Originally part of American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations
Adapted and updated from The Cult of American Saison with Nathan Zeender - BYO July/August 2011
American brewers have been inspired to recreate every style and sub-style of beer brewed anywhere in the world in their own breweries and backyards. Of the hundreds of styles defined for brewing competitions saison evades classification most effectively. Ascribing a precise definition to it is impossible, but they are united by their yeast-driven, phenolic flavors and high attenuation. Practically any wort properly fermented with a saison yeast strain, could justifiably be called a saison. Saisons cover the gamut from refreshing-straw-colored-quenchers to dark-complex-vinous-sippers. The romance of saison is that it offers the creative brewer diverse seasonal and localized variation, harking back to the time when these beers were an agricultural product of farm-life tied to the harvest. While saisons do not always feature sour or funky flavor, the best ones from both America and their native Belgium often do.
Saison has a storied tradition, but is now relegated to the fringes in its Belgian home. However, it has found a strong revivalist movement among today’s artisan brewers all across the United States. Yvan De Baets, brewer of Brasserie de la Senne and Belgian beer scholar par excellence, does not hold back when it comes to saison, “I feel gratitude to the U.S. brewers for the sincere interest they have in saisons and other traditional styles, from Belgium and elsewhere. This creates a movement, with serious literature, and a solid market, leading to the rescue of styles that are almost dying in their country of origin. To put it clearly: almost no one cares about saisons here in Belgium, and I am always touched to see the enthusiasm the Americans have for those monuments of the past.”
Much of the current fervor is traced directly to 2004 when Phil Markowski’s informative Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewers Publications, 2004) was published. It is hard to imagine any creative brewer reading De Baets’ inspiring 30 page chapter on the history of saison without their head spinning with ideas – the book that launched a thousand saisons.
Increasingly, breweries across the country are dedicating themselves to the production of variations on the saison theme: Upright, Funkwerks, Stillwater, and St. Somewhere, to name just a few. Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries, was an early adopter of traditional farmhouse techniques. In this new school the term artisan has co-opted craft in stressing hands-on, small production marked by specialization, and an uncompromising approach. Dann Paquette, of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, declares that traditional saison is a style lost to history. His Jack D’Or anglicizes the tradition producing what he coins a “Saison Americain,” explaining, “I would support the idea of appellation contrôlée for European producers (of saison). We talk too much these days about beers as if they're flavours of ice cream. There's got to be more to it than that.”
An elementary recipe inspired by Saison Dupont, the archetype of the style, could be comprised of only water, Pilsner malt, and Saaz hops, but many American brewers opt for something more complicated. Saisons were originally refreshing beers brewed for summer consumption on the farm (the original lawnmower beer), but these days it is rare to see a commercial example under 6% ABV. Even if you are aiming for a strong beer, be mindful of pushing original gravity too high; with the high degree of attenuation 1.050 (12.4°P) wort can result in a 6.5% ABV beer.
Pilsner malt is the most common saison base malt because of the clean, crisp malt character it provides. The best practice with a recipe high in Pilsner malt is to boil the wort for at least 90 minutes to volatilize DMS. Many brewers choose domestic pale malt to reduce cost, and it makes a good substitute especially in darker saisons. Vienna or Munich malt is sometimes added to provide a bready flavor and golden hue.
As a nod to saison’s agricultural past, many breweries include malted or unmalted grains in addition to barley. Wheat is especially popular, but rye has also gained considerable acclaim in beers like the Bruery's Saison Rue, and McKenzie Brew House's Saison Vautour. Rye malt imparts both a telltale grainy flavor and protein, which adds body without sweetness.
Specialty malts are relatively rare in classic pale saisons, especially caramel/crystal malts which sweeten the classic dry finish. When they are included in the grist of even hearty saisons, keep them to a minimum. For dark grains, dehusked malts like Weyermann Carafa Special and debittered black malt are ideal. The dry finish of saisons accentuates aggressive malt flavors, so excessive amounts of roasted barley or black patent can result in a harsh character. If you want the coffee and chocolate flavors of these grains, try a cold extraction to minimize their acrid bite.
