Saison has to be one of my personal favourite beer styles year round. Where most people would like some sort of IPA on tap at all times I would take a some sort of saison. Aside from being delicious at all times of year saison has to be one of the most versatile styles of beer. Clean and refreshing, ester/phenolic and dry, funky and hoppy, dark and smooth, the list goes on. Saison can also range from session strength to “what did I do last night” imperial strength. With the exception of getting in the car and driving there is a saison for any and all occasions.
Traditionally saisons were brewed on farms in the colder months and the stored until the summer for serving to farm labor. This is where the term “farmhouse ale” comes from. Unless you brew it on a farm you should probably just call it a saison… Lower in ABV than modern versions (3-4 ABV) the saison served as a source of hydration and refreshed the farm workers during the hot months. Those lucky ducks got to drink up to 5 liters a day! Saisons have evolved quite a bit since the craft beer boom.
Why do I love saison so much? Why love it over the king pin “the IPA” and all its sub-styles? It’s accessibility and shelf life. A saison is perfectly fine when bottle conditioned and stored warm for months on end. Fermentation temp is not very important (unless you are going for repeatability). The variety of things a saison can be leaves the brewer with a blank canvas. The average saison seems to be yellow, slightly hazy, higher carbonation, in the ballpark of 6.5 ABV, noble hops, hoppier than most European styles, a balance of fruity/ citrusy esters and spicy phenols and very well attenuated. Some brewers are taking creativity in their own hands and adding some darker malts, american hops, brett-ing, barrel aging, adding fruit, “imperializing” and more.
For me a good saison needs a solid base recipe. From there you can move forward and be as creative or minimalistic as you desire. As a fairly yeast forward beer many people often overlook the grist of a saison. I beleive the grist is a make it or break it part. For me doing a pale base I like to use 70-90% Belgian Pilsner (usually Cheateau but I am currently playing with Franco Belges). Belgian Pilsner has a prominent honey note that brings a bit of a sweetness to such a well attenuated beer. Other Pilsners like german ones I find more bready. They work but are not my favourite. 10% Munich (10L) is always a good idea as almost any style of beer seems to benefit overall from the additional malty flavours. 0-20% Spelt, wheat, rye or a blend. These are the grains the will help give your beer its signature haze. Classic examples call for haze, but it is not 100% needed to make a great saison. Personally I prefer spelt for my saisons if I am using a non-barley malt. If you have access to Franco Belges Special Aromatic it is also a good malt to sub in for up to 10% of your pilsner malt or Munich. This specific aromatic malt boosts the overall malt aroma giving a saison a bit more depth of flavour. My personal favourite combination is 75% Belgian Pilsner, 10% Munich, 10% spelt and 5% special aromatic. Some folks like to use cane sugar as a fermentable in their saisons. We call those people sinners.
Arguably the most important ingredient is the yeast and how you treat it. The most accessible commercial examples are Wyeast 3711, 3724, 3736 White Labs WLP565, WLP566, WLP568, WLP585 and WLP590. If you have access to Escarpment Labs their Old Wolrd Saison Blend and Wild Thing are both top notch. For me I generally use a wild saccharomyces that is similar to 3711 (my favourite easy to find commercial yeast). How you treat the yeast is going to really decide the flavour of the beer.
The last two things I think about when brewing a saison is the water and my hop selection. For a “classic” saison I go with Brewers Friend balanced profile 1. For an American hoppy saison I either use pale and bitter or a NEIPA water profile depending on my goal. A mash pH of 5.2-5.3 is my preffered target. For hops I keep it simple. A bittering charge and an aroma charge. Saisons are a bit more hop forward than your generic crushing beer. I aim for a BU/GU ratio of 0.45-0.52. I use 70-80% of my IBUs during the bittering charge with German Magnum. Usually I add these as a FWH addition. The rest of my IBUs come from a 5-10 min addition of something like Saaz, Tettnanger, Spalt, Hallertau Mittlefruh, Crystal or other low alpha acid hops with noble flavours/aromas. Sometimes I like to dry hop depending on if I want a bit more noble character and freshness in my final beer. A dry hoping rate of 0.2-0.5 oz/gal of the same aroma hop is what I like to use 5-7 days prior to packaging. For an American hoppy saison I like to add a German Magnum bittering charge and then treat the rest of the hops like a dumbed down NEIPA using 4-6 oz total of whirlpool/dry hops.
So you have thought about the ingredient you wish to use. Now you need to think about how to use them to produce your desired final beer. Typically I aim for an OG of 1.048 and try to get it to attenuate as best as possible. A mash for 60 min at 148F is what I prefer to use for all my saisons to encourage over 90% attenuation. A 60 min rigorous boil is more than enough to drive of the dreaded DMS. Fermentation is where this beer really can change. Recently my homebrew club GTA brews did a barrel fill with an imperial saison. Everyone followed the same recipe except for fermentation temp. We let everyone do their own thing. When tasteing all 12 batches to make sure none were off every saison had its own unique flavour to it. In a flight I would have said they were all different beers. Esters and phenols were the big differences here.
How are you going to control esters and phenols to make the beer that you want? For esters there are a few ways one can promote of discourage the flavours. Underpitching, under oxygenation prior to pitch, fermenting warm and fermenting under pressure all contribute to ester formation. Of course severely under pitching and failing to oxygenate can lead to some serious issues in your beer. I find pitching a 500 ml starter of 1.040 into 5-6 gal of wort at 1.048 promoted ester development much more than my standard 1L starter. As well I don’t oxygenate with an O2 wand. Instead when transferring to FV I allow it to splash around a bit. When I pitch I like to be in the mid 70s for moderate esters and high 70s-mid 80s for high levels of esters. I prefer to bottle condition my saisons as well as I find it really brings the flavour out even more than kegging does. These techniques tend to help boost phenols. Phenols can also be increased by having a first mash rest at 113F to create more ferulic acid. Mashing at 5.7-5.8 pH is supposed to encourage more phenols as well. I have yet to try this though since I prefer a balance between the two. If all this seems confusing/too much work then I suggest you forget about it and ferment ambient from 70-85F.
Saisons are versatile and are rather forgiving. Play around and see what you like most. I highly suggest bottle conditioning to 2.8-3 vols as the high carbonation forces the beautiful aromas into the air and makes the beer that much more refreshing on the palate. Once you have a great base saison recipe then you can go wild. Imperialize it if you want a winter refresher/warmer, add some darker malts to make it more rich, milk the funk by Bretting it or turn it into dessert by adding fruit to secondary. Or hell do a combination. The possibilities are nearly endless with this style.