RateBeer Weekly Magazine > Styles & Seasonals
Saison is Life
REFLECTIONS ON A MISUNDERSTOOD STYLE
January 18, 2007
Saison Dupont. Fantôme Saison. Blaugies Saison d’Epeautre. You can probably name a few modern examples of this so-called “farmhouse” ale. With its fairly recent rise in popularity, if mostly outside of Belgium itself, you’ve probably even been to a brewpub or two that had one on tap. But exactly what are saisons? How did they originate, what are their defining properties, and why do admirers love them so dearly? And more practically, do they age well? I’m glad you asked. Let’s get started.
To appreciate what saisons are like today, it is important to understand their origins. Although one can enjoy and/or critique a modern rendition on its own merits, the best examples should ideally maintain the crucial elements of old saisons if they are to bear that name. Thus, has a given brewery produced an authentic rendition or merely a saison-inspired Belgian-style ale? There certainly seems to be some misunderstanding surrounding this class of beer - by brewers and beer journalists alike. I will only discuss the most relevant points here from the perspective of evaluation and enjoyment. For a more detailed historical account, one is strongly advised to consult Yvan De Baets’ chapter of Phil Markowski’s excellent book “Farmhouse Ales”.
As many enthusiasts already know, saisons were ales originally brewed on farms in Wallonia (a region comprising roughly the southern half of Belgium) during the winter months, intended for consumption by the field workers at harvest time the following year. The word “saison” is a French word that literally means season, referring to its specific use during these hot, late summer months. The exact time period this brewing style began is not known for certain, but likely goes back well into the Middle Ages.
One of saison’s primary attributes derives from sheer practicality. Beer was a safer alternative to water for rehydration, since safe drinking water was not particularly easy to come by. As a result, the beer used for this purpose needed to be both refreshing and low in alcohol (so that many liters could be consumed without inebriation). A sweet and/or strong beer was simply out of the question.
There is evidence that each farm performed their own brewing, likely with their own recipes and many ingredients from local fields, including grains besides barley such as wheat or spelt. Brewing conditions were not exactly sterile, so there inevitably would have been local wild yeasts and bacteria partly involved in both the primary fermentation and aging of these beers. These two aspects would have produced results unusually resplendent with “house character” (an indefinable set of aromas or flavors unique to the brewery) and terroir (distinctive characters unique to the land in which the ingredients were grown). It is not hard to imagine that even given the same recipe, one farmhouse’s saison would be completely unlike another’s.
Hops were commonly used by this time for beer making, both for its sensory aspects as well as its preservative usefulness. Similar to the origins of IPA, saisons were most likely highly hopped at the time of brewing to help keep the beer in good condition for its long storage period. Add to that the aforementioned existence of wild yeast and bacteria in the process, and the result is a finished beer that is quite bitter and acidic. The sourness level, in fact, would have most likely approached that of traditional lambics.
Lastly, consider the type and condition of the hops used at the time (noble, low-alpha varieties that were not particularly fresh), as well as the amount of time the beer aged. Hop aroma would not be very notable, if at all, straight out of the aging barrels when it was eventually served. So to make the beer more enticing and “fresh” to the nose, light dry-hopping or other spicing (ginger, coriander, anise, etc.) would often be employed. The important part to note here is that the goal was merely to gently enhance the aroma, never to dominate it. The base ingredients, fermentation characters, and aging effects were all critical in defining a beer of this type, and it would surely be heresy to cover up or overpower such aspects.
And so we are left with a summation of characteristics that help to identify an old-style saison:
• Low in alcohol (up to approx. 4% by volume)
• Very dry (both bitter and sour), quaffable, and thirst-quenching
• Preferably some rustic “farmhouse character” and/or terroir
• Roughly equal weight of ingredient, fermentation, and aging effects
• Optional limited use of fresh hops or spices to augment the aroma
One may surmise that some of these points are difficult to define with an amount of precision that would make classification possible. And indeed, saison is arguably not a well-defined style, but a type of beer that honors the traditions of saison-makers and their art. This brings us to the present day.
