Beer Notes

Tis the Season for Saison

You might be forgiven for giving a quizzical look when a customer asks if you carry any saison. Is it a variety of wine? An aperitif?

Actually it is a style of beer, and it may be growing in popularity faster than any other type of beer. The reason you can be forgiven for not knowing this is that a few years ago it could only be found in the dustier corners of the beer world. Only the geekiest of geeks had a sense of what it was, but this breakthrough beer has gone mainstream recently. Its new-found popularity is likely found in its light, spicy funkiness combined with refreshing bubbles.

Saison, French for season, is part of the family of beer called farmhouse ales. Farmhouse ales trace their origins to the farms of 1800s Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. The story goes that farmers supplied their workers with beer as they toiled in the hot sun. However, it was too hot in the summer to brew beer (the beer would develop unpleasant off-flavours). Their solution was to brew in the cooler months of early spring and then store the beer in cellars until the summer harvest season. The name saison likely comes from the need to wait until “the season” to drink it.

Since every farmer made his own beer, the range of flavours in farmhouse ales was extensive. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, there was some convergence of approach and two broad styles emerged. The first, bière de garde (“beer for keeping”), was stronger and generally (but not always) darker. The second style was saison, which was slightly lighter both in colour and alcohol strength.

As Europe marched toward modernity in the 1900s and beer globally became more homogenized, the art of farmhouse homebrewing died out and both farmhouse styles became almost extinct. They were kept alive by a handful of obscure breweries tucked into the rural corners of Belgium. Only the most ardent beer aficionado knew of their existence.

Then something happened. During the 2000s saison experienced a renaissance. The exact origin of its rise is not entirely clear, but it was definitely helped along when in 2005, Men’s Journal magazine named Saison Dupont – widely regarded as the classic version of the style – the world’s best beer. In the decade since, not only have the traditional saison brewers gained new fame (and customers), but craft breweries around the world have tried their hand at making a saison. Dozens of versions are now available in Alberta in the summer.

Saison is actually a notoriously difficult beer to make. It requires a deft hand, balance, and a willingness to break a few brewing rules. The base beer needs to be quite light and crisp, meaning you can’t pile on too much in the way of specialty malts or hops. Saison yeast strains are notoriously finicky, and often saisons are brewed at 25-30 degrees, much warmer than normal ales, to coax out that peppery spice. For that reason, not all versions are created equal. It takes time for a brewer to learn how to find the saison sweet spot.

As for bière de garde, it has not gained as much from its sister’s popularity. While versions are available in the province, bière de garde remains a niche style, likely due to its mustier and heavier complexion.

What I think makes saison so popular is that is it light and refreshing, and it offers a unique flavour profile. Saisons should be blonde or gold in colour. They should be fairly dry and refreshing, and rather effervescent. A bit of lemon or orange fruitiness is often found. However, saison also presents a slightly peppery flavour, a spicy, earthy character that gives the beer a unique multi-dimensional impression. The spiciness and grainy body should be held in balance; neither should dominate. The result is a beer that is quite quaffable without being boring. It can go down well on a patio, but can hold up to a more intentional tasting session. You can have more than one without blasting your palate and it goes well with a number of foods, including salads, chicken, and earthy vegetables.

Stock up on a selection of saisons this summer to give your customers a chance to try some different flavours.