Beer has long been heralded as the beverage of choice among members of the working class, and with good reason. Beer is rich in nutrients and high in calories, making it a perfect source of sustenance for the laborer.
It can be argued (and believe me, it has) that beer provided a resource essential to the development of civilization. Ancient peoples all over the world were consuming beer from dawn to dusk, as they labored in the fields under the hot sun. In Scandinavia, the Old Norse farmers were sustained by drinking ӧl, a gruit brewed with bitter herbs and malted barley. Egyptian pyramid builders lived on a diet of bread, butter, and a thick, sweet beer called Hqt (“heket”).
Over the centuries, people began to dissect and elucidate the mystical science behind the brewing process, gradually refining their techniques, and leading to the development of specific regional styles.
As cities grew and sanitation became more and more of a concern, beer provided an elegant solution to the problem of unpotable drinking water, and in the 1700s, low-alcohol “session” beers that could be consumed all day began to sprout up all over Europe. These beers took on a wide variety of forms. In London markets, the Porter became the token drink of the working man, as was evidenced by the popularity of specialty taverns called Porterhouses. In the mines of Dortmund in Western Germany, the Dortmunder Export evolved to fill a similar niche.
In the French-speaking farming villages of Southern Belgium, in a region known as Wallonia, the Saison was born, out of this same necessity.
The word “Saison” means “season” in French. This is reflective of the seasonal nature of these first rustic “farmhouse” beers, as they were brewed from materials harvested in the fall, allowed to ferment throughout the winter, and were consumed by farmers in the summer (in the days before refrigeration, airlocks, and sanitizer, beer was ideally fermented in colder months, as the low temperatures suppressed bacterial infections and insect infestations).
Saisons once varied enormously from town-to-town and farm-to-farm. While the majority of modern commercial Saisons contain an all-malt grain bill, original variations included anything from spelt to rye to wheat, to whatever else was leftover from that year’s harvest.
Most of these early Saisons were extensively hopped, since hops act as a natural preservative, and these beers were meant to keep all summer long, and into the following harvest. They were also typically flavored with an array of botanicals from the surrounding area.
Today, we think of a Saison as a very spicy beer. I don’t mean spicy in the way we Texans usually do. I mean it has a clove-like, peppery quality to it. This can come from the addition of adjuncts like coriander, orange peel, grains of paradise, etc., but it can also come from—and indeed it can be argued that it should primarily come from—the yeast. This kind of spice is called a “phenol”. Phenols are also responsible for the “barnyard” funkiness often associated with Saisons.
Saison yeast developed as a matter of economy. Farmers, to save time and money, would re-pitch the healthiest yeast from previous batches of beer for decades-on-end. This led to the evolution of some very complex and unique attributes.
Because Saisons were first brewed with a variety of grains, some with less readily-fermentable sugars than malted barley, Saison yeast developed the ability to devour any and all sugars present in the beer, leading to the characteristic dryness of the style.
Originally, Saisons were rarely brewed above 5%, and generally hovered between 3% and 4%, so that they could be consumed throughout the course of an entire day. Stronger versions branched off and became the French style known as Bière de Garde (literally, beer for keeping). Modern Saisons are higher in alcohol than their predecessors, generally clocking in around 5-7%.
Today, it is not uncommon to see Saisons packaged in champagne bottles, with a cork and cage. This elegant presentation is a hold-over from the old days, when poor farmers would salvage discarded champagne bottles and use them to house their homebrew. Over time, they realized that they could pitch a small amount of yeast and sugar (a process referred to as “priming”) into the bottom of a bottle before filling and corking it. This would cause the beer to undergo what is referred to a secondary fermentation—or a re-fermentation in the bottle—and the resultant beer would be crisper and more effervescent, a quintessential attribute of the modern Saison.
