Beer Style: Saison

We seem to be in the Year of the Saison, having tasted heaps of them in the US and seeing them popping up all around New Zealand, so we decided we need to know what that means.

Back in our days of studying for beer judge certification, saison was a very rare and minor style in the US. We knew it to be a lighter summer farmhouse ale from the French speaking part of Belgium. Farmhouse meant that it might have a bit of Belgian funk, might range from light to medium in colour and that generally one would a little different from the next.

But when we noticed  Stu of Yeastie Boys, Soren of 8-Wired, and Jim of Golden Bear taking various turns with saison yeasts, we sensed that the style was perhaps no longer about farmhouses. We wondered if they could all just be inspired by the JP seasonal from Emerson’s, until we got to the States.

At the Great American Beer Festival, we discovered that saison is the new black. Hardly a brewery with any sort of experimental reputation was to be seen without one (or a farmhouse or a bier d’garde). And the style was virtually unrecognisable to us – light or dark, mild or strong, dry or sour, fruited or spiced, tame or wild, it was hard to see a thread running through these beers, aside from usually a distinctly Belgian yeastiness.

Admittedly a few years have passed since we studied the style, so we have gone back to the “books”, meaning the web, of course. We wanted to clarify in our minds the differences between saisons and other farmhouse ales, and other Belgian ales.

What we have found makes us feel a little better. Between the BJCP and World Beer Cup guidelines for Saison, or Ameri-Belgo Ales – Saison, or Other Belgian Ales (including Strong or Dark Saisons), just about any beer made with a saison yeast has a place these days.

And when we visited Funkwerks (yes, the Funkwerks with the beer formerly called Maori King) in Fort Collins Colorado, we learned that’s exactly why saison is on the rise. Gordon and Brad decided to open an all saison brewery, because you can make practically anything with the saison yeast, and everything you make is distinctive.

New Zealand examples have ranged from traditional (Invercargill Saison), to fruit beers (Golden Bear Pirate Peach), through red ales (Rescue Red) and even black (Cock and Bull She’s in Saison).

But back to our studies. Depending on who you ask, the traditional Belgian saison should be a dry to moderately malty beer with low to moderate bitterness, not much hop character. The balanced citrus and clove characteristics may be optionally enhanced by adding additional spices. It’s typically bottle conditioned and some might have Brettanomyces yeast strain which can give a distinctive sourness and “barnyard” flavour and aroma. It’s normally not too strong, and can be a refreshing summer drink along the lines of a German Heffeweizen.

We confirmed that “farmhouse ales” are the beers from French-speaking Belgium and neighboring areas of France. Along with saison in the group is the bier d’guarde from France. These will typically be a bit less malty, less distinctively yeasty, and never sour. But they are more identified with aging, and should have some influence from aging the bottle conditioned ale.

Though Invarcargill and Emmerson’s  release their saisons as specialties in autumn, there are several available now. Tuatara Ardennes, though a Strong Golden ale, has a similar flavour profile to a traditional unspiced  farmhouse. With Golden Bear’s Pirate Saison, Black Boy Peaches compliment the yeast , and 8 Wired Saison Sauvin is a version of their hoppy Hop Wired with saison yeast character. Several Belgain saisons are also imported into New Zealand, including Saison Dupont. If you can’t find them at your local store , try online at Regional Wines and Spirits.

Originally published in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

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