Ask anyone in the brewing industry about saison and they usually start by saying (verbatim) "well...it’s complicated". We’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about saison, reading about saison, and brewing saison, but by no means are worthy of writing a definitive opinion on the topic - so for this episode of the Learning Zone, we’re going to push the Phone-a-Friend button and use this as an excuse to have conversations with a few delightful saison people and ask them some questions about their relationships with saison.
This is a bit of a longer, higher level, more text heavy episode, but if you’re someone who is interested in brewing and/or drinking saison, I think you’ll enjoy reading this Q&A with these thoughtful saison giants. At the end if you have more questions about Saison shoot us an email and we'll do our best to answer.
In this episode, we talk to:
I’d like to start off by thanking Richard, Averie, Eloi and Yvan for taking the time to talk with me. It was a pleasure taking saison with each of them and I’m really grateful for their time. What follows below is a loose transcription of the conversations that were had over the phone. Please enjoy!
Richard Preiss - Escarpment Labs / Guelph, ON
“The average person doesn’t care about saison...but they should.”
What makes “Good Saison”?
There are so many ways to interpret how saison should be made, and they are (mostly) all valid, a good saison can be accomplished in a lot of different ways. It should have the “X” factor that makes you want to come back for more after every sip. That “X” factor could be bitterness, acidity, funk, or all the above, but they have to be in balance and harmony, and you should want to drink a lot of it.
What was a significant “Saison Moment” for you?
Going to see Bob at St. Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs Florida (the sponge capital of Florida - there’s a sponge museum). It was amazing to see how this guy had started a Saison specific brewery without investing a tonne of money. You don’t need fancy glycol jacketed tanks, you can just let ferments free rise because that’s often how saison is made (in open-top vessels with no temperature control).
What were some significant saisons for you?
OG Flemish Cap Folly Brewing (Toronto) - “What a classic”
OG Brett Lime Burdock (I asked him to say Burdock) - “That was a big one”
Brasserie Dunham (Quebec) various saisons - “My first hoppy/bitter saisons”
Stillwell Brewing (Halifax) mixed fermentations - “Harmonious!”
What do people get wrong about saison?
People sometimes lean on yeast too much, they throw a saison yeast at a standard recipe and it will do what it’s going to do, but it can often lead to something unbalanced. You have to take a holistic approach to saison. You get out what you put in and it requires attention and focus. I really like a saison with a noticeable amount of bitterness, a 15 IBU saison ends up tasting kind of boring.
Eloi Deit - Brasserie Dunham / Dunham, QC
“I think what we’re doing [with saison] is more of a renewal of the style”
How would you explain saison to a non-brewer, someone who is just dipping their toes into the world of beer?
It’s always fun-times to explain that it’s not the “seasonal beer”. Saison is an old European Belgian style from the area of northern France/Belgium. For me, it’s something that has rustic and really dry, pepper notes. The starting point is Saison DuPont. It was the first saison that I drank where I was like OK (flabbergasted), wow that’s so good. Also, Brasserie à vapeur, a Belgian brewery, had some saison 20-25 years ago that were SUPER peppery, and I thought they were so good.
Saison shouldn’t be too sour. I used to say saison should be dry and thirst quenching, but even now a lot of people in Belgium don’t know what “real saison” is. We haven’t had it for a long time. It’s hard to say what is the true original saison. Yvan De Baets said to me once “I don’t know what is a real saison, we barely have a historical example”.
I don’t think I’m doing traditional style saison any more, I think what we’re doing is more of a renewal of the style. I like the dry-side of the style, with good carbonation, with rustic characteristics.
For me, saison has a lot to do with yeast. Over the years we’ve developed our own blend of yeast that has evolved over the years (Brett Drie was added in at some point). The first saison we brewed was with the White Labs American Farmhouse blend, and then we added some brett, and then some more brett and we’re still using the same culture. Around 5 years ago we cultured it in the lab and when we need a new pitch we grow one up (but we haven’t re-started it for 2 years). We don’t know exactly what we’re getting when we harvest yeast from the bottom of tanks and I’m sure the Brett is more intense in some batches but most are pretty similar.
How do you think about hops and saison?
