Beer styles Belgium

Is saison in the eye of the beholder?

The cap and cork from a bottle of Dupont Saison beer.

After several years of taking beer seriously, and more than four years of blogging about it, we still don’t really understand what saison is or why it has such status amongst beer geeks.

The first saison we tried, Saison 1900, was underwhelming (like Lucozade) but, everyone told us, we’d been drinking the wrong one. No-one rates 1900 much.

In their excellent book 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die, Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn describe Saison Dupont as “either the last or the first of the great saisons”, and it was also the example recommended by our commenters back in 2008, so we decided to make that our subject for the next attempt to ‘get it’.

We had the big 750ml champagne-corked bottle which instantly made it feel special.

It is an extremely delicious beer. We picked up a hint of whatever aroma it is that wafts out of the open cellar door of an old pub — stale beer, rotting wood and mould? — and then lots of what you might call the usual suspects of Belgian beer flavours: coriander, bitter peels, sugar and dusty hops. It doesn’t contain coriander or peel, apparently, those flavours supposedly coming from the yeast.

It seemed a very clean beer to us.  We had expected a little wildness with all the talk of farmhouses and barns that surrounds saison.

So, yes, it’s great, but we’re still stumped. How is this different enough from the interesting ‘blondes’ that many Belgian breweries produce to warrant a different label? Is Poperings Hommelbier a saison? That’s what this most reminded us of.

Any suggestions for what we need to do to get our heads round this gratefully received. We’re beginning to feel like those people in the nineties who couldn’t see magic eye pictures.

30 replies on “Is saison in the eye of the beholder?”

I like it fine when it is good but when it sucks it is gakky. More of a theory than a style, myth has it that it was a means for farmers to differentiate themselves to the labour pool. So it should vary.

But its cousin beire de garde, being less sexy (the only thing French less sexy than the Belgian version me thinks), now that is the stuff.

Isn’t that the point? Any style guide is just a guide, and there’s some overlap between styles, and it’s a broad ranging style that touches upon several others.

Generally I think the saisons are a touch drier and hoppier than a blond, with a bit of acidity that’s not necessarily there in a blond (but makes it refreshing on a hot day!). Though of course, it’s kinda down to what the brewers wants to market it as of course – perhaps “blonde” sells better than “saison” (and “Biere de Garde” which is also fairly similar, but not quite the same – again, maltier and a bit smoother/rounder).

Is the “farmyard” thing is a bit misleading these days? Anything I read talks about farmhouses and barns, (but I’ve never seen a proper source for this?) – my guess is that anything brewed “in the olden days” (1800s?) most likely had some element of brett/lacto in it, but perhaps not so much the case these days.

To be honest, I don’t really get any Belgium beers. I try them every so often but I just find them underwhealming compared to UK beers. My partner does like them though, guess it could be your taste at this stage?

Alan and Graeme — it does seem to be purely a marketing term, as far as we can tell. Quite a few British brewers are now making beers they call saison and I wonder what *they* think defines it? (Is it using something labelled as ‘saison yeast’ from one of the labs?)

MFB — when we first started drinking Belgian beer, I remember that we thought they (a) tasted like pure alcohol and (b) lacked any hop aroma. We love them now, but it took a few years.

Ah – but though I think we’re all in agreement that much of it marketing and most of the styles overlap to some extent, I find that saison is the generally one of the few exceptions to “no hop aroma”! It’s one of the few Belgian “styles” that does have some hop in it in general (it’s the dry finish that helps it).

A bit of noble hop aroma/floral/spiciness goes pretty well. Something like Saaz, Goldings or Styrians late or dry hopped.

Poperings Hommelbier’s got plenty of hops but apparently isn’t a saison. (Cos the brewer’s haven’t called it one?)

Reverse logic – just because it has hops in it doesn’t make it a saison 😉 And there’s exceptions to every rule – in this case it should be fairly obvious, since “hommel” is the word for hop (and bumblebee!) in some Flemish dialect 😉

La Chouffe and (esp.) “Houblon Chouffe” are other examples of Belgians with hop presence, but no-one would call them saison either – including the brewery!

I always took saison to mean “has added seasoning” some kind of herbs/spices added to the boil but then realized it probably just meant seasonal brew, so there’s no particular definition

Steve — insofar as there is a definition, it seems to be a light seasonal brew made by farmers to refresh their workers. It’s now, however, available all year round, quite strong, and made by proper breweries to refresh beer geeks.

It’s a cool, rather evocative label and… is that it?

I found Farmhouse Ales a really helpful read when I wanted to learn about these styles. There is in there something of the idea of marketing term from the 1970s when the opportunity to sell the style to college kids rather than seasonal workers appeared.

I’ve been shaking my head in a similar fashion over IPA lately. Too many different beers, with too many different ingredients, recipes, strengths, colours, fragrances etc are now wearing the same label for it to have any real meaning any more.

The marketing point is the key point.

IPA is currently ‘cool’, so every brewery wants that written on it’s latest labels.

The aforementioned style ‘overlap’ theory giving licence to even loopiest of justifications for the addition of those 3 priceless letters.

If you can get your hands on them, Stillwater Artisanal Ales covers the full range of the Saison. Sure, it’s American, but as a “gypsy brewer”, Brian Strumke gets around and is able to capture a wide array of beers that have been classified as “Saison.”

