One of the earliest forms of commercial brewing involved the creation of breweries based on or near farms where barley was grown. The addition of a brewery made sense economically, not just for adding value to the crop but for providing employment year-round. In summer, when fermenting beer in open vessels would be prey to insect life, brewing ceased and brewery workers became farm hands. After harvest they became maltsters and brewers once more.
Saison is a so-called ‘farmhouse’ style of beer, which survived in various forms in southern Belgium and parts of Eastern France. It would be brewed in the Spring for consumption by the workforce toiling in the fields in summer, for hydration, and likely some regular strength beer was held back for consumption between Harvest and beers from the new season becoming available.
Being stored in sealed oak tuns for up to six months was not enough time for slower acting yeast like Brettanomyces to bring proper ageing, but other microorganisms will have had time to bring enough rustic edge to be noticeable.
Saison Légère (Light Saison)
The beer made to rehydrate workers toiling on the fields on hot summer days was likely so light (2.5-3.5% ABV) that it may well have been made from second runnings, the wort produced when boiling water is sparged through spent grain. The dry version from rural Hainaut, which has a prominent hop character, likely has a completely different history from one with a sweet base of unfermented sugar, from Liège and other parts of 19th century Belgium’s industrial belt.
This copper-blond ale style (5.5-6.5% ABV) is dominated by a hop-yeast combo that fuels grass and hay aromas, and encourages flavours that capture rurality in a bottle. In modern times its fortunes changed in 1975 when the most appealing of the heritage brands, the recently reformulated Saison Dupont, made with five types of yeast at a brewery based within a cute-looking farm in rural Hainaut, caught the attention of early beer writers and US importers. This spawned a new generation of Saison beers, held by some to have influenced the whole American beer revival.
Recent years have seen the emergence of a swathe of beers (4.0-6.5% ABV), described as Saison, employing a narrow range of specially cultured yeast and intricate production rules to create a slightly musty, occasionally frankly acidic beer that has taken on a life of its own. Many have little in common with the 21st century Belgian classics, though some are good enough to spark some optimism and a sort of cultural exchange between this and the Belgian version is becoming obvious.
A fad for adding fruit extracts to Craft Saison is fading (thankfully!), having distracted from rather than adding to the style.