Our Saisons were hoppy from the start, Saison Rustique and Saions Pinacle (even more hoppy) - in a sense we were trying to emulate an IPA with our farmhouse blend. We use a blend of Euro, Australian, and American hops (topaz, silva, saaz, one more) and we use equal amounts in boil and dry hoppy. Saison Rustique used to be dry-hopped, not any more. We found it was more of a distraction. It started at 38-40 IBUS and now we’ve brought it down 30-32 - we found with aging it was getting too astringent, and wasn't in balance, I like it better like this.
What are some significant saisons for you?
- Brewery De Ranke: XX bitter. It’s not a saison, it’s a pale ale, but it has a dry, herbal hops quality that I’d like to replicate.
- Trou Du Diable: Saison du Tracteur. Early TTD was great.
- Hill Farmstead: Incredible beers.
What do you think people get wrong about saison?
Lots of American breweries have been putting the saison name on beers that are not even close to saison. They are way too sour. They often brew something like an American wild ale and would put grisette or saison on the label because they thought it would sell better. I’m not sure if people are even looking for saison that much anymore. I don’t feel it’s a style that’s so popular these days.
Averie Swanson - Keeping Together / Chicago, IL
“Saison is a beautiful, broad spectrum of an experience”
What is Saison to you? Or how do you “saison”?
I identify with saison as a philosophy rather than a beer style - it’s a beautiful spectrum. Yes, the BJCP does put parameters on saison, but they’re broad. It can be New World, it can be Old World, you can add spices, you can add fruit, it can be low abv, high abv, bitter, not bitter, but you don’t have to do any one of those things. Obviously yeast is such an important part of Saison, but most yeast that brewers are using have been domesticated to do very specific (unidimensional) things. With Saison, (and Saison yeast) you’re not necessarily looking for the most predictable things. It’s a collaborative experience between you and the yeast and it’s expressive (pleasantly) surprising quirks.
For me, saison is an introspective tool. I’m able to make something, taste it, and even if I had a vision for the beer, invariably the yeast will want to express something different halfway through fermentation and I have to return to the drawing board. It’s like two people simultaneously working on a painting, the yeast makes a stroke, then I make a stroke. It’s exciting, it’s fun to see how my brain responds when I’m meeting the yeast in the middle.
Saison is a textural product and texture is influenced by lots of factors. For example, in Saison the texture of the carbonation is important - I expect saison to be effervescent, crunchy, and scrubby. You take a sip and it should bloom in your mouth. Texture is also influenced by the quality of the raw material. I enjoy using malt from local maltsters - and that texture comes through in the beer. Yes, the rusticity or physical texture of the graininess, but also the texture of the person growing the grain, the person malting the grain, and so forth, are all carried through into the end product. Texture to me is the friction or the tension that is created as you move through the world as an entity and that is an essential element of saison.
What makes a good saison (for you)?
Balance. Stylistically the beer should be dry, it should have a fair amount of bitterness, and depending on your school of thought, it might have acidity, it might have sweetness (you can achieve perceivable sweetness by mashing in hot, or using raw grains).
A lot of American breweries have been making very sour saisons, but I think the love of acidity has come and gone. At one point it seemed it was assumed that saison would be by definition sour. Acidity is important but it’s not the star of the show. Bitterness is the one of the things that can throw it out of balance. I’ve done it myself, screwed up the experience of bitterness.
What is a significant saison moment for you in your life?
I was stuck in Belgium after discovering on the day I was supposed to fly home that I had lost my passport. It was a Sunday, and there was nothing I could do but wait until the following day when the embassy opened. I was so upset and frightened about the situation that I didn't want to leave my accommodations, but I didn't have any food. The only thing I had with me was 3 bottles of Noblesse Oblige, a collaboration we brewed with Brasserie Au Baron. It was this 4.5% abv beautiful Biere-de-garde. That saison is what sustained me and got me through a terrible experience. I could not have imagined a better beer for that situation. It turned a terrifying experience into something comfortable and tolerable.
What do you think people get wrong about saison?