A single-step infusion mash is usually adequate, but undermodified base malts may benefit from a protein rest. The saccharification rest is usually performed below 150°F (66°C), sometimes as low as 142°F (61°C) as in the case of Pretty Things’ Jack D'Or, to ensure the requisite high level of attenuation. If you opt for a cool conversion temperature, you may need to extend the rest longer than the standard 60 minutes because beta amylase does not work as quickly as alpha amylase, which is more active at temperatures in the 150s°F (67-71°C). If you include a large portion of unmalted grain, conversion will take even longer. Remember that while a positive iodine test indicates the presence of starch, a negative test does not preclude the presence of excessive unfermentable dextrins. As insurance, some brewers employ two starch conversion rests, one in the low-mid 140s°F (61-63°C) followed by another in the mid-high 150s°F (68-72°C).
If you are brewing a high alcohol saison it is beneficial to get a portion of your fermentables from kettle sugars. The neutral character of table sugar is an economical choice if your only goal is to ensure a dry beer. More flavorful options like honey, unrefined sugar, candi syrup, and even dried fruit, are good choices if you want to impart additional flavors. If malt extract provides most of the gravity, then sugar should contribute at least 10% of the fermentables, even in moderate gravity versions.
Saisons are hopped with a wide variety of strategies from subtle to assertive. Early boil hop additions are generally moderate because the lack of residual sweetness accentuates bitterness. A small addition of hops late in the boil for aroma is common. Many American brewers are foregoing the traditional European hops in favor of brighter citrusy varieties from American and New Zealand, which complement the spicy qualities of the yeast.
Dry hopping is a good choice for saison because it contributes aromatics without increasing bitterness. There are several saisons that are so hoppy that they could easily pass for West Coast IPAs, such as Willimantic Brewing Co.’s Dyvil Hopyard Double IPA and Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse’s Freshop Saison. However, unlike a standard IPA, even after the hops fade the yeast aromatics remain giving the beers a second life.
Saison is a style primarily defined by its yeast, so when planning a recipe, yeast selection is paramount. The common traits that all saison strains share are the production of more spicy and peppery phenols than fruity esters, a high degree of attenuation, and a preference for elevated fermentation temperatures. Despite their high attenuation many saison strains do not leave an overly thin beer thanks to high glycerol production (making them a good pairing with Brettanomyces, which does not exhibit strong glycerol production). These strains do not need to be stressed; aerate and then pitch as many cells as you would for any other beer to avoid excess ester and fusel alcohol production.
The Saison Dupont strain is available from both Wyeast (Belgian Saison - WY3724) and White Labs (Belgian Saison I - WLP565). Dupont is the saison yeast that all other strains are measured against. At temperatures from the mid-80s°F (30°C) into the low-90s°F (32-33°C) it produces a spicy blend of pepper, yeast, and fruit without noticeable fusel alcohol production. Patience is required because the yeast can take several weeks to attenuate a beer completely even at these elevated temperatures; at lower temperatures fermentation often stalls with considerable gravity remaining.
Bob Sylvester started fermenting his beers at St. Somewhere with a pure culture of WLP565, but experienced sluggish attenuation. However, as he explains it “[The yeast] took several generations to acclimate to the brewery environment. The first few batches took a couple of weeks to fully attenuate. We now reach full attenuation, typically down to almost zero, in three days. Seventy some odd generations later, along with whatever wild yeast picked-up from the air, I am convinced, what is now our house yeast, could ferment water. I pitch at a much higher temperature than normal, 80°F (27°C), and let it rise as it will to 90°F (32°C) or so.” He swears by the character he achieves from open fermentation in flat-bottomed wine fermentors.
White Labs produces another strain, Belgian Saison II (WLP566) that is rumored to be a different isolate from Brasserie Dupont. WLP566 has a similar character to WLP565 (although it tends to be slightly fruitier), but is less finicky to work with.
This strain, rumored to originate from Brasserie Thiriez, is available from Wyeast as WY3711. It produces fully attenuated beer, with a mild pepper character and more tropical fruit than other saison strains. It has gained many devotees in the U.S. because it is less temperamental than the Dupont strain. While the character of the finished beer benefits from fermentation temperatures in the low 90s°F (32-33°C), the strain will attenuate completely at temperatures as cool as the mid-60s°F (18°C). Despite rarely finishing above 1.004 it leaves an impression of body. French Saison is also an ideal strain for extract brewers who do not have as much control over the fermentability of their wort.
Like many brewers, Alex Ganum the founder of Upright Brewing, liked the flavors produced by this strain. “We use the Wyeast 3711 which I love for the fact that it produces lots of different flavors in the different worts we put it in which makes it easy for our beers to be distinct among themselves. Lots of people would probably say that they love how well it attenuates although I consider it over-attenuating and we often struggle to get the yeast to just quit at some point. It makes bottle conditioning a bit of a pain as you could imagine.” Ganum has since switched yeast a couple of times. First to an isolate from a bottle from De Ranke, and then to Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes a strain he finds performs well with their open tanks and the moderate Pacific Northwest climate.
Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery finds BSI's French Saison strain, which serves as their house strain, to be slightly different than Wyeast’s version, despite the same source. After brewing a version of Le Petit Prince (Jester King’s 2.9% ABV table saison) at Brasserie Thiriez with the brewery’s actual house culture, he found that it was a bit cleaner with more pepper and less fruit than the French saison strains available from American yeast labs.
Though not from the same source, White Labs Saison III (WLP585) produces some similar tropical fruit notes, a slight tartness, and is easy to work. While it dries out the beer adequately, not overly so like WY3711. I typically see about 90% apparent attenuation with this strain.
Bière de Garde
For homebrewers this strain from Wyeast (WY3725) is only available at certain times of the year as a seasonal release. It ferments well from the mid-60s°F (18°C) into the high-80s°F (31°C) and is highly attenuative, even in worts with specialty malts. Despite the name, it is rumored to have been isolated from Fantôme. WY3725 produces a relatively clean character compared to most other saison strains at the lower end of the temperature range. Allowed to ferment warmer the flavor becomes considerably fruitier. WY3725 is easy to work with and performs well in stronger beers with assertive flavors, complementing spices especially well.
This other seasonal release (WY3726) is a close cousin to the Dupont strain, with a supposed origin at Brasserie de Blaugies. Swapping the tropical fruity notes of French Saison or Saison II for heavier banana, it provides a classic dry peppery saison character, and is again easier to work with than Dupont.
Danstar Belle Saison
First released in 2012, this was the first dried version of a saison yeast onto the market. It is a highly attenuative strain, creating a dry beer in a relatively short period of time. The flavor however, lacks the earthiness and spice of the best liquid strains. Belle Saison is also a prodigious sulfur producer, so extended conditioning may be necessary.
White Labs produces Saison Ale Yeast Blend (WLP568), which retains some of the character of their Belgian Saison strain while increasing the rate of attenuation. However, if you have problems getting the Dupont strain to perform I have achieved more saison-like results by blending it with a more attenuative saison strain rather than a standard Belgian ale yeast. In 2011 White Labs released American Farmhouse Blend (WLP670), which contains Brettanomyces from The Lost Abbey in addition to a saison strain. The blend is easy to work with and creates a combination of rustic Brettanomyces funk, and peppery yeast.
East Coast Yeast produces two saison blends: Saison Brasserie (ECY08), a blend of several saison strains which works quickly and gives a nice spicy character, and Farmhouse Brett (ECY03) which has the same blend of saison strains with the addition of a strain of Brettanomyces isolated from Fantôme. When I used an early version of ECY08 I found it to be banana-heavy when young, but after mentioning this to Al Buck he removed the responsible isoamyl-acetate producing strain.
Rather than buying a pre-packaged blend from a lab, you may want to take a cue from Peter Hoey who combined the Dupont strain with 5% French Saison yeast to get the classic character with added speed and attenuation in his now defunct Odonata Saison. Dann Paquette of Pretty Things, also makes a custom blend, “We basically sort out our yeast before pitching and the blend is kind of like 50%, 35%, 14%, 1% (yes, you CAN taste that last yeast in the beer).”
I've also had promising results with the first batch I fermented with The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend. It did a fine job drying the beer out, and produced enough peppery character to cut through an aggressive hop schedule without muddling it.
Some breweries blend in their neutral house ale yeast to assist with attenuation, but concerns are possible about the flavors that strain will produce when exposed to the high fermentation temperature preferred by the saison strain. If you lower the temperature you are further reducing the attenuation and flavor contribution of what should be the primary strain, reducing the most prominent character of a saison.
While many breweries allow their saison fermentation temperatures to rise close to body-temperature, this may not be ideal for homebrewers. The pressure created by large volume cylindro-conical fermentors at commercial breweries suppresses ester production. I have had the best results from pitching near the low end of strains’ suggested temperature ranges, allowing the fermentations to warm slowly as the yeast works.
