Farmhouse Ales – by Sean Gugger
There is no style I enjoy drinking and brewing more than Saison. There’s something about the complex flavors of pepper, spice, citrus, fruit, hay, and even some barnyard in a well-crafted saison that make it a unique sensory experience. From the brewing perspective, Saison is truly a blank canvas. A broad style that allows the brewer wide creativity and the ability to push his or her brewing limits. However, before I dive into brewing Saison, let’s backtrack and go over a brief history of these Belgian Farmhouse Ales.
I have to begin by giving credit to the book Farmhouse Ales (Brewers Publications, 2004) by Phil Markowski, the head brewer of Southampton Publick House and one of the pioneers of modern interpretations of the style, as I learned from it a majority of the information I am about to provide. It’s highly recommended for any beer fan that has even the slightest interest in traditional Belgian ales.
Saison has long been a traditional beer brewed by farmhands in the Wallonia region of Southern Belgium in the fall as the weather got cooler to drink months later during the late spring/early summer harvest. Therefore, they needed a beer that could stand up to months of aging, but was light enough to still be refreshing after a hard day’s work. They achieved this by brewing a pale beer of medium strength (4%-6% alcohol), that finishes extremely dry, using a combination of grains often grown and malted on the farm. Traditional saisons would have any combination of barley, wheat, rye, oats, spelt, and corn; both malted and unmalted. Additionally, with little or no sanitation practices, it is quite obvious that these beers had a knack for getting “infected” by the wild yeast and bacteria resident to the farm, especially brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and acetobacter. This resulted in a beer that was low in pH, allowing it to keep for months (or years) at a time, as well as a beer that was a definite reflection of the terroir of the farm it was brewed on. It is no stretch to say that no two saisons were ever the same, both within the same farm and amongst other farms. This is the concept in which I encourage modern saison brewers to find inspiration. A well-crafted saison should reflect – if not the terroir of the brewery – at least a part of the brewer’s identity and creativity… a personal terroir of sorts.
When brewing Saison, there should be no limit to the creativity a brewer wishes to exhibit (well, maybe one in regard to spicing…but I’ll get to that later). Some easily attainable commercial examples a brewer may use to seek inspiration are the quintessential modern example of the style, Saison Dupont, as well as Boulevard Tank 7 and Saison Brett, Ommegang Hennepin, and Goose Island Sofie. Since it is such an open and reflective style, Saison can be, and have been brewed dark, light, hoppy, strong, light, tart, fruity, spicy; the list is endless. I’ll provide general stylistic guidelines that are common to most interpretations of Saison, but the brewer should feel free to riff off of any or all of these guidelines.
Fermentables: Traditionally, Belgian Pilsner malt was used as the base (providing at least half of the total fermentable sugars). However, it is not uncommon for modern breweries to use domestic 2-row. I have crafted great saisons with each as the base malt. Munich or Vienna malt can add more depth. From there feel free to add pretty much any sugar source possible. Wheat, rye, oats, spelt, and corn are common, as well as corn sugar (or sucrose for the GMO wary) to boost fermentability. You may want to limit the caramel malts since a highly fermentable wort is desired. A starting gravity between 1.040 and 1.060 is common, but these are by no means concrete limits.
Hops: Noble hops are traditional to the style, Saaz, East Kent Goldings, Styrian Goldings are great choices. More and more breweries are starting to feature newer hops, such as Amarillo, Citra, and Cascade, to play off of the citrus and fruity esters from the saison yeast. Target 20-40 IBUs and the flavor/aroma hop addition should be at least 2 oz./5 gallons.
Mash: A single infusion mash should work fine, target a low mash temperature to increase fermentability since a saison must finish dry, 146F-152F.
Boil: 90 minute boil if using Pilsner malt to drive off any potential DMS, 60 minute boil will work fine for 2-row. This is completely up to the desires of the brewer.
Water: Medium to hard water is traditional since most Belgian farms had well water rich in minerals. Softer water will result in a more delicate beer. Regardless of the water source, it is recommended to add gypsum to get the sulfate levels over 100 ppm as this increases the perceived dryness and hop flavors in the beer.
Yeast: There is no more important ingredient in Saison than the yeast. The most expressive saison yeast is the Dupont strain (WLP565, WY3724, or dregs harvested and built up from a bottle of Saison Dupont). However, this yeast is notorious for stalling out around 50% attenuation. To avoid this I recommend aerating well, using a yeast nutrient, and keep the temperature well above 75F (letting it get up to 95F is not uncommon). Some brewers will pitch a second better attenuating yeast to finish out fermentation. Other saison yeasts that should attenuate completely with little hassle, but are not quite as expressive as the Dupont strain, are White Labs Saison II (WLP566, also supposedly from Dupont), Wyeast French Saison (WY3711 — this yeast is famous for attenuating extremely well (near 100%) and extremely fast, however, in my opinion, it is a little too fruity, so I recommend fermenting this yeast at a cool temperature (70F and below) to keep those esters in check), Fantome (WY3725, very neutral but slightly tart), Blaugies (WY3726, very similar to Dupont, with a little more white pepper spice), and White Labs Saison III (WLP585, my favorite of the non-Dupont strains, tart, light, and peppery). In addition, other Wit and Belgian yeasts can produce a great saison. Any blend of these yeasts will result in a more unique beer that can contribute to your personal terroir. A secondary fermentation with brettanomyces or lactobacillus will give the beer a more rustic character. Final gravity will often be below 1.007 and attenuation should be in the 90% area.
Spicing: Feel inspired to add spices and fruit; coriander, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, peppercorns, orange peel, ginger, basil, dates, figs, pears are all common. However, please be light with the spicing. My opinion is that if you can pick out an individual spice, there’s too much of it. Spices should subtly nuance the flavor, not overwhelm it. Add spices at flameout, taste after primary fermentation, and add more if more character is desired. You can always add more, but once you add too much you can’t remove them!
I will end by briefly mentioning two lesser known farmhouse ales, Grisette and Biere de Garde.
Grisette is a wheat based light farmhouse ale brewed by the miners in the Hainut province of Belgium. A grisette is brewed similar to Saison, but should be about 4% alcohol or lower, have a large portion of the grist be wheat, finish slightly tart, and be extremely refreshing.
Biere de Garde is a malt forward beer native to Northern France and Southern Belgium. This beer was often boiled a long time (2+ hours) to caramelize sugars, increase melanoidin production, and concentrate the wort. Biere de Garde should have a subdued noble hop character and can finish slightly tart. Stand out yeast character is not necessary, as it is common for brewers to use lager yeast. After primary fermentation is complete, the beer is stored, or “garded”, for months to allow the flavors to develop.
Last, but not least, here is a recipe for my interpretation of a saison that would have been an accurate representation of the style:
5 gallon batch
60 minute boil
Grain (percentages given so you can adjust to hit OG based on system efficiency)
60% Domestic 2-row
20% Malted Wheat
7% Flaked Oats
7% Rye Malt
6% Flaked Rye
Rice hulls probably necessary
25IBU of a neutral bittering hop at 60 minutes
1 oz. Saaz at 10 minutes
2 oz. Styrian Goldings at flameout
Any aforementioned saison strain, combinations encouraged!
149F for 60 minutes
3 week fermentation, bottle conditioning recommend. Target medium-high carbonation.
Good luck, and happy brewing!