Stressing out your yeast without support doesn’t make a good saison (aka just fermenting super hot, and expecting your beer to be good). There is plenty of precision and intention that can be incorporated into the final product--selecting high-quality raw materials, ensuring the yeast has the nutrients it needs to thrive, etc..Sometimes you walk into a bar and order a saison and half the time you’re going to get something exactly like the last saison you had. Commercial saison yeasts are work horses, but they throw similar flavour profiles. Using a single strain and pushing it to produce extreme concentrations of esters and phenols is not going to create a unique and interesting experience that will bring you back for more.
Some people also think it has to be Farmhouse. There’s this romantic view that saison is only this really pastoral bucolic product. That romantic story is nice and all and adds to the texture, but it’s not entirely accurate. There isn’t anything wrong with it being an industrial product. It can be fermented all the way in stainless, it can be temperature regulated (glycol cooling is an important part of what I do). I feel the same way about spontaneous beer, some people think you should just completely let it go, but I don't necessarily agree with that. There are parameters that I control and things I do to persuade the beer in a direction, it’s very much a dance and though it’s not always an easy dance, it is always an enjoyable one.
Yvan De Baets - Brasserie De La Senne, Brussels, Belgium
“Saison should have a rustic character, it should not be too clean, it’s very hard to define”
How would you explain saison to a non-brewer?
I’d tell them to sit down and I hope you have time because It’s a very complex topic. It’s the most complicated to explain of any style. It has evolved the most of any style over time.
Saison is more of a family of beers, for example there are saison made with spontaneous beer blended in, saisons with pure Saccharomyces saisons, saisons with brett, saisons with bacteria, saisons brewed with just barley, or as many grains as you want (as long as they are local), saisons with spices (but you’re not obliged) - it’s extremely difficult to define saison as one thing.
I always talk about the origin of saison - it's easier and it saves time. It started as a beer that was made on the farm for the farm, brewed in the winter, for quenching the thirst of workers. That was the beginning, and step by step, it was sold to people who were not farmworkers, to bars and cafés in the villages. It was probably an extremely rustic, simple, table beer when it started, very low abv 2.5, 3.5 % max.
In the 19th century on-farm breweries started to change. They either stopped brewing and became just a farm or they became a just brewery and stopped farming. They started to sell to other people (off the farm), the alcohol % started to go up to ~5%, and that was still before WWI
At that time saison was by definition funky, with wine like character, and a little tart. Then WWI happened and half of the Belgian breweries disappeared. Germany stole the copper in the breweries for making bullets. The breweries who survived the war invested in new world equipment and acquired more modern knowledge. They started to use pure cultivated yeast (not mixed culture as before). The taste of the beer became cleaner and cleaner (less brett, less bacteria, more hops).
Saison has always been heavily hopped, but because of yeast and bacteria, the final flavour was of tartness and bitterness (not hoppiness). When breweries started cleaning their metal tanks, and using single yeast strain, it became more of a hop forward beer. The hops finally revealed themselves - they were always there, but were just hiding behind brett / acidity. At the same time the way the hops were kept was better, there were less aged hops, breweries also gained access to hops from foreign countries and the quality of the hoppiness was raised during those years after the war (this is a guess - I have no data on this).
So the first movement of the evolution of saison is that they became cleaner. The 2nd movement is that they became stronger in alcohol percentage.
The reason they became stronger is that pre WWI brewers were taxed on the size of their mash tun, so brewers would have the smallest possible mash tun, and sparge the grains enormously to get the maximum runnings out of them. The end result was a beer very weak in alcohol. At the turn of the 19th century the average abv was ~3%. Since the 2nd half of the 19th century, the UK and Germany ameliorated their beer brewing techniques, and were brewing higher density beers, they also didn’t have laws promoting weak beers. Their beers were better made from a technical point of view, with better shelf life. These beers were then imported to Belgium and gained favour of drinkers.
In 1903,1904,1905 there was a panic reaction from Belgian brewers to compete with foreign beers. Long story short, there was a contest to make a new Belgian beer that would compete with those beers and the beer style Special Belge was born. It was a 5% pale ale meant to compete with British pale ales and German lagers (it was probably not phenolic). The recipe was shared among all the Belgian brewers and you could make that with any kind of yeast. This started the movement to make stronger beers with higher density.
