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.
If you’ve been paying attention to the local beer scene for some time now, you’ve probably noticed that IPA is, well, kind of a big deal. People know it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that its apartment smells of rich mahogany, but sometimes the beer itself smells a bit like fresh cut coniferous trees. Maybe you yourself are a fan; maybe you have heard tales but have yet to experience its magnificent flavor; maybe you just don’t get it.
If you are any of these things, you deserve to know more.
The idea of IPA is simple enough. Hops preserve beer through anti-microbial properties. Back in the days before sanitation, the more hops you added, the longer your beer was likely to keep. In the 1700s it was well known that beers exported from England to warm climates needed to be fortified with extra hops to keep them tasting good after the long and harsh sea voyage.
A brewer by the name of George Hodgson at the Bow Brewery in London took over the trade of beer to the colonies in India in the late years of the century. He sent multiple styles of beer, including porter, which was the most popular London beer at the time.
However, it was his bitter pale ale, called “October beer,” which became the most popular in India. It just so happened that this highly-hopped pale ale matured perfectly on the 3-4 month voyage, just as if it had been sitting for over a year in a cool English cellar. The beer was a hit and Hodgson grew wealthy from the Indian trade.
Fast forward to the early 1820s and Hogson’s heirs at the Bow Brewery made a few foolish business decisions that put them at odds with the East India Company, who decided to find other suppliers of pale ale to send to India. They approached Samuel Allsopp of Burton upon Trent, England, who in turn produced an even finer pale ale than Hodgson had. It turned out that the hard water in Burton, especially high in gypsum, was perfect for brewing pale, hoppy beers. The Burton brewers had previously been known for their strong, sweet Burton ales, but the new hoppy pale ales turned out to be an even better fit. Soon other Burton brewers such as Bass got in on the market as well, and Burton pale ales became highly favored in India.
So what was this beer like? Well, a pale, hoppy beer essentially. It was often of moderate strength for the time, which was roughly 6-8% alcohol by volume. Drinkers in India seemed to prefer lower alcohol versions, as I would imagine they would have been more refreshing in the hot climate. There are records of drinkers in India asking for less alcoholic versions, but brewers would not make them any lower than 1.054 original gravity (about 6% ABV) because of a tax break that kicked in for export beers at that strength. The beers were also very dry from a high level of attenuation (a measure of how much sugar in the wort is converted into alcohol) during fermentation. It was believed that this also aided in preserving the beers because there was less residual sugar in the beer for spoilage organisms to consume. The original export beers were usually massively hopped and meant to mellow considerably before being drunk, but once the style became popular at home it was often brewed with about half the hops so that it could be drunk younger and have a similar flavor.
By the middle of the 19th century, IPA was being brewed all over Britain, even by the Scots (who are usually known or their less hoppy scotch ales). Whether most of these beers adhered to the Burton model or were simply the result of brewers slapping the name on one of their pale ales to cash in on the trend, we can’t really be sure. Once WWI hit, the strengths of almost all styles of beer in Britain declined drastically and IPA was no exception. IPA became barely distinguishable from lower-alcohol session beers like ordinary bitter. It’s still common these days to find draught pale ales of lower alcohol that carry the IPA moniker, though there are some British brewers getting back to the older style of hoppy, medium-strength beers.
When craft brewing got going again in the US in the late 70s-early 80s, American brewers discovered new flavors by liberally adding American hop varieties like Cascade to their pale ales. This set them apart from the typical flavors of English pale ales, and a new style of beer was born. Looking back to the IPAs of the 19th century, American brewers created stronger, hoppier pale ales than what they had previously brewed based on.
The beers that we call IPA these days are basically a tribute to the idea of the originals. Instead of aging them for months, they are meant to be drunk as fresh as possible, which preserves the more delicate hop aromas and flavors that start to fade once the beer is bottled or kegged. Refreshing bitterness is still an important element, but hop aroma and flavor have become just as, if not more important, in modern examples.
