Saison has undergone a recent surge in popularity, mainly due to the American craft beer scene’s enthusiasm for the style. Once a locals-only style in Belgium and Northern France, Saison is now brewed around the globe by many of the world’s best craft breweries.
Saison is dry, effervescent, and rustic. It can also be hoppy, funky, and even sour. The style is open to interpretation. Saison Dupont is still widely regarded as the world’s best version – and for a good reason – it’s exceptional. There are, however, many new and exciting interpretations of the style that are unique and delicious. Not only that, a few classic and lesser known traditional breweries are still brewing outstanding Saison.
Let’s take a look at what defines Saison beer and dive into the world’s best examples.
Saison is a far-reaching style of beer originating in Belgium and Northern France. It was once brewed in farmhouses to serve seasonal workers – called “Saisonniers.” These farmhouse ales were light, refreshing, and thirst-quenching after a hard day’s work.
Saison has a dry finish, fruity esters, spicy phenolics, and high carbonation. Most Saisons are very pale in color with a dense, frothy meringue-like foam. The alcohol content should be between 5-7% ABV with a trace of moderate bitterness.
Traditionally, Saison was acidified by wild bacteria introduced in the brewing process. These days, most Belgian and French brewers make sure their Saisons ferment clean, without the influence of wild yeast. A few breweries in Belgium, like Fantome and Brasserie de la Senne, do use mixed-culture fermentation to make some funky and tart Saisons.
In the last 10 to 15 years, American breweries have taken Saison brewing to another level. Along with clean fermentations, American Saison recipes often include lactobacillus and/or Brettanomyces.
American breweries, funnily enough, probably make a more traditional Saison than most Europeans. Sour, funky, wild Saison is becoming the gold standard for the term farmhouse ale, but there is still a wide range of Saison flavors.
Saison relies on yeast expression for the majority of the beer’s aroma and flavor. Brewers use specific yeast and ferment hot to produce fruity and spicy characteristics. A great Saison will showcase this yeast expression and be supported by moderate floral or herbal hoppiness.
Saison should have elevated carbonation levels. As with most Belgian style beers, a strong and vibrant fizz is essential to make the spicy and fruity yeast expression fully pop. Saison brewers push the limits of carbonation. They seek to find the right balance of bubbles without being too foamy or overcarbonated.
Because of the high carbonation, and due to malt selection and mashing technique, Saison should have a fluffy, billowing foam. If you see a Saison with a nice and lasting head, there’s a good chance it’ll be well-brewed.
Last but not least, Saison should be refreshing and drinkable. Due to its dry finish and typically light body, Saison is an easy-drinking style that doesn’t leave you feeling full. The bright citrus and peppery yeast notes also add to this perception of refreshment. Beware, though, as some Saisons can get up to around 7% ABV – the smooth drinkability can easily catch up to you.
We selected these Saisons because we love drinking them and feel they offer a complete representation of the current state of Saison. From traditional, to funky, to hoppy, this mix of Saison will surely please anyone from a Saison connoisseur, to light lager drinker.
Most Saison aficionados point to Brasserie Dupont as the legends of the style. Their Saison Dupont is widely considered the benchmark Saison and a beer that is consistent and loved worldwide. At first, a simple enough beer with a straightforward and easy drinking malt profile. Layers of complexity start to show themselves as the glass empties.
Floral hops are lightly discernable, but take second stage to the expressive character from Dupont’s famous yeast strain. Bright, citrussy, and hay-like, Saison Dupont is full of rustic character. It’s prickly carbonation and dry, but creamy body, offers an exceptionally quaffable beer. Great for drinking on its own, or pair it with almost any food. This beer is versatile, well-crafted, and delicious.
Down the road from Brasserie Dupont, Blaugies have been making rustic farmhouse ales for over 30 years. Saison d’Epeautre is made with spelt, providing a rustic, bread-like flavor. Fermented with their house yeast culture, this beer is complex yet infinitely drinkable. Refreshing, crisp, and packed with flavor, Saison d’Epeautre is up there alongside Dupont at the top of the Saison world.
Hill Farmstead makes elegant mixed-fermentation Saisons that are considered some of the world’s best. Arthur starts with a base of American malted barley. Hopped with a mix of European and American hops, it’s then fermented with Hill Farmstead’s house culture. Yeast, lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces ferment slowly in foeders. This makes Arthur mildly funky and lightly tart. Many American breweries base their Saison brewing around what Arthur so effortlessly achieves.
