(Note: This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. mug club members.)
Here at Stormcloud Brewing Company we have brewed over 30 unique Saisons to date, so many of our customers are familiar with this style. As a brewery, we are self defined as “a small brewery crafting ales within the time-honored Belgian brewing tradition of ignoring time-honored brewing traditions.” I think of all the different beer styles we make, the Saison is the ultimate expression of this Belgian-inspired creativity/rule-breaking. Today I want to dive a little deeper into this versatile beer style.
What exactly IS a Saison? That question is a lot more complex than you may think. According to brewing consultant and writer Phil Markowski, “modern Saisons defy easy categorization. They can be as contradictory as they are uniform” (Oliver). The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, which are the industry’s leading authority regarding beer styles can’t even easily categorize it – unlike most other BJCP categories, they not only list a range but also multiple options for SRM and ABV. Even among Stormcloud’s portfolio of Saisons you can find a large variety. Here are just a few of our previous Saisons to demonstrate:
Saison du Stormcloud – deceptively dark, with only a hint of dark malt flavor. Refreshing.
‘Tis the Saison – Our annual Orange-Cranberry holiday Saison. Oranges, cranberries and a hint of ginger.
P’eaching to the Choir – Saison with pickled peaches, pickled jalapeño and pickled cilantro.
Despite all the diversity, there are a few characteristics that ring true for most Saisons: they tend to be highly attenuated, dry, and very carbonated.
History of the Saison
Saison translates to “season” in French. See the graphic below to see where this name (and this beer) originated:
Saisons were most frequently consumed by farmworkers to both refresh and nourish them after long days working the fields – which is why I sometimes refer to them as “the Gatorade of beer.” Sounds like a great reason to consume more Saisons, right?
I often hear people asking if Saisons and Farmhouse Ales are synonymous. The answer is yes – and no. At some breweries, when they say “Farmhouse Ale” they mean “Saison.” This is not completely accurate, because Farmhouse Ales is referring to a family of beer. So, “all Saisons are Farmhouse Ales, but not all Farmhouse Ales are Saisons” (Levy). Farmhouse Ales is an umbrella term that includes a variety of styles. What links these styles together is their agrarian origin. Here are a few of the Saison’s farmhouse cousins:
Bière de Garde – A fairly strong, malt-accentuated, lagered artisanal beer from Northern France brewed in early spring and kept in cold cellars for consumption in warmer weather. All are malty yet dry, with clean flavors and a smooth character.
Gueuze – Spontaneously fermented wild ales from the area in and around Brussels and stem from a farmhouse brewing and blending tradition several centuries old. A complex, pleasantly sour but balanced wheat beer that is highly carbonated and very refreshing.
Grisette – While this one isn’t technically agrarian, it’s considered close enough. As Belgium’s Hainaut region began to shift from farming to mining, the Grisette was born. It is essentially a Saison for miners instead of farmhands, and has a lot of stylistic similarities.
Sahti – A sweet, heavy, strong traditional Finnish beer with a rye and juniper berry flavor along with a strong banana-clove yeast character. Casks of Sahti were discovered on a sunken Viking ship dated back to the 9th century, and “some historians even claim ancient beer styles like sahti were the motivation behind developed agriculture in Scandinavia” (Bryant).
Of course these are just a few of many Farmhouse Ales. All over the world where there were farms, there were alcoholic beverages created from the farm’s crops.
Alright readers, if you had the means of making your own Saison, what kind would you make? Have any of you homebrewers out there tried your hand at it? I’d love to hear from you!
BJCP Beer Style Guidelines. 2015 ed., Beer Judge Certification Program, 2015, p. 50, 51-52, 58.
Bryant, Duncan. “Sahti: One of the World’s Oldest Beer Styles.” American Homebrewers Association, edited by Dave Carpenter, http://www.homebrewersassociation.org/how-to-brew/sahti-one-of-the-worlds-oldest-beer-styles/.
Colburn, Randall. “Raise a glass to saison, the farmhouse ale brewed to last through the dog days.” The Takeout, edited by Kevin Pang, Nov. 2016, thetakeout.com/raise-a-glass-to-saison-the-farmhouse-ale-brewed-to-la-1798254691.
Hutto, Emily. “What Makes a Saison a Saison?” Craft Beer & Brewing, edited by Jamie Bogner, 2016, beerandbrewing.com/what-makes-a-saison-a-saison/.
Levy, Seth. “The Difference Between Saison and Farmhouse Ale.” The Beer Connoisseur , edited by Lynn Davis, May 2019, beerconnoisseur.com/articles/saison-vs-farmhouse-ale.
Oliver, Garrett, editor. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 711-712.