Saison always stood out to me b/c not everyone made one (i.e like IPA). Of the different Saisons I’ve had, I would say a larger percentage have been an “oh wow” (i.e. definitely having this beer again) then of other beer styles. Why is that? Probably just my tastes. I’m actually not a fan of blondes (beers that is), or at least the ones I have had, but maybe I should try some more if they are so close in style. I’d agree with Graeme on the styling of Saisons, and their differentiation with blondes. Or at least that is what I look for in a Saison too, there are definitely some that do not meet that expectation.

Then again there is Jack D’Or, which is styled as an American Saison. I have no idea what that actually means… but the beer is great, so who cares?

I always find that I have a dichotomy of thought when it comes to Belgian beers – not a fan of saison and tripel as interpreted over here (perhaps that is part of the problem? the interpretation), but I love the Trappist beers, especially Rochefort and Achel. What I tend to find happening over here is that a Belgian Whatever is usually too much of the funky Belgian yeast character and not enough of the base style – especially true with “Belgian Stout”.

HG — Zak Avery has pointed out that, although styles are a nonsense, arbitrary, blah blah blah, they can be useful in giving the punter *some* indication of what they’re going to be getting. I still get some meaning from IPA, unless it’s described as an [INSERT MODIFIER] IPA (e.g. Belgian Abbey IPA, Imperial Spiced IPA, etc.).

A label with ‘saison’ on it still leaves us none the wiser. Might be almost black, might be yellow, might be orange. Might be hoppy, might not. Might be funky, or it could be clean. And so on.

Al — got a post on Brew Like a Monk in mind. One of the things Stan says there is that, actually, most Belgian beers are quite simple. He says something along the lines of “time and yeast fill in the gaps”. I get the impression that many breweries trying to recreate the complexity of Belgian beer throw in wild yeast, herbs, spices, fruit, twigs, sweaty socks….

Dave — in the same session as the Dupont Saison, we drank a La Chouffe blonde (what is says on the label) which we were sold as a saison! They’re definitely related and there are some very interesting Belgian blondes. And the great thing about that label? You know roughly what you’re going to get…

Zac — we’re in a bit of a beer wilderness at the far end of the UK at the moment but will keep an eye out for Stillwater on the mail order beer sites in the UK.

Can we make a rule? As a general principle, should one take a warning from the second adjective applied to any beer style… and run where there is a third?

One of those beer rating websites describes Poperings Hommelbier as a Belgian IPA, by the way.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Brew Like A Monk – though it could have been summed up as “to brew like a monk, get someone else to actually do the brewing”.

Picture the scene…

Three customers are standing at a bar getting ‘some indication’ from the letters ‘IPA’ written on the pump-clips of three different drinks.

One of those drinks is Deuchars IPA.

The second is Meantime IPA.

The third is Jaipur.

They walk away, each with a separate IPA in hand, sobbing quietly out of a strong sense of their own inadequacy, feeling foolish, confused, probably dirty, and wondering what the real definition of the word ‘indication’ might actually be.

“Is Poperings Hommelbier a saison?” No, although you’re right that it shares significant characteristics with Dupont. The latter is Wallonian the former from Flanders. The simalarities between the beers are probably irrelevant compared with different languages, history and sentiment. On the other hand Urthel, who are to the best of my knowledge flemish, have recently started brewing ‘Saisonnaire’. I’d say it falls in the same category, a dry, spicy even peppery yeast character paired with a more upfront hop prescence than the average belgian blonde.

I’ve always thought that beer classification is not so much a hard-lined taxonomic science as an amateurishly executed crayon ven-diagram.

I don’t quite get Saison myself, either. I can drink it, and in a way, I enjoy it, but I’m always left with the feeling that I didn’t get enough for my money. One of the reasons might be what the Thirsty Pilgrim said some time ago, that originally, Saison was a rather weak beer (around 3%ABV) that labourers drank during their working days at farms, which made me understand the “problem” I have with this kind of beer, it feels too big for its own good. I would love to see someone making a Saison like those old ones, I’m sure It’ll taste a lot better and will make much more sense, at least to me.

I love saison (thanks for the link), it’s a canvas on which an artist can slap as many or as little colours as they like, within a school of course, and like Orval it has an enduring relationship with food; returning to Dupont in a week or so and this time hoping to have time to get to their bar across the road this time.

I know almost nothing about saison and I don’t think I’ve ever even drunk one, but I strongly suspect that most of the “farmyard/farmhouse” stuff is spurious and derives just from the invented term “farmhouse ale”. Which as far as I can tell exists principally because someone thought that Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce Saison; and secondly as part of the weird insistence of US beer geeks on redefining every top-fermenting European beer as one kind of Ale or another.

Matt — “I’ve always thought that beer classification is not so much a hard-lined taxonomic science as an amateurishly executed crayon ven-diagram.” Brilliant!

PF — someone is making a weaker saison, apparently, although we haven’t yet managed to get hold of any. It’s…. Dupont! Their Saison Biologere is 3.5%. (Probably rather have a pint of it than a 330ml bottle, though.)

ATJ — I’m coming round the idea that saison is an idea rather than a style, like, say, “punk”. You know it when you see it, and so on.

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