American legends and innovators, Saint Somewhere is – most importantly – just a damn good brewery. They’ve been brewing their interpretation of traditional Saison since 2006 out of Tarpon Springs, Florida. Founder Bob Sylvester is an inspiration in the American craft beer scene, and an avid promoter of the Saison style.
Athene is Saint Somewhere’s most popular beer, and it serves as an outstanding representation of the brewery’s philosophy. Drinkability is key, with a very dry body and high carbonation. Layers of yeast complexity, including a Brettanomyces funkiness, fill the palette. The yeast character is accentuated by additions of chamomile, fresh rosemary and black pepper. These herbs and spices do not overwhelm the beer, but play a supporting role to the beautiful yeast profile.
Just south of the Belgian border, in the tiny French village of Gussignies, Brasserie Au Baron focuses on traditional Saison and Bière de Garde.
At 7% ABV, with a substantial doughy-sweetness, Cuvée Des Jonquilles lies somewhere between a traditional Saison and a Bière de Garde. A firm bitterness supports the malty undertones but allows herbal bright hoppiness to shine through. Citrus, bubblegum, and pepper notes linger on the tongue as the flavors are washed down with a fine and substantial carbonation. An excellent beer designed to be drunk year round, ideally with a pungent French cheese.
As its name suggests, this expertly brewed Saison is a modern classic. Blackberry Farm shows restraint and moderation in this well-crafted ode to Belgian tradition. Light Noble hop aroma bursts out of the glass. High carbonation pushes vibrant herbal and floral hoppiness through the spicy yeast expression.
One unique feature about this Saison – it comes in a can! Take along this world-class Saison next time you’re at the beach, fishing, or camping.
Zebulon Artisan Ales is a rising star in the world of American Saison brewers. Their appreciation for tradition, mixed with creative techniques, produces outstanding and unique beers.
Their Zebulon House Saizon is brewed with a mix of local malt, some of which is unmalted for a more rustic complexity. This beer is delicately dry hopped with Styrian Goldings, Hallertauer Blanc, and Citra. This makes for an explosive mix of old-meets-new hop complexity. On top of this, Brettanomyces is added at bottling to allow this beer to develop light funkiness with age. Drink fresh for fruity, floral hop expression, or let it age for a funkier experience.
In search of complexity? Look no further than Fonta Flora’s Brutus, a mixed-fermentation, barrel aged Saison with dandelion flowers. Straying from the simplistic methods of most interpretations of Saison, Fonta Flora took a risk with Brutus. Luckily, the results are phenomenal.
Pouring a lively very pale yellow with a spritzy white head, the beer bursts with fruity and herbal aromas. Dandelion flower – think floral earthiness – fills the mouth supported by light acidity, funk, and a bone-dry finish.
This is a beer you can drink fresh or store away for a year or two to let the mix of yeast and bacteria evolve.
Modern craft breweries are always experimenting and pushing the boundaries of Saison. Brasserie Dunham, from Quebec, brews several interpretations of the style. Saison du Pinacle is a cloudy, pale Saison, fermented with Brettanomyces and their Saison yeast. The funkiness blends unexpectedly well with a heavy dose of American and Australian hops. Supremely dry and refreshing, Saison du Pinacle is a hoppy, dank, and funky crusher.
There may be no stronger supporter of Saison beer than Forest & Main. Their relentless and stubborn adherence to brewing Saison drives them to release amazing takes on the classic style.
Solaire Reserve is a blended Saison. Wine barrel aged beer is blended with freshly brewed Saison. They achieve a balanced funkiness, from the barrel, and hoppiness, from the fresh Saison. At 5% ABV, this beer’s drinkability is through the roof. Bright floral hops are expertly balanced with light funk synergizing for a refreshing and delicious Saison.
No, the majority of commercial Saison is brewed with only saccharomyces, typical brewer’s yeast. Saison is fermented at elevated temperatures which produces estery, phenolic, fruity yeast expression. Most brewers use yeast derived from Belgian and French breweries to achieve the distinctive dry finish and balance.
Historic Saison would have had a mix of bacteria and yeast. Modern craft breweries recreate these mixed fermentations to produce sour and funky Saisons.
Both Saison and Bière de Garde have expressive spicy and fruity yeast character, dry finish, and high carbonation. Bière de garde – meaning “beer for keeping” – is typically brewed slightly stronger, between 7% and 8.5% ABV. They’re also usually a bit darker, with many examples amber in color.
The differences are subtle, however, and it may come down to regional names. “Bière de Garde” is more common in France, and “Saison” in Belgium.