Like many beer styles, saisons originated out of purpose. Saison, meaning season in French, was originally brewed during the cooler months of the farming season in Wallonia, Belgium. They were often created from ingredients grown on the farm and brewed by many of the same people who worked the fields, looking to keep busy during the slower season. The perfect summer beer for seasonal workers, whom to my envy, were allowed up to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of beer a day. In today’s world, it’s hard to imagine drinking over a gallon of beer in the middle of the day and being of much use to your employer; however, the style of the early 1700’s is not quite the same as the style of today.
While they share many of the same characteristics, our constant push for bigger and better has brought this style to new limits. Highly carbonated, pale in color, with spice and sometimes fruit on the palate, this summer style which began as a 3% or lower ABV beer, is now often seen reaching for 8% or higher.
What Makes a Saison a Saison?
Saisons are historically on the dryer side, bottle conditioned and open to many yeast varietals. It shares many characteristics with other Belgian styles in that it is often driven by your choice in yeast or additions of spice. BJCP guidelines state is should have a pale orange color between 5-14 SRM, an ABV range of 5-7% and a final gravity of 1.002-1.012. Personally, I like mine on the lower end of that scale, and achieve that by mashing at a fairly low temperature. Given that saisons are intended to age for a few months, it has a higher IBU range than would be expected at 20-35. As with most bottle conditioned beers, clarity is not paramount here, but shouldn’t be ignored either. The focus should be on creating a refreshing beer with a light to medium mouthfeel. It should have a billowy, long lasting white head that creates continuous lacing throughout.
Depending on the hops and yeast you choose, saisons can range from spicy to fruity, clean to tart, sour to … well you get it.
What Goes in a Saison?
Water – Wallonia is well known for its hard water, so if you have hard water or aren’t sure what is in your water, I would not recommend making many changes to its chemistry. If you have soft or medium water, you may want to add some gypsum. This will help increase the perceived bitterness by lowering the mash pH, and bring you a bit closer to the styles origins.
Grains – The base for most saison recipes is Pilsner Malt, however you can mix things up a little bit here to suit your tastes. In my saison, I like to split the base malts 3 parts Pilsner Malt, 1 part American 2-row. I find the 2-row adds a bit more color, while still giving a clean sweetness. Other variations could include adding malts such as Munich, Vienna or even some wheat malt to alter your body and add complexity. These more specialized base malts however should be used sparingly and preferably below 10-15% of the total grain bill.
Not brewing with all grain? No problem, just replace your base malt grains with Pilsner extract. You can always steep any additional malts you may want to use.
[Feeling adventurous? Make a black saison by cold steeping Midnight Wheat or Dehusked Carafa III. If you want color and small additions of flavor for a twist, you could use roasted barley or Black Malt. Stay south of 1% of your grain bill though, as they could add unwanted flavors and additional bitterness.]
Yeast – Where should we start? There are enough yeast options for a saison that we could devote an entire article just to this. Saison yeasts are usually fermented on the warm side (75°F and up), however some strains like to stay in the normal ranges of the upper 60’s/low 70’s. Since Jay’s Brewing carries a wide variety of White Labs offerings, we’ll stick with those. Saison yeasts often take a while to finish off those last few gravity points, so we recommend a well oxygenated wort, good temperature control and if possible, a yeast starter. Remember attenuation can vary based on your mash, but we’ll get into that later.
- WLP565 Belgian Saison I – A classic Saison strain from Wallonia. When you talk about going back to your roots, this is it. With a good mix of earth, peppery and spicy, this strain will give you a good base saison. It’s very middle of the road, and a great call if you want the beer to stand on its own or even use additions in the form of spices. It sits in the standard ale temperature range of 68-75°F, however has fairly low attenuation for a saison yeast. If you have trouble getting the last few points out of this, you could try to warm the beer towards the end of primary fermentation or add a secondary yeast once initial fermentation begins to slow down.
- WLP566 Belgian Saison II – A modified twist on WLP565, this blend will ferment faster and more thoroughly, leaving behind fruity esters. It will produce higher levels of phenolics and clove in both the aroma and flavor. It has a slightly higher temperature range, maxing out at 78°F and will finish with up to 85% attenuation.
- WLP585 Belgian Saison III – This is a seasonal yeast, available only during the summer months. It has low attenuation at 74%, works at normal ale temperature ranges, and has flocculation on the lower side. It will provide high levels of fruit and some clovey phenolic esters, as well as providing a slight tartness. This is a good choice if you decided to have a little fun with your grain bill, as this will leave the end result slightly malty allowing your additions to shine through.
- WLP568 Belgian Style Saison – A blend of White Labs Saison and Belgian yeasts. Fermentation reaches 80% attenuation and likes to hang out at similar temperature ranges as the Saison II blend. It will provide complex, fruity aromas and flavors, while also giving you the traditional Belgian profiles of phenols, spice, earth and clove.