Of the various aspects that make a saison what it is, only two of the aforementioned criteria can respectably be relaxed. The first is that of alcohol content. Beer no longer has to act as a substitute for safe drinking water (although there are of course places where it still does). Its consumers are not expected to drink liter after liter of it every day. Modern examples above 4% by volume are thus commonplace and to be expected. Some moderation applies, however, since high alcohol content would inevitably diminish the refreshing nature of saison. Secondly, the fact that modern brewing techniques (namely sanitization) are easily able to control the infiltration of wild yeast and bacteria, it should not be expected that a saison be very sour. Some tartness is still welcomed, of course, but as long as there is ample bitterness, high acidity is no longer a defining characteristic.
And thus we can modify the first two points above to define the modern saison:
• Low to moderately alcoholic (up to approx. 8% by volume)
• Very dry (bitter and slightly tart), quaffable, and thirst-quenching
The other three points still apply today. There is some flexibility allowed, but for purists, there are simply some attributes a saison cannot have. It should not finish sweet, it should not be heavy in body, and it should not be dominated by one aspect (be that hops, spices, or otherwise). Aromatic balance and a dry finish are critical. Sadly, far too many examples calling themselves saisons fail in one or more of these ways. Some of them are even very highly regarded, and may certainly be enjoyable beers in their own right. But simply putting the word “saison” on the label does not necessarily make it so.
Fine, so you want to improve your critiques of saisons, or perhaps brew your own. Where should you look for examples that define the style? You already know them. They were the three mentioned at the beginning of this article. If you enjoy saison at all, you’ve probably tried them by now, and chances are good that you like at least one of them. If not, this simply may not be the style for you. All three perfectly exemplify the world of saison in their own unique ways. They are, of course, made in Belgium. This is not to suggest that excellent examples aren’t made elsewhere, but in the author’s opinion, these three breweries are making the most definitive ones.
Saison Dupont Vieille Provision – This is unquestionably one of the most respected and frequently replicated saisons in the world, brewed by Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes. It has a hoppy, peppery, spicy (without the use of spices), slightly fruity, and very complex nose. Defining the term “saison” to many enthusiasts, it is a brilliant golden color, very dry, and quite modest in alcohol content (6.5%) by modern standards. This brewery is also notable for making a very low-alcohol saison called Biolégère (3.5%), though it does not feature the sort of sourness that probably existed in historical versions. Dupont’s saisons are arguably not tremendously rustic or wild smelling, but they are made with one of the most famous and charismatic yeasts in the world. In the author’s opinion, Saison Dupont is best consumed fresh, preferably in the same year that is printed on the cork.
Fantôme Saison – Made in a small farmhouse brewery in Soy by avant-garde brewer Dany Prignon, Fantôme seems to be one of those beers that people either love or don’t understand. The year-round example, as with most of his beers, is quite rustic, wild, vinous, and fruity. It varies in tartness from batch to batch (even bottle to bottle!), a testament to the wild creatures (or perhaps phantoms) that undoubtedly help in the brewing process. Virtually all of the beers finish very dry, sometimes with the help of unusual herbs and spices. They are as modern and experimental as they are traditional, a true paradox of brewing art. Perhaps most importantly, they all carry the telltale Fantôme thumbprint - a house character that is unique to this brewery and quite unmistakable.
Blaugies Saison d’Epeautre – Arguably the most rustic of all saisons, made by a family in the village of Blaugies, just a few kilometers north of the French border. This bone-dry, slightly-tart, mild-strength (6%) saison is made from spelt and is chock full of countryside-and-barnyard aromas. Those farm-like notes become even stronger with age. The four beers from this brewery all have such a distinctive house character that if you like one of them, you’re bound to like them all. There are very few breweries in the world making saisons with so much charm and indefinable subtlety.
