Saison (French, "season") is the name originally given to refreshing, low-alcohol pale ales brewed seasonally in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region ofBelgium, to refresh farm workers during harvest season. Modern-day saisons are also brewed in other countries, particularly the USA, and are generally bottle conditioned, with an average range of 5 to 8% abv, though saisons at the more traditional 3.5% strength can still be found.
Although saison has been described as an endangered style, there has been a rise in interest in this style in recent years, with Saison Dupont being named “the Best Beer in the World” by the magazine Men’s Journal in July 2005.
Historically, saisons did not share identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales. Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version. Modern saisons brewed in the USA tend to copy the yeast used by Brasserie Dupont, which ferments better at blood warm temperatures (29 °C (84 °F) to 35 °C (95 °F)) than the standard 18 °C (64 °F) to 24 °C (75 °F) fermenting temperature used by other Belgian saison brewers.
“Saison” is the French word for season, because these ales were traditionally brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the late summer harvest for farm workers who were entitled to up to five liters throughout the workday during harvest season. Today they are brewed year round. As the saison style originated before the advent of refrigeration, Belgian brewers had to brew in autumn or winter to prevent the ale from spoiling during the storage period. After brewing, the ale was stored until the late summer harvest. Although now most commercial examples range from 5 to 8% abv, originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and thus had alcohol levels less than 3%. Because of the lack of potable water, saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness.
The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage, but at the same time could not be so strong as to incapacitate the workers. Additionally, these beers were strongly hopped, as hops act as a preservative and have antiseptic properties. Saisons brewed in early Spring would often be blended with saisons brewed the previous Autumn, or even blended with lambic beers to increase the refreshing acidity of these beers. Blending also occurred to reduce the abv, and thus increase its refreshment value.
The type of malt determines the color of the saison, and although most saisons are of a cloudy golden color as result of the grist being mostly pale and/or pilsner malt, the use of darker malts results in some saisons being reddish-amber. Some recipes also use wheat. Despite the spicy character of many Saisons, the use of actual spices is uncommon, though not unheard of. Any spice character in a traditional Saison is the result of esters during fermentation by the traditionally used strains of yeast. In America, brewers will often add orange zest, coriander, ginger, and crushed peppercorns to a Saison to simulate the ester spiciness.