While saison may be the French word for “season,” it also refers to a style of beer that is most likely golden to orange in color with a distinctively fruity yeast profile and a dry finish. It might be funky or sour. It might be on the hoppy side, but not to the extent of an American pale ale of IPA. It might be dark, spiced like crazy, or flavored with any matter of oddball fruits. The main criteria is that it should be refreshing and drinkable – always finishing dry, but full of flavor and most important of all, character.
Saison is a fun beer for brewers, and is often a good window into their personality. You can learn a lot about a beer maker’s influences and indulgences when you experience their take on this style. Saison traces its origins to the farms of Wallonia, the French-speaking southern part of Belgium, where it developed as a refreshing and nourishing low-alcohol drink for those working the fields. Most farms would brew enough beer to ensure a healthy supply for their thirsty farmhands. Brewing was rustic and born of necessity. Brewers typically had to use whatever ingredients were available locally, including various grains and sugars. Fermentation was probably by a mix of cultures including wild yeasts and some lactic acid bacteria. The old saisons have been compared to lambic in their tart, acidic flavor profile.
Modern brewing science has done a lot to change the flavors of beer. Since the invention of single culture fermentation in the 19th century, these flavors have mostly become cleaner and lost the acidity displayed from lactic fermentation and wild yeast strains such as Brettanomyces. Many modern saisons are fermented from pure ale yeast cultures and do not display the sour character of saisons past. Even so, saison yeast is still one of the quirkiest and most flavorful strains (or family of strains) out there, and is most often the main driver of the beer’s character. A wide range of fruity and spicy aromatics is often produced by these yeasts as they undertake fermentation at unusually high temperatures.
Strength (alcohol by volume) has also increased over time. While saisons in the past were typically under 5% ABV, modern commercial examples will start in that range and commonly get up around 6-7%ABV. Some saison producers make specialty ales that hit the 8-9%ABV range, also known as “super saisons” to some enthusiasts and writers. Popular Southern California saisons include Thorn St. Brewery’s Saison Du Parque Sud, The Lost Abbey’s Red Barn as well as Saison Blanc, Eagle Rock Brewery’s Ginger Saison, Ohana’s Saison Noir, and Smog City’s LA Saison.