Crafting a great Saison is one of brewing’s most rewarding experiences. The style doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, simple is often better. With the right philosophy, technique, and background knowledge, you’ll be crafting fantastic Saison in no time.
Saison is a Belgian beer style bursting with complex flavor. Dry, spicy, and elegant, Saison is also one of the most refreshing styles in craft beer. Brewing Saison takes a few specific techniques, but it can be one of the easiest and most flavorful styles to brew at home.
In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the style and highlight some of the world’s best Saisons. You’ll learn all you need to know to start brewing your very own farmhouse ale.
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.
Let’s take a look at some of the world’s best Saisons before we get into how to brew them:
These are a few of the saisons that we think you have to taste to understand what a perfect saison tastes like.
The true benchmark for the style, Saison Dupont is a complex blonde beer with notes of lemon, crushed black pepper, and hay. Their yeast, known as the “Dupont strain,” is the most widely used saison strain for commercial breweries and homebrewers. Saison Dupont is the gold standard saison.
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.
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.
Because of the broad style guidelines, saison is one of the more accessible styles to brew. With the right process and ingredient selection, homebrewed Saisons can be just as good as the top commercial examples.
The backbone of almost all Belgian styles is malt. The majority of saison brewers choose a base of pilsner malt, with a handful of supporting grains for flavor and mouthfeel. Wheat, rye, spelt, and oats are all used to provide extra body, flavor, and character. The base pilsner malt should be about 80% of the grain bill.
The majority of Belgian and French saison brewers employ a step mash. Usually, it’s a three-step mash with rests at around 112F -- 149F -- 162F. Step mashes are traditionally used across Europe and are still, to this day, common in farmhouse brewing.
When using modern, highly modified malt, you can achieve great results with a single infusion rest. Saisons are characteristically crisp and dry, with a very low final gravity. Mashing at a lower temperature helps make this dry body. We recommend mashing between 145F -- 149F for 60 minutes.
Extract brewers should choose the lightest possible dried malt extract. Dextrin malt, like CaraPils, can be steeped to help boost mouthfeel and add some fresh malt flavor.
You can hop Saisons with just about any variety of hops. European brewers and traditionalists prefer noble hops. American substitutes, like Willamette, are great choices too. Herbal and floral hop flavors compliment Saison yeast driven spiciness. Fruity hop notes also blend exceptionally well. For the most part, hopping needs to be restrained and balanced.
Usually, a 60-minute addition is used to bitter to around 20-50 IBU. After that, small mid-boil hopping is common. Late boil and dry hops, if used, are usually modest additions.
Some great options for hops:
Classic: Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, Tettnang, Styrian Golding, East Kent Golding, Loral, Sterling, Willamette
Modern: Hallertau Blanc, Motueka, Nelson Sauvin
Saisons are also a great base beer to experiment with fruity American or Australian hops -- from Simcoe to Galaxy. Farmhouse IPA and modern takes on classic saison recipes can be delicious and exciting experiments.
Its yeast character mostly defines Saison’s distinctive flavor. Those spicy phenolics and fruity esters are a product of the fermentation. High fermentation temperatures and specially selected yeast strains give saison its unmistakable profile.
No matter what yeast you choose, the most important thing is to keep your fermentation hot. Fruity (esters) and pepper/clove (phenols) flavors are produced at higher temperatures. If possible, keep your fermenter at about 80F for most strains.
In terms of yeast strains, there are a ton of options on the market today. For clean (i.e., not funky) beers, here are some of our favorites:
White Labs 565 -- Belgian Saison I Ale: Often referred to only as “The Dupont Strain,” WLP565 is the most popular saison yeast. With a warm ferment and lots of oxygen, this strain can produce very complex Saisons with strong notes of lemon, pepper, and clove. Be patient with this strain and give it the time and temperature it needs to finish the job.
Wyeast 3726 -- Farmhouse Ale: Said to be the Blaugies strain, WY3726 produces a complex blend of bubblegum, citrus, and pepper. It finishes dry with a light tartness.
Danstar -- Belle Saison: What’s more convenient than dry yeast? This strain is a beast and will chew through almost any wort down to near a final gravity of 1.000. It’s very dry but a bit one dimensional. It’s a good option for extract brewers who can’t control their wort fermentability to get a nice low final gravity.
Wyeast 3711 -- French Saison: Another very aggressive fermenting yeast, this strain is heavily phenolic. Expect spicy cloves and pepper flavors with a bone dry finish.
If you prefer a funky saison, there are a growing number of options. White Labs and Wyeast each have their own seasonal and year-round yeast blends. For some exciting options, check out two smaller yeast labs called Escarpment Labs and Bootleg Biology.
A great way to add some funk to your saison is to pitch some Brettanomyces either during fermentation or doused at bottling. Using brett takes some experience and some experimentation to dial in a repeatable process. Brett Brux is a great launchpad to begin funkifying your Saisons.
Like most yeasts, make sure you’re pitching into oxygenated wort. This helps the yeast chew through the fermentation to make sure you end up with a crisp and dry beer.