Despite being quite different compared to one another, all three of these beers share the most important aspects of the style. Saison is about harmony with nature, and indeed evoking nature. You can smell the barley and wheat in the fields, you can smell the flowers in the meadow, and you can smell the cobweb-covered timbers in the barn. It is that beautiful simplicity and balance, that evocative country character, which make us love it so dearly. It’s more than what is in the beer; it’s what it conjures in you.
So if you’re sampling a saison and virtually all you can smell is hops, a banana-like ester, or added spices, the brewer didn’t get it right. If the flavor is fairly sweet or the body is thick and chewy, the brewer didn’t get it right. There’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a beer with such so-called mistakes, but calling it a saison might be considered an insult in some circles.
Almost all saisons (as with most beer) are better when fresh, but there are some that age in the bottle better than others. Some simply become duller with time (again, as with most beer), while others may become more complex or charismatic. Over the last several years, I’ve stored various favorites of mine in my basement, which varies in temperature from about 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (about 13 to 18 degrees Celsius) depending on the season. Below are my experiences. Yours, of course, may differ.
Dupont – As mentioned earlier, my personal feeling is that Saison Dupont is best when fresh, and that also applies to most of their other beers. The aromatic hops and other “fresh” characteristics are very important aspects to them, and the yeast character is fairly delicate as well. So time tends to make the beers duller overall. The 9.5% Avec les Bons Voeux is an exception, as it can be rather hot and aggressive when young, but very smooth and slightly fruitier with a year or more of age.
Fantôme – The strong bitterness, wine-like character, and assertive yeast in Dany’s beers contribute to a relatively long life span. They can become softer and more aromatically complex with a year or so of cellaring, but they will certainly retain all of their defining dryness. Many of the golden colored varieties can last surprisingly long with little unpleasant deterioration, perhaps even five years or more. The amber-to-brown beers are typically best within two years or so.
Blaugies – Although I have had somewhat inconsistent results with aging the two Moneuse “super saisons”, the lighter Darbyste and Epeautre beers seem to be almost immortal. I have had samples between three and five years old that were still amazing. The yeast character becomes more pronounced with time, making what is a great beer when fresh even better. They definitely become softer and rounder, but still retain their dry finish extremely well.
Glazen Toren – I haven’t had much luck aging the Erpe-Mere saison, though admittedly I have very little experience with it so far. As this one is in the vein of Saison Dupont to my senses, the reasons for its somewhat brief life span are likely similar. So at present, I would advise drinking Erpe-Mere fresh.
De Ranke – Père Noël is close enough to a saison in spirit for me to include it here, though that point is certainly arguable. It seems to last quite well in the bottle, though from my experiences I would not recommend more than two years of cellaring. While it may not become significantly better, it does retain all of its charm and become softer and fruitier.
Silenrieux – While Joseph is a nice, light saison-like beer when fresh, it is very delicate in character and does not seem to hold up well for cellaring purposes.
It must be stated that one’s personal preference is a huge factor when it comes to aged beers. Some people will love a ten-year-old beer, while others may think the same beer after only two years smells like nothing but wet paper. The above should only be taken as suggestions; perform your own experiments and record your findings. Indeed, I hope more articles on saison will be contributed by others in the months and years to come.
A PERSONAL THING
Saison is near and dear to my heart. There isn’t another beer style that I could drink year-round and never tire of. With other types of beer I can point to specific concrete characteristics that I enjoy about them, but with the best saisons, there is something indefinable or ethereal beyond their physical qualities that draws me to them. The aromas bring back memories of childhood (I grew up in small, rural towns) and vacations to pleasant country locales. They exude the very essence of life itself, which provokes an inexplicable sense of well-being and joy before I even take the first sip. Ridiculous? Perhaps to some, but it’s worth noting that some scientific evidence suggests odors can trigger the most emotionally powerful memories of all (more so than pictures, spoken words, etc.).
So if we happen to share a Blaugies Darbyste someday and I get a dazed, far-off, glazed-eye, satisfied look on my face, you’ll know why. I’m just dipping my mental toes in that little brook down at the edge of the field…
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