The Saison: The Original Summer Ale

Introduction to The Saison

Most styles of beer carry a well-defined ancestry − a consistent, surveyable history that brewers and drinkers alike can tap into to fully appreciate a certain brew. The saison, however, is a different story.

The History of the Saison

The saison traces its origins back to the early 1700s in the farmhouses of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. The saison, French for “season”, was made for the purpose of keeping the farmhands cool and hydrated during the warm summer months. At the time, water was potentially harmful to drink, and since beer is boiled during the brewing process, it was much safer. Farmers brewed large batches of beer in the colder months and stored for drinking during the summer. When the seasonal workers (les saisonniers) toiled away under the noonday sun, the freshly prepared saison was their savior. (Or as Kraig Bridgeford, Bur Oak Brewing’s head brewer likes to say, saisons were the original Gatorade).

Early saisons had much lower alcohol content than the saisons of today− they hovered just over 3%. The focus was on refreshment, and considering some workers drank up to 5 liters a day, the low ABV kept business running smoothly. There was no standard recipe; each farm produced its unique blend of flavors for their saisonniers. It was usually brewed with what farmers had readily available to them. This included hops of noble varieties with low alpha acid. They used a large amount of hops because they helped prevent the beer from souring. Most importantly, farmers brewed with special strains of wild yeast that lent each farms’ recipe an individual taste.

The Importance of the Yeast

The key to brewing a saison is allowing the yeast to ferment at a warmer temperature than typical beers. Unlike other yeast, the beer improves in character with high fermentation temperatures. Their character is also quite different from typical ale yeasts. They are known for their production of Phenolic and Ester compounds to give them their unique fruity, spicy character.

The yeast contributes most of the character to a saison, and that character is what defines a saison. Belgian and Farmhouse beers are defined by their unique yeasts, each yeast is unique due to the nature of its esters, phenols and degree of sugars left in the beer. These yeast strains are old and closely related to wild yeasts. Beer has evolved through the centuries by the environment that they were kept in and the way they were harvested and reused.

The Evolution of the Saison

The wide varieties of taste profiles that resulted from the original use of these wild yeasts on Belgian farms contributed to the lack of unification among saisons that still exists today. Modern saisons boast a higher ABV (5-8%), but the major emphasis is still on refreshment. Most have hints of fruit and/or spice, and many finish dry−contrasting the many sweet-finishing Belgian ales. They’re typically generously hopped; some have sweet or citrus undertones.

Typically, only two strains of yeast are used for modern saisons: The Wallonia-region Belgian Saison and the French Saison. Saisons tend to be blonde to amber in color and can vary greatly in the grains used to make them. Because saisons were brewed in a time with no sanitation or pure cultures, modern brewers commonly add Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces to closely replicate the yeasts of old. As far as strict saison classification goes, using a Saison-specific yeast remains the main rule, the rest tends to be free to interpretation.

Sacred Sun Saison is Bur Oak Brewing’s version of a modern Saison. Head brewer, Kraig Bridgeford, describes the Sacred Sun as achieving elegance through simplicity. The beer keeps in mind that the original Saison was a field hand’s drink, and the sole purpose was to refresh, nourish and hydrate.

“Our focus is the yeast, we create a wort that is simple and blonde, we hop it well with noble hops to give it that classic flavor. And we ferment it without refrigeration to allow the yeast to exert its full character,” said Bridgeford. “Sacred Sun is classic in style and is created for our hard working Brethren.”

It’s important to remember that, for saisons, these aren’t strict guidelines. Each saison’s characteristics vary enough to keep every brew distinctly unique. One saison may be a well-spiced, amber colored beer, while the next may be an extremely light bodied fruit beer. However, one thing is indisputable: the crisp, refreshing taste of a saison makes it truly the king of summer beers.