Your water can be mostly neutral for saison brewing. Avoid any chloramine off-flavors by making sure to use bottled or filtered water.
Ideally, your water should be moderately hard with a good amount of sulfates. This helps with the crisp, dry finish. To help even more with crispness, you should adjust your mash pH to around 5.2 using some acid malt or lactic acid.
Saison is best when naturally carbonated in bottles to very high volumes of CO2. If you want to keg, opt for keg conditioning. Of course, force carbonating works too if you need the beer in a hurry, or if it’s heavily dry-hopped (to preserve fresh hop character).
Aim for carbonation levels of at least 3.0 vols CO2. You can go as high as 4.0 if your bottles are rated for the pressure. However, you need Belgian thick-walled bottles to avoid potential bottle bombs.
The high carbonation is a hallmark of the style and helps with crispness, drinkability, and appearance. Be sure to chill your bottles for 24 hours before opening if you opt for very high carbonation.
Wallonian Saison -- Sample recipe
|Final Volume||Original Gravity||Final Gravity||ABV||IBU||SRM|
|8 lb||Pilsner Malt||37||1.6|
|1 lb||Rye Malt||38||3.5|
|1 oz||Styrian Golding||5.5%||Boil||60 min||25|
|1 oz||Saaz||3.5%||Boil||30 min||6|
WY3726 -- Farmhouse Ale or your favorite saison strain.
- Single infusion rest at 146F for 60 minutes
- Boil and add hops
- Chill to 80F
- Pitch healthy yeast into oxygenated wort and ferment at 80F for 2-3 weeks, or until gravity is stable. It should finish very low, between 1.000 and 1.006
- Bottle condition to 3.0 volumes of CO2 in thick-walled glass bottles
Brewing great saison beers may take some experimenting to get them exactly the way you like. Here are some tips we’ve picked up over the years.
- Fermentation temperature is critical: If you can’t ferment hot (80F+), consider building a fermentation chamber or brewing your Saisons only in summer.
- Conditioning makes a considerable difference: Most saison gets better with age. If you’re not happy with a beer, let it condition at cellar temperatures for 2-3 months and check again. It may taste completely different!
- Let the yeast do the talking: Keep recipes simple by limiting the number of different malts and hops. Focus on pitching healthy yeast, giving the wort lots of oxygen, and fermenting it warm. An expressive yeast character will set your saison apart from the rest.
- Keep your equipment clean: Be sure to clean your brewing equipment very thoroughly after brewing with saison yeast. Check out our guide on cleaning and sanitation. Many saison strains are diastaticus. This type of yeast is smaller in cell size and more difficult to completely clean than typical saccharomyces. If you notice that your other beers’ final gravity is too low, you may want to consider separate equipment for your Saisons and your other beers.
- Use a 60 minute boil: Traditional saison used to be boiled for two hours or more. With today’s malt, you can easily get by with a 60-minute boil to drive off any risk of DMS.
- Dial-in hop bitterness: Bitterness can range from 20 IBU to 50+ for certain Saisons. Experimentation is vital to find out your preferred balance. A good number to start with is 30 IBU.
- Control tartness: If using yeast blends with lactobacillus, contain the sourness by upping the IBUs. Many lactobacillus strains are intolerant to hop bitterness. If you find your mixed culture beers are becoming too acidic, consider bumping up your IBUs by 5 to 10.
- Experiment: We’ve only talked about pale saison beer so far. But why not add some roasted or dark malts to create new and exciting flavors? The saison style is very versatile and accommodating for experiments. Herbs, fruit, and spices are also fun to play around with.
- Controversial opinion: Use green glass bottles. Almost all Belgian and French Saisons are bottled in green glass. The slight light-struck flavor is traditional in saison and, in this brewer’s opinion, desirable.
Saison is a unique beer style. Open for interpretation, yet bound by traditions and rough guidelines, it’s a difficult concept to box in. A great saison is refreshing, complex, and easy to drink. It’s the kind of beer you want to have after a long day’s work but also share with beer-nerds and wine drinkers. Saison threads many needles.
Brewing a saison is a straightforward process. By following some basic techniques, you’ll be brewing amazing beer that could make a Belgian tear up. Focus on dry, rustic, balanced flavors to get you the results you’re searching for.
Good luck brewing and santé!
The term farmhouse ale has grown synonymous with saison. In reality, farmhouse ale refers to a much more comprehensive range of beers, styles, and geographic regions.
Phil Markowski’s widely popular and influential 2004 book Farmhouse Ales helped make the term common in craft beer. Ever since, Belgian and French Saisons have almost interchangeably been referred to as farmhouse ale.
Traditional farms in Belgium and Northern France once brewed their own beers and served it to their seasonal workers. The term saison -- meaning season -- was born.
These days, farmhouse ale is used to encapsulate the saison style but also allows for modern interpretations. Farmhouse ales can be clean, funky, bitingly sour, or everything in between. It’s a flexible term that points to a brewing philosophy rather than a specific style of beer.