brewery after WWII as a response to the growing popularity of pilsner.
Berliner Weisse: A pale, sour, elegant low-alcohol wheat ale that is a regional specialty of Berlin. Referred to by Napoleon’s troops as “the Champagne of the North”.
Gueuze: Spontaneously fermented sour ale. Complex, pleasantly sour/acidic, balanced, pale, wheat-based and fermented by a variety of wild Belgian yeasts. Not for the faint-hearted – perseverance is key.
Try these five local bottled versions to start your saison journey:
- La Siréne Wild Saison – the first ever local wild saison
- Nomad Long Trip Saison – brewed with wattle seeds and native pepperberry
- Bridge Road/Nøgne Ø India Saison – a Saison and IPA style mash-up
- Modus Operandi Pepper In The Rye – spiked with pepper and rye
- Exit Brewing #001 – a classic saison