- WLP590 French Saison – The French Saison yeast is a different breed of yeast for the style. Producing a very clean profile compared to its Belgian counterparts. Expect moderate esters and a slight phenolic bite allowing the beer to take the forefront. It reaches an attenuation of 80%, and ferments at normal ale temperatures.
Let’s get wild… wild yeast that is. When fermentation is just about finished up, rack to a secondary vessel to introduce a little bit of oxygen and try adding some brettanomyces. For Saison, you could try WLP650 Brettanomyces Bruxellensis or WLP670 American Farmhouse Blend. Both are great options for adding a bit more sourness or tartness, and work well with the style.
Hops – Tradition generally wins here with the saison, so stick with Noble hops and their offspring such as Tettnanger, East Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings, Saaz or Brewers Gold. A simple hop schedule is all you need (60/30/15 or 60/15/5 or 60/15), as the hops generally play second fiddle to the yeast, however after you make your first batch, you can adjust this to better suit your tastes.
Adjuncts – It’s not uncommon, as with many Belgian beers, to add sugar to a saison. Whether that comes in the form of sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), candi sugar/syrup or honey, is entirely up to you. As most sugars are close to 100% fermentable, this will help dry out your beer, boost the alcohol and not add any additional body to the final product. Check out this previous post for more information on sugars: Belgian Candi Sugar vs Table Sugar – For Beer.
Fruits, Spices and Herbs – The saison style has a lot of potential for using abstract ingredients. Whether you want to keep it simple with orange peel and peppercorns, or want to be more bold and use a fruit or unique herb. Here are just a some additions that may work. Don’t be afraid of using more than one, experimentation is half the fun of homebrewing.
Tips for Brewing a Great Saison
Mash – Brewing a saison does not differ much from most other styles. Since most brewing malts are highly modified nowadays, a single infusion mash will usually get the job done. To help make the sugars extra fermentable, I recommend mashing below 150°F, for 60-90 minutes. I find for my recipe, 60 minutes at 147°F is just right. Finishes very dry and maintains great mouthfeel.
If you are comfortable doing a step mash, raising the temperature of the grain bed incrementally throughout the process, you could also do that here. This will allow you to start out as low as 140°F, and over 1 or 2 steps, increase the temperature 12-15° with each step until you have reached final mash out temp every. Pilsner malts are generally less modified than other base malts, so some argue a step mash is necessary.
Boil – If you have decided to use Pilsner malts as your base, you run a higher risk of having an increased level of Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) in your final product. Pilsner malt is kilned at a lower temperature than other malts to provide a cleaner flavor profile and lighter color. The downside with this process is that the grains hold on to more S-Methyl Methionine (SMM), the precursor to DMS. SMM is an amino acid that is formed during germination and for the most part cooked off during the kilning process. While DMS won’t ruin your beer, it is a very noticeable flavor and too much of it can leave your beer tasting like creamed corn. Appealing for a cream ale, not so much for a saison.
Because of the presence of DMS, it is recommended you boil for over 60 minutes, preferably 90 if time allows. At a rolling boil, DMS has a half-life of 40 minutes, meaning once we’ve boiled our wort for 40 minutes we have eliminated 50% of it from our wort. Unfortunately, the process does slow down a bit from here. After 60 minutes, you will have removed around 65%, and after 90 minutes almost 80%.
Enough Already, Just Give Me the Recipe!
Ok, enough is enough, you’ve waited this long. Here are the keys to the castle.
This beer was recently awarded 1st place among Saisons at the 4th Annual Hop Blossom Homebrew Competition in Winchester, VA. It also placed 2nd in the Downright Obsessed Homebrewers (DOH) Belgian Blonde / Saison Competition. I credit part of this beers success to the fresh ingredients available at Jay’s Brewing.
Cracked Jack Pink Peppercorn Saison
Batch Size: 5.5 Gallons
Mash: Single Temp. Infusion – 147°F for 60 min.
7.5 lb. – Pilsner
2.5 lb. – Pale 2-Row
1 lb. – Sucrose (Table Sugar) @ 10 min.
1 oz – Brewers Gold @ 60 min.
1 oz – Saaz @ 15 min.
1 oz – Saaz @ 5 min.
White Labs WLP590 French Saison or Wyeast 3711 French Saison
Fermented @ 68°F
1.5 oz – Dried Sweet Orange Peel @ 10 min.
10 grams (about 100) – Pink Peppercorns (Ground/Milled fine) @ 10 min.
Until next time, happy brewing!
Stephen Boyajian has been an avid homebrewer for 4 years. A fan of many styles, with a particular love for IPA’s and Stouts. He lives in Gainesville, VA with his wife, 3 kids and dog. When not brewing, he enjoys playing golf or playing bass guitar.