When it comes to the most drinkable of beers, you really can’t go wrong with a saison. Often referred to as a “farmhouse ale,” saison has long captivated beer enthusiasts with its unique character and versatility. But what, exactly, is a saison beer? What makes them so special?
Saison Beer Origins
Although farmhouse ales had existed in the Wallonia region of Belgium for centuries, the first reference to a “biere de saison” is from the 19th century. At that time, brewers in the city of Liege began producing these beers as a way of preserving traditional spelt beers. The first iterations were made with malted spelt, unmalted wheat, and a sparse amount of malted barley. The name refers to the fact that the beer was often brewed in the winter months then drunk the following “saison,” which was Spring.
Liege was hit hard by WWI, and saison brewing was halted as a result. Breweries in the Hainaut region continued the tradition, however, and it is this version that made its way to the US.
Farmhouse Ales vs Saison Beers
As the name suggests, farmhouse ales were those brewed for personal consumption using a farm’s own grain. Saisons were produced initially in industrial areas, like Liege. Why, then, are they so often called “farmhouse ales.” The answer has to do with a bit of marketing by an American importer in the 1980s.
At that time, Don Feinberg was encouraged by British beer writer, Michael Jackson, to import saison beer from the DuPont brewery in Hainaut. Pressed by American consumers for a way to describe the beer, he settled on promoting it as a “hoppy farmhouse ale.” The name seemed to convey its rustic Belgian origins, while allowing a good degree of flexibility for brewers looking to emulate it.
Characteristics of Saison Style Beer
One of the reasons why saison beer is so appealing to drinkers and brewers is that it is largely open to interpretation. But then, how do you know you are drinking a saison? Are there any parameters?
Most brewers will agree on a few key characteristics when it comes to a saison:
Complex Flavor Profile: Saison beer is renowned for its intricate flavor profile. It typically offers a balance of fruity, spicy, and earthy notes. You may detect hints of citrus, pepper, and clove.
The flavors you choose should also call to mind a specific time and place. For example, Diebolt’s Cambodge Saison changes its ingredients based on availability and desired flavor profile. Whatever we choose, we want drinkers to be transported to Cambodia with each sip. This year’s version incorporates exotic notes of mango, chile pepper, and turmeric.
Dry and Refreshing Taste
Saisons are known for their dry finish and effervescence (lots of bubbles), making them incredibly refreshing, especially during hot summer days. The dryness is achieved through a high degree of attenuation during fermentation. (This means that the yeast converts sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide at a faster rate than other brews.)
Variable Alcohol Content
The original saisons were low in alcohol content, making them an ideal thirst-quencher for hard working farmers. Today, saisons can vary in alcohol content, but generally range from between 4-8% ABV. This variability allows for sessionable, lower-alcohol saisons as well as stronger, more robust versions.
Saison Yeast Strains
The spicy flavors of saisons are produced largely due to the type of yeast used. These strains are capable of breaking down larger sugar molecules, like starch, and producing the esters and phenolic compounds that give the saison its peppery taste and smell.
So, Why is Saison Beer So Popular?
Aside from the refreshing, crisp, and spicy flavor, saison beer allows a certain freedom of expression versus other types of beer. What’s more, the variety in taste means they pair well with almost any food, sweet or savory.
At Diebolt, we always have a saison on tap or in a can for you to take home. To Celebrate our 10th anniversary, we introduced two brand new saisons for you to enjoy: the fruity, zesty Rayon Solaire, and the herbaceous, yarrow-infused Categoric. Stop by our brewery today for a taste of both!