Saison – how to define the undefined? Prior to brewing my first rendition recently, I spent some time thinking back to my initial ideas of what characterised this beer. To me, ‘wild’ yeast with their associated funky, farm-house vibe had seemed the most important aspect. I pictured spritzy amber beers, copious white head, with a Belgian yeast flair and a touch of horseblanket… To be honest, probably not far from what I understand the saison to mean today! That being said, my first experience of the style was a pale, sour, spiced, slightly fruity, and EXTREMELY dry version that left me feeling confused and hurt. Was this really a saison? This mouth-puckering, champagne-like drop? Had I misled myself all this time?
I went on to visit Belgium, and encountered surprisingly few saisons. It would seem the style has been overshadowed by the more common Trappist-style beers that we all (myself included) fawn over. Regardless, the visit really kicked off my desire to understand this elusive beast. After some reading, I’ve come to believe that how we understand a saison today differs from how they were viewed years ago in Wallonia – the French-speaking region of southern Belgium. These beers were originally seasonal, and hence cramming the style into a box or defining it with one beer (*cough* Dupont *cough*) seems to be understating its rich history. Several characteristics do seem typical though:
- A distinctive yeast character, with some citrusy esters and peppery phenolics
- A high degree of attenuation – a dry finish seems very important to the style
- Most commonly a pale orange beer, but the style encompasses some dark beers too
- Optional use of non-barley grains such as wheat, oats, spelt etc
The BJCP definition does a nice job of emphasizing the broad range of beers that this style encompasses:
Most commonly, a pale, refreshing, highly-attenuated, moderately-bitter, moderate-strength Belgian ale with a very dry finish. Typically highly carbonated, and using non-barley cereal grains and optional spices for complexity, as complements the expressive yeast character that is fruity, spicy, and not overly phenolic. Less common variations include both lower-alcohol and higher-alcohol products, as well as darker versions with additional malt character.
The recipe below was heavily influenced by the wonderful Tracy Banner, Head Brewer for The Sprig & Fern Brewery. She recently brewed a seasonal release which I thought fit into the category very nicely, so I wrote to her asking for advice. In typical Kiwi fashion, she went above and beyond in her very helpful response:
“For any Belgian beer your really need to use the right yeast – don’t scrimp on this. Fermentis and Lallemand both supply good Belgian yeasts. I believe that Bin Inn supply BE-134 which is a really good yeast for Belgian Pale Ale and Saisons. You can get them in sachet form.
Keep your malt bill quite light such as Pilsner, Munich, Vienna – you can even use some Wheat Malt. Allow a small amount of darker malt for colour such as Caramunich III or a Dark Chocolate Malt even a dehusked Carafa.
Hop variety can be quite broad as you are really need the hops for the bitterness rather than aroma. Ideally best to use hops that give some spicy, floral notes which complements the style. A saison would typically have European hops but there are so many hops around whether they are NZ or USA that you can use that will give the characteristic you are after.
Hope this helps – happy brewing!”
Very helpful indeed – cheers, Tracy!
‘Tis the Saison
Batch Size (L): 22L into fermenter
Mash water (L): 19.5
Sparge water (L): 13.93
Total Grain (kg): 5.13
Anticipated OG: 1.051
Actual OG: 1.048
Actual FG: 1.000
ABV: 6.3 %
Anticipated SRM: 6.1
Anticipated IBU: 31.8
Anticipated mash efficiency: 75%
Actual mash efficiency: 69.4%
Wort Boil Time: 90 minutes
78.0% 4.00 kg. Gladfield Pilsner Malt (1.9 SRM)
9.70% 0.50 kg. Gladfield Wheat Malt (2.1 SRM)
9.70% 0.50 kg. Gladfield Munich Malt (7.9 SRM)
2.50% 0.13 kg. Caramunich III Malt (71 SRM)
11.0 g. Magnum (Pellet, 11.80% AA) @ First Wort Hop
12.0 g. Willamette (NZ) (Pellet, 7.40% AA) @ 30 min.
35.00 g. Czech Saaz (Pellet, 3.00% AA) @ 0 min.
Lallemand Belle Saison – one packet rehydrated in 250mL sterile water 30 mins prior to pitching
Water Profile (ppm)
Ca 57 | Mg 11 | Na 6 | SO4 100 | Cl 43
Mash pH 5.32
Sacch Rest – 60 min @ 67 °C
25.1.19 – brewed, cooled to 30 °C with immersion chiller, then left overnight to cool to target temp of 18 °C
26.1.19 – yeast pitched (the following morning). Signs of fermentation 24 hours later, very active at 36 hours.
5.2.19 – fermentation slowed for around 36 hours, hence ramped to 24 °C (ambient).
12.2.19 – Tilt hydrometer showed a SG of 1.008 with ongoing fermentation
16.2.19 – ramped to 25 °C
17.2.19 – SG showing 1.001, stable readings 24 hours apart so cold crashed. Just prior to cold crash dropped to 1.000
After two weeks of fermentation and ongoing CO2 activity, I decided to purchase a Tilt bluetooth hydrometer to work out whether the gravity was still changing, or the finished beer was just gassing off dissolved CO2. As you can see below, the beer was still fermenting, and finally slowed around 1.001 (I even bumped further to 25 °C on 16.2.19). Having believed I’d hit terminal gravity, I went to cold crash at 22 days post-pitch, only to find that it dropped another point! Exasperated (though also very impressed) by my first experience with a diastaticus variant, I continued to crash anyway. The beer was then racked to a CO2-purged keg, gelatin added as per usual, and hit with 30 PSI for 48 hours before serving.
I ran a group of (non-beer geek) friends (including my fiancée Sophie) through a tasting session on 21.2.19 following the first pour, and first impressions follow.
“Light amber?” – Michaela
“Citrus” – Sophie
“Crisp beer” – Michaela
“Dunno. Beer.” – Kurt
“Lemon. Definitely citrus. Low bitterness, drinkable.” – Sophie
“Hops but not overpowering. Medium hoppy. It tastes like nice beer. Citrusy?” – Michaela
“I can’t” – Kurt
“Creamy” – Sophie
“Light” – Michaela
Drinkability and notes
“Very easy drinking” – Sophie
“A classic summer afternoon beer” – Michaela
Changes for next time
Kurt’s comments were extremely helpful… (not). I think I under-did it on the bitterness this time, with the sweet and citrusy esters begging for a little more bitterness to balance things out. That being said, this is a mighty fine beer, which is pretty hard to fault! Overall, to me it smells lemony with a little pepper, though a tinge of banana may well just me my imagination. To me this brew looks a burnished gold – about where I was aiming. The taste is lightly bitter, with punchy citrusy and surprisingly sweet esters. The mouthfeel is relatively full, despite the very low FG, and finishes satisfyingly dry. The malt character has that nice sweet, pilsner breadiness. Overall, a delectable drop.
If you brew this, please let me know how you get on!