Catawba Beer 101 – Belgian Saison
The Belgian Saison (French word for “season”) has been brewed for centuries by farmers in Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium.
As with most brewing before modern refrigeration, the Walloons took advantage of the cooler months for beer-making, to steer clear of spoilage. It has been said that brewing was also a means to create work for permanent farmhands during the farm’s offseason. The beer would then be stored until the following summer or fall, when it was given to seasonal workers (saisonniers) to boost morale and energy.
Originally, there was no defined style characteristics of the Belgian seasonal ale.
Every farmer had his own recipe for a light, refreshing summer beer, which typically didn’t exceed 3.5% ABV. Nicknamed “Farmhouse Ales,” these beers were brewed in farmers’ homes and barns, spiced with local gruit (a mix of herbs and botanicals) that varied by region. These regional variations are another reason why the Saison never lent itself to strict style identifiers. Around 1000 years ago, hops started replacing gruit, due to their natural preservative qualities and desired bitterness to balance the sweetness of malted barley. By the 16th century, hops had become a core ingredient in beer-making worldwide. Belgian brewers continued to use a mixture of both hops and gruit, however, which resulted in spices remaining a common ingredient in Belgian beers.
Similar to the session beers of WWI-era England, which came centuries later, Saisons were intended to be refreshing enough to quench the thirst of hard-working saisonniers, yet light enough in ABV that they could still harvest efficiently. Brewers were able to apply creativity to this “style,” crafting recipes that varied from season to season depending on the availability of ingredients.
During the later years of the 19th century, many of the traditional Belgian farmhouse brewers were pushed out of business by macro beer from neighboring countries.
Europe’s newfound obsession with pale lagers certainly contributed to stifling diversity of styles, also. Post WWII, small farmhouse breweries began making a slow comeback throughout Belgium – and with them came the return of the Saison. Although modern techniques allowed for more consistency in the final products, Belgian brewers ensured that their country’s deep-rooted brewing traditions would live on.
Saisons are usually made with a Pilsner-style malt bill, but Vienna and Munich malts can be used to lend complexity to the flavor profile. Aromatic, resinous hops and spice blends provide an earthy, floral character. While not considered a hoppy beer, there should be a recognizable hop element. The distinctive Saison yeast strains produce phenols and esters with flavor descriptors covering the gamut from woodsy, spicy (clove-like), fruity (bananas, pears), and even bubblegum. The addition of Brettanomyces wild yeast during secondary fermentation can be used to create funky, pleasantly musty aromas and flavors, including the always popular “horse blanket.”
Modern Saisons still pay tribute to the flavor complexity and distinctive character of the style.
However, they usually have a higher alcohol content (anywhere from 5% to 8% ABV) than historical examples. With a plethora of exotic spices and ingredients now available, it’s easier for modern brewers to experiment and push the boundaries of this ever-evolving style.
Come out to our tasting rooms on Thursday, August 31, to try our new Small Batch Wild Berry Saison (6.6% ABV). The beer is part of the Find Your Pint series, a fundraising initiative of 31 WNC breweries to protect the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our refreshing Belgian-style ale showcases the fruity esters of its French Saison yeast strain, amplified by an addition of local blackberries and raspberries during secondary fermentation.
Catawba will donate $1 from every pint sold to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.