After WWI (Post 1919), there was a law passed that made it so cafes couldn’t sell spirits to people. Alcohol that was 18% abv and above was forbidden to be sold at the cafés and that opened the door for brewers to sell stronger beers to the people. This is why after WWI they became stronger in alcohol. Saison Dupont is the remaining example, just saccharomyces yeasts and it’s clean and very hoppy - 6.5%.
How do you make saison - when you make saison, how do you like to make it?
We make 3 saisons. Mayboom is a clean saison that we launch every year on Aug 9th. The Mayboom is a parade from the middle ages that takes place in Brussels on that day every year. We also make a saison with brettanomyces called Saison van de Bruwer which would be quite a typical saison of the 100s. The third saison we make is also a 19th century-like saison, called Saison de la Senne - it’s barrel aged and blended with Lambic from Cantillon.
The thing to understand with saison is that it was made in the countryside, in very small breweries, and sometimes in bigger breweries. At one time you could have all three styles of saison being made in the same brewery (clean, funky, tart). In the 1960-70s some brewers were still blending with sour beer into their saisons. For example, in 1922 you cannot say saisons blended with sour beer didn't exist anymore, because they existed until the 1970s.
Do you have a preference of what kind you like to drink?
No. It depends on the moment. Sometimes I like a clean saison, they are thirst quenching. Obviously the third kind is mostly the most complex (barrel-aged blended with Lambic).
What are some significant saisons or saison moments for you?
When I wrote the chapter on farmhouse ales, I got to meet lots of ancient brewers, people who have knowledge from their parents and grandparents. I was able to touch the past. Each of them had personality and interesting stories to tell. They were a very special group of people.
We made our first 19th century Saison de la Senne. Barrel-aged and blended with lambic from Cantillon. When I tasted that beer I was convinced we were touching the flavours that were the ones from the saisons of the 19th century. I wasn’t there, but I’m convinced that it was something very very close to what it would have tasted like. We are launching a new one shortly, I’m very happy with the results.
What are some beers that impacted you?
No one in Belgium is making historical Saison. It’s not very trendy. Some new breweries easily put Saison on the bottle of beer. But it’s always the same kind of Saison Dupont (like an imitation). Post WWI type saison, not historical.
In the USA, there’s Oxbow, Jester king, Averie Swanson with her new project, Crooked Stave - they make saison that almost no one is still making in Belgium I think.
What do you think people get wrong about saison and what do you want people to know about saison?
Different things. First off, making saisons that are too strong. It can exist, if it’s a post WWI saison, but it should be called a double saison, if it’s above 6.5% abv it’s way too strong for the style. If you use a historical name for naming your beer, you should respect some basic guidelines. If you always do what you want, then the ancient style disappears - it becomes overly modified. Make that beer, but use a different name. Sometimes I see saison with 10% abv, or beer with fruit, there has never been any saison with fruit in the past. Make it, but don’t use the name saison. Once you use a style name for beer. You are responsible for that, otherwise you kill history.
Also sometimes they are too dark in colour, the darkest colour should be dark amber, but a totally dark beer cannot be a saison.
There is also sometimes a lack of creativity - people always seem to use the same kind of yeasts, specifically two yeasts coming from two breweries in Europe. The family of saison yeast was much richer than that. You can make a saison without a POF+ yeast. You can start the primary fermentation with any type of yeast (under attenuating, POF-). What’s important then is the secondary fermentation. It can be POF+, it can be highly attenuative, it can be brettanomyces (my choice). In the past all saison contain brettanomyces. Those beers were barrel aged for months and months and months and not at super cool temperatures. I don’t see how it could be possible that it would not be present. It was also well known and there are many written records. It’s part of the essence of keeping-beer. Even after the war it was very common to find wild yeast in saison.
Saison should have a rustic character, it should not be too clean. Rustic is very hard to define. When I make a clean saison, I use my house yeast, POF-, then to give it the rustic character, I use other grains, like spelt, oats, wheat, and/or ancient varieties of hops. It has no phenols but it has rusticity and would be close to some saisons post 1918.
The most important thing is the finished beer - it has to be well attenuated and it needs to have refreshing properties, balance and drinkability.