The Saison (French for “season”) is a farmhouse ale that is said to have originated in the French-speaking Wallonian countryside in the 1700s.
Due to the unavailability of potable water in the rural Belgium, Saisons were developed as a safe drinkable alternative for farmers and workers. They were typically brewed in the fall and winter months for summer consumption by the farmhands. Traditional Saisons featured a refreshingly low ABV (3-4%) and high hopping rate to prevent spoilage. Many also included a wide variety of spices and often Brettanomyces.
After farming became industrialized there was less demand for farmhands and thus less demand for Saisons. By the 1950s, Saison production had shrunk to only a handful of small, artisanal Belgian breweres. The Saison continued to fall out of favor and nearly became an endangered beer style until recent years, where it has seen a massive revival, particularly in the United States.
Modern Saisons feature similar complexity to their younger versions, with emphasis on fruit and spice aromas and flavors. The yeast typically contribute earthy tones with mild to moderate tartness. Bitterness is present, but not overpowering, and ABV has increased to 5-7%. The finish is always dry, but there is often a touch of sweetness to balance out the body.
My first encounter with a modern American Saison occurred back in 2011 in the form of Saison Du BUFF (a Stone/Dogfish Head/Victory collaboration beer). The beer poured a hazy golden color with a big bubbly white head and heavy lacing. Lots of citrusy lemon notes and earthy, herbal flavors with restrained bitterness. The beer was uniquely complex and I knew right away I wanted to try my hand at brewing a Saison. Today, some of my favorite Saisons are Sofie, Saison Dupont, Tank 7, and Fantome.
Stone/Dogfish Head/Victory shared a homebrew recipe of Saison Du BUFF that I used as a starting point for my recipe creation. I wanted to emphasis the fruity aspect of Saison in my version, so I opted to use three of the fruitiest American hops; Centennial, Amarillo, and Citra. In traditional fashion, I decided to keep the beer pale and dry, utilizing a combination of Pilsner, 2-Row, wheat, and flaked rye malts. A spicy Saison yeast strain was selected to balance the fruity hops. Instead of spice additions (as in Saison Du BUFF), I opted for dry hopping to enhance hoppiness without increasing bitterness.
Following advice written in Zymurgy by Saison-guru Drew Beechum, I pitched a large slurry of yeast and let the beer free rise to ferment above ambient temperatures. An airlock was omitted and replaced with aluminum foil secured with rubber bands due to the pressure sensitivity of Saison yeast.
The result is an easy-drinking, well-carbonated summer sipper. The spiciness from the yeast is blended with waves of tropical fruit, mango, and pineapple from the hops, resulting in incredibly complexity. Beachcomber is our summer seasonal, available on the first day of summer each year (but unfortunately, a little later this year!).
We recently brewed a batch of Beachcomber on 6/5, utilizing two new yeast varieties in a split batch experimentation. It should hit kegs in early July and tasting notes will be posted on the blog once available. Future batches will experiment with fresh citrus zest and Brettanomyces, so stay tuned!