Saison, (‘Say-Zon’) — which translates to “season” in French, is a seasonal summer style of beer first produced in Wallonia, a French-speaking part of Belgium. Commonly called “farmhouse ales” originally brewed at the end of winter right before spring to last through the warmer months. It had to be sturdy enough to last for months but not too strong to be quenching and refreshing in the summer. Brewing outside the summer months was common for all brewers before the invention of refrigeration, due to the likelihood of the beer spoiling while fermenting in the summer heat. Farmers possibly also brewed during the cooler months to provide work for their permanent staff during the quieter period. After brewing, the beer was stored until the summer when the main consumers would be seasonal workers (“saisonniers”).
Often bottle-conditioned, with some yeast character and high carbonation. Belgian-style Saison may have Brettanomyces or lactic character, and horse, goat, hay and/or leather-like aromas and flavors often times noted as barnyard flavors, along with fruity esters and spice which are common from the yeast strains often used. Specialty ingredients, including spices, like orange zest, or coriander may contribute to a unique and signature character. A Saison should be refreshing, medium to strong fruity/spicy ale with a distinctive yellow-orange color, highly carbonated, well hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity.
Beers in this category are gold to light-amber in color. Saison’s are the most bitter out of all the Belgian beer styles, though they may not be perceived as bitter when compared to many American versions of beers. On the nose you will find a lot of fruitiness with low to moderate hop aroma and moderate to no herb, spice and alcohol aroma. Fruity esters dominate the aroma and are often reminiscent of citrus fruits such as oranges or lemons. A low to medium-high spicy or floral hop aroma is usually present. A moderate spice aroma (from actual spice additions and/or yeast-derived phenols) complements the other aromatics. When phenolics are present they tend to be peppery (think white or black pepper) rather than clove-like. A low to moderate sourness or acidity may be present, but should not overwhelm other characteristics. Spice, hop and sour aromatics typically increase with the strength of the beer. Alcohols are soft, spicy and low in intensity, and should not be hot or solventy. The malt character is light with no diacetyl. Often a distinctive pale orange but may be golden or amber in color. There is no correlation between strength and color. Long-lasting, dense, rocky white to ivory head resulting in characteristic “Belgian lace” on the glass as it fades. Clarity is poor to good though haze is not unexpected in this type of unfiltered farmhouse beer. It can be very effervescent. A combination of fruity and spicy flavors supported by a soft malt character, a low to moderate alcohol presence and tart sourness. Extremely high attenuation gives a characteristic dry finish. The fruitiness is frequently citrusy (orange- or lemon-like). The addition of one or more spices serve to add complexity, but shouldn’t dominate in the balance. Low peppery yeast-derived phenols may be present instead of or in addition to spice additions; phenols tend to be lower than in many other Belgian beers, and complement the bitterness. Hop flavor is low to moderate, and is generally spicy or earthy in character. Hop bitterness may be moderate to high, but should not overwhelm fruity esters, spices, and malt. Malt character is light but provides a sufficient background for the other flavors. A low to moderate tart sourness may be present, but should not overwhelm other flavors. Spices, hop bitterness and flavor, and sourness commonly increase with the strength of the beer while sweetness decreases. No hot alcohol or solventy character. High carbonation, moderately sulfate water, and high attenuation give a very dry finish with a long, bitter, sometimes spicy aftertaste. The perceived bitterness is often higher than the IBU level would suggest. The body is light to medium. Alcohol level can be medium to medium-high, though the warming character is low to medium. Very high carbonation with an effervescent quality. There is enough prickly acidity on the tongue to balance the very dry finish. A low to moderate tart character may be present but should be refreshing and never to the point of puckering.
One Saison you should definitely be on the look out for, and shouldn’t be too hard to hunt down is Brasserie Dupont Dupont Saison (a world classic beer and the yardstick for one of Belgium’s most important beer styles. It is the most admired AND imitated Saison in the world). A few others to try would be Blackberry Farm Fenceline, Boulevard Saison Brett, Brasserie Du Bocq Saison 1858, Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace, Clown Shoes Black-Currant Saison, Crooked Stave Surette, Crooked Stave Wild Sage Mountain Saison, Deschutes Cultivateur, Ommegang Hennepin, Hill Farmstead Brewery Arthur, Hill Farmstead Brewery Anna, and Hill Farmstead Brewery Flora which is a wine barrel aged version of their Florence Saison.