Many homebrewers who lack fermentation temperature control brew saisons in the summer when they are unable to brew with yeasts that require lower temperatures. This approach is risky because sudden temperature drops can cause the yeast to stall before fermentation is complete, and temperature spikes can result in the production of hot fusel alcohols or even kill the yeast if the temperature rises too high. Homebrewers relying on the ambient temperature to heat the fermentation should try to find a location that has a relatively stable temperature about 5-7°F (3-4°C) degrees below your target fermentation temperature; the exothermic yeast activity will heat the fermenting beer the rest of the way. Placing the fermentor in a large bucket of water will insulate it from the daily cycle of temperature changes.
If the temperature is too cold for the yeast, heat the fermentor with a Brew Belt, or place the fermentor in a water bath with an aquarium heater or in an insulated box with a ceramic reptile heater. The easiest way to regulate the temperature with these methods is to attach a temperature controller (like the ones many homebrewers use for their kegerators) that has a heating mode.
Terry Hawbaker, while brewing at Cabinet Artisanal, turned to a saison yeast strain (Wyeast 3711) to allow him to use fermentors whose glycol cooling jackets did not function. This takes a great deal of skill because as the temperature climbs unconstrained the yeast becomes even more active and will push the temperature higher still.
The Philadelphia-area-based McKenzie Brew House has commanded gold in French- and Belgian-Style Saison an astounding three out of the previous four years at the Great American Beer Festival® for their Saison Vautour. Remarkably each of the three wins came with a different treatment of the same base recipe: first clean fermented in stainless steel in 2007, followed by “accidentally on purpose” Brettanomyces spiked by their bottling equipment in 2009, and most recently wine barrel fermented with a mixed-microbe culture in 2010. Sadly with the exit of their brewing duo, Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson, it remains to be seen what direction the brewery will take.
Their funky saisons were fermented with White Labs WLP566 (Belgian Saison II) for two to three days in a conical tank. Once active fermentation peaked, the portion of the beer to be soured was pumped into barrels which had been colonized by a variety of strains of wild yeast and bacteria. For the most part the source of these strains was bottle dregs from their favorite sour beers, which were added directly to the barrels without additional culturing. One of the highest complements I have been paid by a brewer was having Michaels pour the dregs from the second vintage of our dark saison into one of his barrels. Pulling samples from the different barrels with the same unsanitized thief also spreads those microbes from one barrel to the next.
When Nathan Zeender and I brewed a collaboration with them, we settled on a beer that would bridge the Belgo-French farmhouse traditions we named Irma Extra, a saison-bière de garde-bière de miel mashup fermented and aged in oak. The aim was to craft a beer that would offer a broad palette of elements that could be pieced back together after the beers had ripened separately. A single wort was split to produce four distinct variants: a clean version in stainless steel (Irma), a funky version in a red wine barrel, a miel version in a red wine barrel with a blend of honeys added directly to the barrel to preserve their aromatics, and a version in an apple brandy barrel to accentuate the classic caramel apple character indicative of bière de garde.
While most of the stainless steel fermented portion was served on tap without being soured, it was also available for blending to soften the barrel-aged beer. The base beers for most of the McKenzie Brew House sour beers are also served clean, which means that neither the recipe nor primary fermentation can be tailored. It also leads to the creation of beers that they might not have set out to brew otherwise, like a sour Baltic porter (Oer Faute). Their dry-hopped Tristessa is one of the better hoppy funky beers I have tried it was created by adding several hops socks to the barrel for the last few weeks of aging. Their Grisette (a close cousin of saison) is reminiscent of historic saison, a delectable session ale with enough sourness to enhance its refreshing wheaty flavor.
Beers age until they taste ready, which is rarely fewer than three months. It is an admittedly unscientific method, but the results are often stunning. Assistant brewer Gerard Olson would occasionally collect extra wort in a carboy to inoculate with dregs. This starter served as a good source of microbes for repitching beers at bottling or kegging. All beers are naturally carbonated and hand bottled for sale at the three McKenzie Brew Houses. When you are only doing small bottling runs for direct sales you do not have to worry about achieving the same level of consistency as a brewery that distributes. Irma Extra turned out to be a wonderfully complex saison with big notes of apple and berry, and a pleasant lactic sourness. As it warms a bit of oak comes out, but it maintains a highly drinkable balance.
Olson has since gone on to open Forest & Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. It is a small brewpub housed in a renovated 19th century house just outside of Philadelphia where he brews a half dozen saisons including several traditional farmhouse versions close to 4% ABV, while his partner Daniel Endicott focuses on authentic English cask ales. I've been as impressed with the beers he has brewed there as I ever was with those at McKenzie.