Saison beers

Words by Simon Difford

Saison beers image 1

Why saison is the gin drinker's ale

Many consumers who once only drank vodka and/or dull Euro lagers are now confirmed gin and IPA drinkers. Their quest for flavour and newfound adventurism has led bars to stock ever bigger ranges of gins and IPAs. All self-respecting craft brewers now make several IPAs and it seems every whisk(e)y distiller now also makes a gin. But what’s next?

Perhaps a style of beer that often has the pine, coriander and peppery flavours that these drinkers usually find in their gin. The gin drinker's ale if you like, saison.

What is saison?

Bière de saison originates from the French speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, specifically the province of Hainaut. Saison means 'season' in French, a reference to this style of beer's origin as low alcohol strength pale ale brewed in the winter months from the bountiful harvest to refresh parched seasonal migrant farm workers ('saisonniers') in the summer months that followed.

In the age before refrigeration, the cooler months allowed longer, better controlled ferments. The quiet winter farming season was also a period when these farmer brewers had the time to make beer. Spent grain from brewing also served as useful winter feed for livestock. Hence, saison is often described as being "farmhouse ale", particularly by modern day American brewers.

Many saisons continue to be seasonally brewed, but it's a style of beer that is now also brewed all year round.

What does a saison look and taste like?

Excitingly, and frustratingly for the confused consumer, saisons vary greatly in style with the few saison rules-of-thumb often abandoned by adventurous envelope pushing brewers.

The original farmhouse worker's beer saisons would have been brewed with whatever crops were plentiful. Barley, wheat, rye and spelt would have all been used and in years when hop harvests failed, then herbs and spices would have been substituted.

These loose origins allow modern saison brewers freedom of expression. However, saisons, particularly Belgium saisons, are typically:

1. Yeasty. Saison beers are yeast driven in the same way IPAs are hop driven. It's a style of beer defined by its yeast.

2. Lightly spicy. Classically saison's spice derives from spicy noble hops and a hot ferment, but in modern saisons spicy notes are often due to added coriander, pepper, grains of paradise, cinnamon and ginger.

3. Crisp and dry, bordering on sour. Saisons should be on the dry side, certainly never sweet, and sometimes with a slightly acidic finish. Refreshing!

4. Light and hazy in appearance. Saisons are usually unfiltered and most are re-fermented in the bottle, consequently many have heavy sedimentation. Saisons also tend to be light in colour (5-14 SRM), although there are some darker exceptions (22-24 SRM) and many in between.

5. Classically moderate in strength. I say classically, as while most saisons are brewed with those parched farmworkers of old in mind at a moderate 4.5% - 6.5% alc./vol., a "super saison" style emerged in the 1950s and looks set to grow in popularity in the same way IPAs have led to double IPAs. Super saisons can be as big as 12% alc./vol. although most are 7% - 9.5% alc./vol..

6. Moderately hopped. Saisons tend to have balanced rather than dominant hop bitterness (usually 20-35 IBUs) with super saisons similarly balanced but bolder all-round with 30-50 IBUs.

7. Fruity. Citrusy aromas and peppered grapefruit flavours may come from the saison yeast. Orange peel and other fruits may also be thrown into the kettle to add flavour.

8. Subtly funky and earthy. These yeast driven notes emerge when saisons are at their very best and most interesting.

9. Briskly carbonated with a thick retentive head. Saisons should be refreshing and lively. The CO2 adds an attractive bite.

Saison beer cocktails

I've come across plenty of cocktails using IPA, wheat and stouts but few using saison. It seems like a beer that would work well in cocktails - particularly gin cocktails. After all, saisons could be considered the gin drinker's ale. Watch this space...

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Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison image

Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 7.7

Violent Femme Hoppy Saison image

Violent Femme Hoppy Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 4.2

Dupont Saison Dry Hopping 2016 image

Dupont Saison Dry Hopping 2016

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.5

Dupont Saison image

Dupont Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.5

Brooklyn 1/2 Ale image

Brooklyn 1/2 Ale

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 3.4

Anchor Saison Spring Ale image

Anchor Saison Spring Ale

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 7.2

BBNo.Saison Rye 01|24 image

BBNo.Saison Rye 01|24

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 7.4

8 Wired Saison Sauvin Ale image

8 Wired Saison Sauvin Ale

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 7

BrewDog Electric India image

BrewDog Electric India

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5.2

Savour British Saison image

Savour British Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5

Nøgne Ø Saison image

Nøgne Ø Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.5

Partizan Saison Raspberry & Lemon image

Partizan Saison Raspberry & Lemon

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 4

Silly Saison image

Silly Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5

Brew by Numbers 01|03 image

Brew by Numbers 01|03

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5.2

BBNo. 01|04 Saison Ginger & Grapefruit image

BBNo. 01|04 Saison Ginger & Grapefruit

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6

BBNo. 01|06 Saison Motueka & Lime image

BBNo. 01|06 Saison Motueka & Lime

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5

BBNo. 01|01 Saison Citra image

BBNo. 01|01 Saison Citra

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 5.7

BBNo. 55|01 Gin Saison image

BBNo. 55|01 Gin Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6

Arbor Gingerbread Saison image

Arbor Gingerbread Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.2

Σόλο (Solo Psaki) Χωριάτικη Saison Cretan Craft Be image

Σόλο (Solo Psaki) Χωριάτικη Saison Cretan Craft Be

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.5

Old Hands Strawberry Saison image

Old Hands Strawberry Saison

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6

Northern Monk Wasted Pear image

Northern Monk Wasted Pear

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6.7

Upright Brewing Four Saison Style Beer image

Upright Brewing Four Saison Style Beer

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 4.5

SWB Saison Lime & Coriander image

SWB Saison Lime & Coriander

Category: Beer, Cider & Perry
Sub category: Ale (top fermented beer)
alc./vol: 6

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