Modern, West Coast IPAs also tend to be closer to the originals, coming in on the paler, drier, and hoppier end of the modern style spectrum than IPAs elsewhere.
If you have not tried any of these beers, don’t pass up the opportunity to do so soon. The same goes for any local IPA for that matter. What sets many of the best American IPAs apart is the generous use of American hops to create big hoppy aromas and flavors that are reminiscent of tropical fruit, citrus, pine, mint, grapes, and stone fruits. Bitterness is still usually on the high side, but this is often balanced well with just the right amount of malt flavor. Germany company Spiegelau has even collaborated with American breweries Sierra Nevada and Dogfish to create an IPA-specific glass.
One of the beautiful things about IPA is how well it goes with certain foods. The citrus aromas and flavors from American hops complement regional foods like spicy Southeast Asian and Mexican dishes. At the same time, the higher bitterness lets the beer stand up to the heat and not simply turn into a flavorless palate cleanser. Hops are also great at cutting through the acidity in tomato sauces in pasta dishes and pizza, as well as the fat in sharp cheeses like aged cheddar. Whether you are looking for a refreshing and flavorful beer to drink on a hot afternoon, or the perfect pairing to some spicy enchiladas or Thai curry, check out one of the many awesome IPAs local breweries and brewpubs have to offer.
I’m not the biggest fan of hop puns. The incredible proliferation of hoppy beer-producing small breweries over the past several years has led to a flood of me-too beer names all clamoring to incorporate “hops” in some awkward fashion. So imagine the horror I felt when attending a symposium where Tim Kostelecky of Barth-Haas, one of the world’s largest hop suppliers, switched to a powerpoint slide listing just about every hop pun name in use. Kostelecky was delivering a presentation on hop varieties to a group of brewers who had converged on Paso Robles this past June. Brewers from as far away as Minnesota (Surly), Indiana (Three Floyds), Michigan (Bell’s), and even Europe (Birificio Italiano, Brasserie de la Senne) were in attendance, along with a collection of Californian brewers. We were eager to learn about new varieties, techniques, and scientific research, as well as discuss our own experiences. Yet as much as I wanted to roll my eyes at the puns, Kostelecky’s infectious enthusiasm for all things hop-related gave him a pass.
Barth-Haas works with growers all over the world to process and deliver hops to brewers large and small, and they also develop new varieties. Technical Manager Georg Drexler flew in from Germany for the symposium, and kicked things off with a presentation and discussion of brewing techniques for emphasizing hop flavor and aroma. Whirlpool and dry hopping have been widely practiced in the American brewing industry for years now, though these techniques have been less widely adopted in Europe, and Germany especially. Up until very recently it was believed that the German Reinheistgebot, also called the “Beer Purity Law,” forbid adding hops after the end of the wort boil, but a recent reinterpetation of the law now allows dry hopping with whole hop products, though not with hop extracts, which can still only be added to boiling wort.
When wort – the malt-sugar solution that is fermented to make beer – is boiled, brewers typically add hops at least two times: once at the beginning of the boil (usually 60-90 minutes in duration) to attain a high amount of isomerization of alpha acids, which adds bitterness to beer, and again near the end of the boil time to provide more essential oil retention, which provides the characteristic flavor and aroma of hops. By the end of theboil, most of the essential oil from the bittering hop addition has been boiled off, and you are left with mostly just the bitterness from the iso-alpha acids in the hops, which have been made soluble by the heat of the boil.
When the wort boil ends, brewers typically whirlpool the wort, either by pumping the wort tangentially back into the kettle, or pumping it into a special whirlpool vessel. The centrifugal forces in the whirlpool cause the solid matter to form a cone in the center, allowing the liquid to be pumped off the side of the vessel. This post-boil step has become a popular time to add more hops in the search for bigger and better hop aroma, as the lack of boiling action allows more essential oil to remain. The wort is usually only a couple of degrees below boiling at this point, and you still lose some lighter oils to vaporization, especially myrcene, which is a big part of the aroma of many IPAs. At the symposium, Drexler went over new research that suggests lower whirlpool temperatures increase oil retention and overall hop aroma. Some brewers, especially homebrewers, are trying this by lowering the temperature to about 170-180 degrees and then adding their hops before resting for about 20-30 minutes and cooling to yeast-pitching temperature. This reduced temperature can be accomplished by either recirculating some of the wort through the heat exchanger and back into the kettle/whirlpool, running and immersion chiller for a short amount of time, or brewing to a slightly higher gravity and blending in some cold water at the end of the boil.
