Beer Basics: Discover Saison

Beer Basics: Discover Saison

Have you ever encountered a saison that you've dismissed as too "saisony"? If you struggle with this style of beer, you're not alone – it can be tremendously complex, boasting characteristics of its unique peppery yeast strain alongside herbs, spices and other botanicals. But it's precisely for this reason that a saison makes such a dependable beer to grab in a 750ml bottle and enjoy with just about any dish and cuisine.

Saisons are farmhouse ales that can be traced back to Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Translated from French, saison means ‘season’, referring to the time of year that it was brewed for the farmhands. Before refrigeration, beers were brewed in the cooler months (in this case, usually March) when fermentation temperatures could be kept constant. They were then enjoyed the following summer. The historical table versions of the style were lower in strength; today, stronger examples can be found with ABVs topping 9%.

The peppery characteristics of saisons are attributed to its unique strain of top-fermenting yeast, which is thought to be related to a red wine strain. Unlike ale yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae, which ferments at 13°C) and lager yeast (saccharomyces pastorianus, which ferments at 4-7°C), the saison yeast strain prospers at a fermentation temperature of 32°C. As a consequence of this, the yeast produces a high level of phenols, responsible for its distinguishing pepperiness. Some esters can be present, which are the fruity notes often detected in ales, which usually have some citrus characteristics. Saisons are a highly attenuated style, meaning that the yeast has left very little sugar in the wort; this results in a discernible dryness on the palate.

The most famous version of a  saison is Saison DuPont from Brasserie Dupont, which has been brewed since 1844 as a farmhouse product, originally sold alongside artisanal foods such as honey. Today, you’ll find it available in any repiutable bottle shop (and for a reasonable price too). If you’re uncertain about the style generally, Saison DuPont is a great starting point.

When it comes to pairing with food, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more versatile style than saison. Honestly – this is where it really shines. Although it hails from Belgium, saisons have the perfect flavour profile to complement anything from Mexican to Thai dishes; its gentle phenolic spiciness – usually described as cracked black pepper – harmonises beautifully with fiery foods. Additions of herbs, such as coriander, marry effortlessly with fragrant dishes, while the effervescent carbonic bite scours away any rich textures, easily vanquishing greasy cheese or fatty meats. The food doesn’t need to be heavy, as crab cakes or Vietnamese summer rolls can happily pair with a Saison Dupont. Just ask Garret Oliver, who extols the virtues of these pairings in his food and beer bible, The Brewmaster’s Table:

Saison is not just versatile – it’s downright promiscuous. It seems to go with almost everything. The carbonation, right aromatics, spice flavours, peppery notes, dark earthy underpinnings, and racy acidity gives these beers a hook to hang their hat on for a wide range of dishes.
— Garret Oliver, p. 190.

When it comes to modern and local iterations of the style, you’ll struggle to find anything more thirst-quenching than East Sussex’s Burning Sky Brewery, whose Saison à la Provision is a refreshing take with additions of lactobacillus and brettonamyces for a crisp, dry and tart take. I’ve always been a fan of Bermondsey’s Brew by Numbers’ saisons as well, which are highly drinkable and can be deliciously adventurous – 01|27 comes to mind, a beetroot and fennel saison.

If you feel ambivalent about saison as a style, it’s worth picking up a bottle of Saison DuPont to pair with your next meal, especially if you’re partial to Thai or Vietnamese food. 

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Modern Saisons:

  • Saison à la Provision, Burning Sky Brewery (6.5%)
  • Any Brew by Numbers saison (ABV varies)

Classic Saisons:

  • Saison DuPoint, Brasserie DuPont (6.5%)

Try them with:

  • Vietnamese summer rolls with prawns, shredded vegetables, beansprouts, heaps of coriander and mint
  • Spicy Thai salad with shredded vegetables, chillies, coriander, cashew nuts and zesty lime and soya dressing
  • Spicy crab cakes
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Cask 2018: a modern cask festival beneath Bermondsey arches

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