Beer Hawk's Beer Sommelier, Maggie Cubbler delves into the history of the saison

The season for saisons

As is widely known, Belgium has a fascinating brewing culture and history. In fact, the stories of everything from Belgian Trappist beers to the Oud Bruins of Flanders will be forever preserved thanks to UNESCO’s recent declaration that Beer Culture in Belgium shall be inscribed on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The deliciously diverse beauty of Belgium’s beer is well deserving of this acknowledgment.

One beer style that is a major contributor to Belgian beer lore is the celebrated saison. First brewed in the 1700s on the farms of Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia, this original farmhouse ale was brewed for the seasonal field workers – les saisonniers – who performed manual labour under the hot summer sun. Considering potable water was hard to come by, les saisonniers were given a five-litre daily allotment of refreshing beer by their employers to help them continue through their gruelling work.

At that time, a saison (French for ‘season’) simply referred to beers that were brewed in the winter to be ready for summer consumption. They were refreshing, of course, and brewed to a relatively low alcohol level of about 3-3.5% ABV. Each farm had their own distinctive way of brewing so the final product was as diverse as the tapestry of Belgian
beer itself.  

Centuries ago, when saisons were brewed in rural Wallonia, access to ingredients outside their local area was nearly impossible. Thus early recipes of these artisanal ales used malts like barley and also wheat, oats, spelt or whatever the farm itself may have been growing. To prevent spoiling, it was assertively hopped with various continental hops like Saaz or other noble hops. While the hops and malts are important to saisons, this rustic beer style is most noted for its spicy, tangy and dry yeast character.

Access to clean water made it no longer necessary for les saisonniers to rely on beer and the style nearly became obsolete. Fortunately, the simplicity of the recipe makes this beer a very popular one to replicate and modern brewers helped save this style from extinction. Since a saison’s character is mostly due to the yeast, a brewery could simply use a saison yeast strain and have a moderately accurate representation. Unsatisfied with sticking to just a few basic ingredients, however, many breweries are updating their brews in many ways: dry hopping, adding complementary herbs and spices or just otherwise taking everything up a notch.

Thankfully, a delicious part of history was saved. What was created to quench the thirst of field-workers in French-speaking Belgium has, in the modern day, turned into one of the beer world’s favourite styles. Even if the definition itself remains a bit intangible.

Saison Dupont / 6.5%
The refreshing, thirst-quenching saison was created for field workers—known as “saisoniers”—to enjoy whilst working during the hot summer months. Since 1844, Saison Dupont has been setting the standard for Belgian saisons and is internationally renowned for being the best-of-the-best and a perfect accompaniment to food.

Wild Beer Co / Epic Saison / 5%
Somerset's Wild Beer Co. has made a name for themselves brewing the quirky and the bizarre. Their Epic Saison isn't either--and it doesn't need to be. Brewed with North American Sorachi Ace hops expect nice aromas of tropical fruit, tangerines and lemon. The taste is tart and fruity with a good bit of zesty citrus fruits, spice and a grainy malt character. The light body is lifted by a good carbonation and a dry finish. We think this Epic Saison is pretty...epic. (You had to have seen that coming.)

Saisons have been around for ages, traditionally brewed by Belgian and French farmers to provide refreshment during harvest. I bet these hardworking, humble farmers never imagined that centuries later their style of brewing would inspire brewers from all over the world. 8 Wired's Saison Sauvin is a modern New World interpretation of this style using a French Saison yeast, which provides a plethora of funky, earthy, very Belgian flavours. From there they have upped the ante by doubling the amount of malt, and thereby the alcohol, and loaded the kettle with punchy Nelson Sauvin hops. Unlike the original, this is not a beer meant to be drunk by the gallon.