Ah, saisons. What a creative, inventive, almost indefinable style. I couldn’t help but take a stab at whirling up my own version of this beer style this summer. Saisons belong to the genus of beers known as “farmhouse ales” of the Belgian and French countryside. Because the warm summers in this region would prevent fermenting in acceptable temperature ranges, they were often brewed in the winter or spring to be drank in the summer. They were brewed on farms based upon whatever grains were available, which meant there was no definitive recipe or grain bill. They are often composed of the usual barley-wheat mix of Belgian beers, but they can also include any kind of grain imaginable. They are usually straw-colored, due to the grains, and cloudy as a result of bottle conditioning and the yeast used. They are commonly spiced; with everything from black pepper to fruity spices. Fruit are generally not seen in saisons, but I am sure it has been done. They can have various “wild” flavors, but generally not sourness. It was likely that spontaneous fermentation was the most common fermentation method, so various bacteria would play a part, providing their own flavors. As the saisons aged, brettanomyces likely would have added some additional flavors. Saison yeasts tend to be somewhat spicy, like some abbey yeasts, but often more subdued and less estery. It tends to be low alcohol and low to moderate hopping. (There are some winter saisons that are brewed in the fall or even in the spring beforehand and cellared until winter, but these beers are not what most people think of when they think of saison. They are more like the winter warmer beers.)
I tend to think of saison as a style only because most commercial versions adhere to a general barley-wheat mix and the necessary touch of the saison yeasts. However, in its truest form, I think of saison as more of a methodology, or merely an attitude, of making beer. Saison was functional. It was meant to be light, low alcohol and refreshing, to quench the thirst of the farm workers. It is a beer developed in an area that was not dominated by abbeys, to provide the great Belgian abbey and trappist beers, nor was it among the lambic region where those tart, aged beers reigned. It is not a particularly commercial area, so it mainly relied on local brewing and local ingredients. As a result, saisons tended to be a varied and imperfect, with a hint of complexity brought on by successful (and probably some unsuccessful) spontaneous fermentation.
Commercial examples of saison range from hands down the best, Saison Dupont (and it’s organic version, Fouret) and Hennepin, to tiny brewhouse versions. I discovered Le Merle Saison, from the US, to be a very enjoyable and straightforward saison, in the Dupont and Hennepin variety. Craftbrewers in the US make me nervous about saison. It’s a style where lots of spices can be added and you can get really creative by trying to introduce wildness to the beer. US craft brewers have a tendency to try to overdo spices so you end up with something that tastes a lot like soup or sour fruit juice. I find a lot of wits to be that way. (Although, that is also true of many Belgian wits.) Trying to make your beer wild (or sour) is the new go-crazy-imperial-double-OMG thing to do, and a lot of US craft brewers are trying to get into it. Some with amazing results, others completely missing the mark. It’s hard to try to capture a particular kind of “wild” flavor that is native to a different part of the world. If you try to introduce microorganisms native to your part of the world, it’s just going to taste different. So when craft brewers try to introduce local microorganisms, it often just tastes bad. I had a Texas saison that had tried to make the beer interesting by getting some wildness in it, but instead it was just really goaty, to the point of being hard to finish. Imperial Goat Ale?
Ok, ok, enough rambling. On to the recipe.
I followed the standard barley-wheat combination. I also added a little sugar to add dryness to the beer. You’ll find that I did use a little coriander, to add another flavor into the overall flavor, but without letting it overpower. I also tapped into my trusty Fuggles collection. If you wanted to do something similar, any English or German hop varieties would be appropriate. You could also go with US varieties and see how that works out. It’s also another 3 gallon batch, so if you want to scale up to 5 gallons just multiply all the quantities by 1.66 (or use your software to scale for you). I couldn’t help but make this beer a little more potent, so it’s a 7% beer.
5.70 lb Pilsner
.60 lb White Wheat
.30 lb Vienna
Mash: Single infusion of 8.25 qt at 170 to mash at 158 for an hour
Boil time: 90 minutes
90 min: .75oz Fuggles
15 min: .5 oz Fuggles, .15 tsp coriander seed (crushed), .60 lb table sugar
5 min: .5 oz Fuggles
Yeast: bottle harvested from Foret
Fermented: three weeks in primary in upper 70s to low 80s.
This was my first attempt at bottle harvesting. I found that as long as the yeast were started in a small container of wort and stepped up in small increments I could grow up enough to create a 1L starter in about a week. I am pretty sure the yeast in Foret is the same as Saison Dupont, which is also available from Wyeast and White Labs. I will definitely be washing this yeast and adding it to my frozen yeast bank.
I fermented this beer warm, because that’s typical for the style. It also helps saison yeast complete fermentation and make a dry beer. Saison yeast get a bad rap for giving up in the middle of fermentations, so I wanted to make sure I kept them in line.