I had just finished speaking to a group of hot and sweaty home brewers in the mediaeval vaults of a fortified village on a sweltering summer day in Italy. The topic was “saison brewing”, and the reason why I was chosen to speak on the subject at a beer festival that was hosting actual saison brewers from Belgium was never made evident. But I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth! A short time later, a woman with a Belgian accent cornered me, and in an authoritative tone, said, “There is no such thing as Saison yeast!” Her comment was directed somewhere over my left shoulder. I was being told off.
I really love Belgian brewers, and have chatted with many in my time. Mostly I like them because they make great beer and are knowledgable, straight-shooters on the topic of their own beer culture. But another quality that comes with chatting to them is their propensity to tell me off. When I brought my first commercial sour beers to Belgium on trips on the mid-90s, I literally had their dismissive fingers wagging in my face. No surprise then that I had said something wrong on the topic of saison with an audience of Belgian saison brewers. In hindsight, I think I may have responded hysterically, “That’s because there’s no such thing as saison!”.
As many of us have read hundreds of times, saison beers were made for the refreshment of seasonal farm workers, people who were working hard on the farm in the hot harvest sun. Basically, these were large homebrew batches made on the farm cheaply and without a thought to longevity. I’m not sure anyone alive has actually drunk one of these “real” saisons, but their story lives on. Every traditional beer culture probably had their own beers that served this purpose: thirst quenching, available and cheap. The point that was being made to me in Italy was that there is no “one” way of making this stuff. In other words, there really is no such thing as saison.
In the 1980s, when dying traditional beer cultures and the new craft beer renaissance overlapped more frequently, saison was largely known by a small group of old and new Belgian brewers: Dupont, Fantome, Silly, Vapeur, du Bocq and Blaugies. All the way back in 1991, Michael Jackson called saison “part of Europe’s industrial archaeology” in his book “great beers of Belgium”. By this point in saison’s story, the beer had changed from a weak, thirst-quenching, very rustic beer, to a specialty beer of some strength and character. In the years since, it’s become a self-consciously rustic beer, now often fermented with brettanomyces as a way to drive that point home. There is, no doubt, a bit of fantasy with saison too. We want to imagine those workers drinking an impossibly rustic beer and in the well-intentioned imaginations of craft brewers, that beer would also be well made and complex. Magical!
One online beer rating site lists over 11,000 beers calling themselves “Saison”. The thought that the ghost of something no one has ever had is still inspiring brewers to brew this many beers is possibly amazing. When Martha and I were thinking of staking our last pennies on our first independent batch of beer in 2008, we looked towards the heaven that was the empty space that saison at that time offered, and the original “Jack D’Or” was born.
It’s worth noting that a recipe, a French name, fancy yeast and an earnest blog post do not a saison make. I’m a broken record on this topic, but I believe traditional European brewing cultures need to protect their cultural property and it’s possibly not too late, even now, fr saison. Last week I was mentioning to someone that we were brewing saison again, and they asked, “What flavour saison?”. The beer landscape has changed so much that that is probably an intelligent question. To me, it makes me want to go and beg for mercy at the feet of the old Belgian lady who gave me such a hearty bollocking in Italy.
So with equal parts snooty indignance and craft beer wannabee-ism, our abashed attempts at brewing a tribute to a great, old, rustic and non-existent beer style march on.
If you’re interested in this subject, I would suggest reading Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales and its forward by Yvan De Baets for a proper, factual journey into these beers.