With industrialization came a move away from the agricultural lifestyle that had made Saisons so common in the Belgian countryside. By the 1950s, the style was almost obsolete, produced only by a smattering of boutique brewers. In the 1990s, famed beer writer Michael Jackson wrote that Saisons would likely wink out of existence entirely. However, this style has recently seen a resurgence, and with its resurgence, guidelines for brewing Saisons have become somewhat calcified. While still less rigid than many other styles, there are now loose rules in place for how a Saison ought to taste, smell, look, and feel on the palate.
In this six-pack, we will be exploring two Belgian Saisons, and four from the US, including one from here in Texas.
Let’s begin with the king of the modern Saison:
The Dupont Brewery is located in Tourpes in the Walloon region of Belgium, on the site of a farm that has been brewing beer since 1759. The brewery itself has been in operation since 1950, with equipment dating from the 20s. Their Saison is considered the industry standard. It is brewed with the British hop variety East Kent Golding, and a Slavic varietal called Styrian Golding. Its fermentable sugars come from Pilsner malt, which is typical of most modern Saisons. Dupont has developed its own house yeast strain that many speculate was cultivated from red wine yeast, due to the high temperatures at which it is able to ferment. Those higher temperatures allow the top-fermenting ale yeast to flourish, producing a vast array of esters and phenols—those wonderful, lively, fruity and spicy notes that make this beer so complex and unique. Saison Dupont undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle. It has been brewed at the Dupont farm since 1844 for the “saisoniers”—the seasonal workers.
Located in Cooperstown, NY, once the center of hop production in the US, Ommegang was built in 1997 on the site of a former hop farm, with help from the makers of Duvel and Scaldis. Hennepin derives its spiciness from Saison yeast, in conjunction with the addition of grains of paradise, coriander, ginger, and sweet orange peel. Hennepin achieves its high attenuation by adding cane sugar, that greedy Saison yeast is quick to gobble up and convert into alcohol and carbonation. The yeast strain used by Ommegang to produce Hennepin ferments at a lower temperature than Saison Dupont, and does not produce the same amount of esters and phenols, hence the extra spice additions.
St. Feuillien Saison
Brassiere St. Feuillien
Le Rœulx, Belgium
Again hailing from Wallonia, the St. Feuillien Brewery was established in 1873, and, with the exception of an 11-year stretch the late 20th Century, it has been operated by the Friart family the entire time. In 2009, St. Feuillien developed its hoppy Saison in response to the growing popularity the style in the United States. When it was released in New York City, it was instantly so popular that the brewery had to delay the release of their Saison in Belgium to meet overseas demand. In 2009 and 2010, it was named the World’s Best Saison Ale, and has since gone on to win myriad awards.
Till & Toil
Wim Bens, owner and founder of Lakewood, was born in Belgium and made the move to the United States when he was seven years old. He founded Lakewood brewing in 2011, and has already achieved a great deal of respect in the beer community. He has always been inspired by the brewing traditions of Belgium, and this Saison is a perfect manifestation of New World meets Old World. Using Citra and Mosaic hops, this Saison has a particularly fruit-forward flavor. The name is, of course, an homage to the history of the style.
Fort Bragg, CA
Named after the wife of North Coast’s brewmaster Mark Ruedrich, this Saison uses “abundant hops” and a Belgian yeast strain to achieve its token tropical fruit flavor and aroma. North Coast was established in 1988, and in 2006, Le Merle won a gold medal at the World Beer Championships.
Goose Island began in Chicago as a brewpub called Clybourn after founder John Hall took a trip across Europe and was inspired by the variety of outstanding beer he encountered there. In 1995, they brewpub was transformed into Goose Island. Recently, Goose Island forged a deal with Anheuser Busch, giving them a 58% stake in the company. Despite the tears of sadness shed by beer nerds everywhere, the brewery is still producing the same amazing products that have brought it so much esteem over the years. Sofie, named after Hall’s granddaughter, is brewed with a base of 2-Row and Pilsner malts, and wheat. It is aged in wine barrels with hand-zested orange peel, and hopped with Amarillo hops.