With the long weekend just gone, two grand finals done for another year (Go Sharks!), and the beginning of daylight savings, summer now feels like it is just about upon us. Woot! The long, balmy days to come will have us reaching into the fridge/esky for some awesome warm weather brews and one of our favourite summer beer styles is the Saison ale. Yes please – line ‘em up!
The Saison (which is the French word for “season”) style has truly rustic origins and was genuinely born of necessity, not just for good times. The original bière de saison was the farmhouse brew of the French-speaking Wallonia district of Belgium. The tough winter months presented an opportunity to use surplus grain from the previous harvest to make a beer that would keep well until the next harvest. The spent grains could then be fed to livestock and the beers produced were the perfect way to keep seasonal harvest workers (les saisonniers) refreshed, happy and fortified after long hot days tilling the fields. At a time when availability of drinkable water was a constant concern, the beer also provided a safe, hygienic source of hydration (what a pity we can’t use that as an excuse these days).
Brewing guidelines were not at the forefront of your average 18th century Wallonian farmer’s mind. The frugal pastoral roots of the Saison and the need for farmers to efficiently use ingredients to hand mean that there was real diversity in recipes and results – literally from farm to farm. Farmers used the ingredients that were on their farm and had taken on the specific characteristics of their growing and soil conditions. Barley was still the usual grain used for the malt but farmers also used wheat, buckwheat, oat and spelt to save on expense. Hops of assorted varieties were used for flavour but also for their anti-bacterial properties, and yeast was reused from batch to batch which contributed to a distinctive tartness or sourness in the Saison. Saisons were, and still are, sometimes spiced with coriander, orange zest or ginger, but often the brew’s peppery, spicy character is entirely the result of the type of yeast used and the way it is fermented.
Industrialisation, war, refrigeration, access to clean water supplies – all of these things worked their transforming effects on the pastoral micro breweries of Wallonia. While some continued to operate, most did not and, as we have seen before, the brewing of this type of ale declined dramatically until the craft beer revolution in the US came along to save yet another excellent European ale from the brink of extinction.
You’ll be happy to learn that contemporary Saisons tend to have a higher ABV than their ancestors - those farm workers did have to be able to get some work done after all. But many of the style’s classic characteristics are still very much present: warm fermented, usually unfiltered and often bottle conditioned, the Saison retains its reputation for being a perfect summer brew – tangy, well carbonated, and beautifully refreshing. US versions are typically pretty hoppy and craft brewers have had a field day with all kinds of spice and malt additions and in that sense the variation and versatility of the style is just as it was with the farmer brewers of Belgium.
Beer Days top three favourite Saisons for the early days of summer are:
Nomad Long Trip Saison 6.6% – an intriguingly complex array of flavours but still with that fundamental dry, tangy, fresh finish. Wattle seeds have been added to the end of the boil which gives it a nice Aussie bush kick.
Black Dog Brewery Estate Hopped Saison 6.8% - fruity and bitter, spicy and malty, this is a classic Belgian farmhouse ale with distinctive new world edge.
Brasserie de Silly Saison 5% - from the style’s country of origin, the Silly Saison has a combination of slightly sweet, caramel malt and light citrus hop bitterness again with that tart dry finish.