Saison cracked?

Saison dupont beer in the glass with bottle

After our recent pondering on the nature of saison, several people, including Alan at A Good Beer Blog, suggested we read Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. Thanks for the tip, chaps. It’s a great book and has, indeed, helped us ‘get it’.

It’s in the same series as Stan Hieronymus’s marvellous Brew Like a Monk and is designed to help home brewers understand the recipes and practices used by breweries currently producing biere de garde and saison. Even if you never intend to brew anything, if you love Belgian beer, these books are must-reads.

The centrepiece of Farmhouse Ales is an essay by brewer Yvan De Baets which attempts to summarise the history of saison and, crucially, explain what the heck it is. A key phrase occurs therein: saison, says De Baets, “has a small ‘wild side'”. He also cites a (primary) source suggesting that, in the late 1940s, saisons were very like what we would now call geuze.

At this point, something clicked for us. The idea of a spectrum with a point at which wild yeasts in the mix become evident makes a lot of sense, and also helps to explain why so many beers are described as “almost saison” or “saison like”. We slightly repurposed his phrase “wild side” and came up with this.

Diagram showing the relative wildness of various Belgian beers.

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to a brewery if they wish to call their beer a saison, hence some of the lucozade-like sugary beers flying that flag, and the idea of precise categories in this territory is a bit silly, but a beer just on the wild side — that is, with at a hint of wild yeast or ‘roughness’ without being downright sour — is probably what we would now understand to be a saison.

Now to drink some more of them and test this new understanding.

25 thoughts on “Saison cracked?”

  1. Yeah great idea for a diagram, now I shall have to drink the ones I haven’t tried and check if they’re plotted correctly (peer review and all that 😉 )

  2. Ha! Not 100 per cent sure they are plotted correctly, to be honest — not had a Moinette for years — and wondering whether another axis for dark/light would be helpful…

  3. Oops. Still, that’s nothing compared to our accidental use of the word “knockers” in a piece on smutty pump clips…

  4. Love that idea of clean and wild, I felt something similar in tasting Magic Rock’s High Wire and thinking it was a more robust and dirtier (a good sort of dirty) version of Punk IPA. I like beers that have an unfinished aspect to them, a bit like the Fall in their early days, orugh and ready but still full of soul, I also felt like that about Hommelpap from Brasserie Ferme-Beck in Northern France.
    BTW was at de la Senne on Saturday and Yvan said that they planned to make traditional saison in the near future, wooden barrels and all.

  5. Oh and Moinette was described to me as a ‘super-saison’ when I went to the brewery a couple of years ago — make of that what you will…

  6. Havent’t had a XX Bitter in a while — are you sure it’s that “wild”? Maybe this is an excuse (if ever one was needed) to go rummage in our pantry…

  7. Gerrit — think the book says it’s got less wild in the last few years. I recall it tasting similar to Poperinge’s Hommelbier, so maybe not so much wild as ‘dusty’ and ‘cellary’? (Not celery. That would be disgusting.)

  8. ATJ — interestingly, Tandleman has used that exact word — unfinished — to describe beers he doesn’t like. I guess there’s a distinction between, e.g., the crappy bottled beer we bought at a farm shop the other week which was clearly just not properly made and a beer which is intentionally allowed its rough edges. The Fall could have got Tony Visconti to polish those albums up if they’d wanted but that wasn’t their style…

    Markowski’s book suggests that super-saisons are what Belgian brewers call the recipes they’ve come up with to appeal to beer geeks outside Belgium (if I’ve read that right). People spending a lot on 750ml bottles of Belgian beer expect them to be stronger and spicier, they reckon.

  9. Haven’t read the book for a couple of years, so I might just go back to it — re spices in Belgium, I’m beginning to wonder if the (over) use is comparatively recently, ie in the last few decades — at de la Senne, we had their version of an old Belgian beer style called Special Style, which I had never heard of before. No spices.

  10. Markowski/De Baets suggest that Dupont, for example, were spicing their saisons until the sixties, but then stopped. I can’t buy into the idea that spices are a particular “saison thing”, though, given their use in all kinds of Belgian beers.

  11. This is what Olivier Dedeycker told me a couple of years ago: ‘In the 1940s our saisons got stronger as at the weaker strength they were more difficult to sell, so my grandfather increased the alcohol content.’ Themn about Moinette he said, ‘my grandfather wanted something that had more alcohol so that we could compete with more alcoholic beers, we originally called it Trappist Moinette’. Nothing much about spice or when they stopped using it in my notes, but he came across as very passionate about it and as a keeper of the faith as regards saison. He also said that when the family bought the brewery in 1920 they were only brewing it in the winter, that it was a saison to drink in the fields, had a high bitterness, no added sugar and was very refreshing, also not too high an abv and the colour was different.

  12. I’d be interested to see a graph of how related saison, wheat beer and trappist yeasts are or what flavour compounds they produce.

  13. Ed — that might work as a venn diagram, I guess?

    There’s lots about yeast in both Farmhouse Ales and Brew Like a Monk. Saison Dupont’s yeast is the one Markowski talks about most. He says “it differs from many other Belgian yeast strains in that its production of… clove-like phenols and isoamyl acetate (banana ester) are notably less intense”.

    Can’t find the quotation now but I think there is also a suggestion that it is derived from a yeast originally used to ferment red wine.

    1. The red wine thing I have heard before too – possibly as a result of Dupont’s yeast preferring higher temperature ferments than usual (even the Belgian) ale yeasts – I have a feeling it was in Farmhouse Ales.

      Dupont apparently ferment at anything up to the low 30s, whereas other saison strains (eg Thiriez – in homebrew-land this is Wyeast 3711) aren’t so demanding, but a lot of it is what flavours you’re looking to get out – and on this point, the diagram Ed suggested becomes somewhat 3D, with temperature being on the “z axis”.

      Ed, you might be interested in:
      http://www.whitelabs.com/beer/belgianchart.pdf

      (It’s fairly trivial to get the corresponding breweries by doing some googling 🙂

      1. Thanks, interesting stuff. For me saisons have very flavoursome yeasts but without the phenol you get in wheat beers and trappists, which at least fits in with the saison yeast and high temperature fermentation in the chart.

  14. Interesting scale! I like the idea that all beer styles are on some kind of scale anyway so this plays nicely into that.

    Saison is a style which is really interesting me at the moment. It started with Saison IV, Belgian but made with US hops. Stunning.

  15. Excellent graphical representation of data action! I love all the stuff to the east of the west end of Orval (seeing as you failed to mention gueuze) so I wholeheartedly agree.

    Please: more graphs.

  16. It might have been that book, and several chats with Yvan, that led me to think in a similar way about lambics and saisons as overlapping families of old-school beers meant for refreshment. Or “farmhouse ales” if you prefer, but there is a bit of inexact romanticism that rarely applies to the modern context… Although it’s worth noting that Girardin grows its own wheat for its lambics and also grows barley, which it sells to help pay for the malted kind. Not too many saison breweries could match that, if any. Maybe Hof Ten Dormaal.

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