As a beer style, saison began as a pale ale brewed in the cooler, less active months in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, and stored for drinking in the summer months. These farmhouse beers would have been of a lower abv than modern saisons—around 3 to 3.5% abv on average, rising in the early 20th century to between 4.5 and 6.5% abv. They were served to farm workers who were entitled to up to five litres each workday. Brewing outside the summer months was common for all brewers before the discovery of refrigeration, due to the likelihood of the beer spoiling while fermenting in the summer, the height of airborne bacteria activity. Farmers possibly also brewed during the cooler months to provide work for their permanent staff during the quieter period. After brewing, the beer was stored until the summer when the main consumers would be seasonal workers ("saisonniers").
Historically, saisons did not share enough identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a specific style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales made by farmers. Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version. Although most commercial examples now range from 5 to 8% abv, originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and it is thought they had alcohol levels ranging from 3 to 3.5%.
There has been a rise in interest in the style, with Saison Dupont being named "the Best Beer in the World" by the magazine Men's Journal in 2005. Modern saisons are generally highly carbonated, fruity and spicy—sometimes from the addition of spices.
The type of malt determines the colour of the saison, and although most saisons are of a cloudy golden colour as result of the grist being mostly pale or pilsner malt, the use of darker malts results in some saisons being reddish-amber. Some recipes also use wheat. Spices such as orange zest, coriander, and ginger may be used. Some spice character may come through due to the production of esters during fermentation at warm temperatures. Modern examples brewed in the US tend to copy the yeast used by the Dupont Brewery, which ferments better at warmer temperatures like 29 to 35 °C (84 to 95 °F) than the standard 18 to 24 °C (64 to 75 °F) fermenting temperature used by other Belgian ales.
- Phil Markowski (9 Sep 2011). The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press. p. 711. Retrieved 27 November 2012.
- Yvan de Baets (25 Dec 2004). Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. Brewers Publications. p. 120. Retrieved 27 November 2012.
- Yvan de Baets (25 Dec 2004). Farmhouse ales: culture and craftsmanship in the Belgian tradition. Brewers Publications. p. 98.
- Yvan de Baets (25 Dec 2004). Farmhouse ales: culture and craftsmanship in the Belgian tradition. Brewers Publications. p. 99.
- "MJ FEATURE: Best Beers in the World". www.mensjournal.com. Archived from the original on 2008-07-05. Retrieved 2008-07-06.
- Phil Markowski (2004). Farmhouse ales. Brewers Publications. p. 166. Retrieved 2010-10-12.
- Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the European Tradition, pages 168–173, Phil Markowski, Brewers Publications (2004), ISBN 0-937381-84-5
- All About Beer Magazine, Volume 24 Number 4, September 2003
- The Beers of Wallonia, John Woods and Keith Rigley, Stourside Press (1996), ISBN 0-9529238-0-7
- Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the European Tradition, Phil Markowski, Brewers Publications (2004), ISBN 0-937381-84-5
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