While dry hopping remains the most effective way to get a big hop aroma in a beer, Drexler stressed that hop-focused beers lack complexity when not also given a generous dose of late-boil or whirlpool hops. Hop varieties will always lend a different aroma when added to hot wort than to fermented beer, even with intensity controlled for. The biological interactions of fermenting yeast have the capability to change aromatic compounds from hops, creating wholly different aromas than were present in the wort before fermentation. Some of these compounds, like glycosides, are combinations of hop and malt compounds that are bonded during wort boiling and then cleaved into new compounds by the yeast during fermentation.
At the Bräu Beviale industry convention in Germany in 2011, Barth-Haas conducted taste tests with several single-hop beers, including dry hopped and non-dry hopped versions with German Tradition, American Citra, and New Zealand Nelson Sauvin. Theresults showed marked differences in aromatic impression between the two versions of each variety. The dry hopped Citra beer was the most preferred, while the non-dry hopped Citra beer was fourth, behind the non-dry hopped Tradition beer in second and dry hopped Tradition beer in third. These results can be interpreted in different ways, but they seem to confirm that the big oil profiles being developed in American hops are best expressed through dry hopping, while the noble and noble-derivative hops of Germany best show their classic hop aroma when added to the boil. Poor Nelson Sauvin was relegated to last and second to last place with the dry hopped and non-dry hopped versions, respectively. I suspect that many brewers are still not on board with thepowerful tropical, grassy, and white wine aromas it lends to beer.
While brewers typically dry hop their beers for periods of several days to a couple of weeks, new research suggests that the main hop oils reach their peak concentration in beer in a much shorter amount of time. A 2011 study by Peter Wolfe at Oregon State University tested extraction rates for various hop oils using both whole-cone and pelletized Cascades from that year’s harvest. While pellets generally led to better extraction, peak concentration of most oils was reached in under six hours, suggesting that much shorter dry hop times are possible. The tests were done at 23 degrees Celsius, which is warmer than what most brewers dry hop at, but Wolfe concluded that even at cold temperatures, extraction doesn’t take more than a day.
New hop varieties were a big topic at the symposium, with some of the most exciting new ones surprisingly coming from Germany. The Hüll hop research center has released four new varieties in the last couple of years, all targeted at the bigger, fruitier aromas ofthe newer hops from the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Polaris is a high alpha hop with the highest levels yet of any variety (19-23%), and a correspondingly high oil content. Its aroma is described as floral and minty, with “ice candy” being a popular descriptor. Mandarina Bavaria is a mid-alpha hop (7-10%) with a very fruity aroma of tangerine, pear, orange, and lime. The Barth-Haas guys were very excited about this one and see it as a German answer to American hops like Citra and Amarillo. Hallertau Blanc is another mid-alpha (9-12%) hop that is similar to the popular Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand, with an aroma of tropical fruit, grass, white wine, gooseberry, and grapefruit. Hüll Melon rounds out the new group of German hops, with a lower alpha content of 6.9-7.5%, but a very fruity aroma with a distinct honeydew melon quality.
While Germany is making waves with its new releases, mostly due to how different they are compared to older varieties from the country, New American variety Mosaic was released in larger quantities this past harvest after some limited availability as HBC 369 previously. Mosaic is a high alpha variety (11-13.5%) that is a cross between Simcoe and a Nugget-derived male plant. Its aroma is floral and fruity with the character of tropical fruit, berry, citrus, and pine. Lots of American brewers are experimenting with Mosaic right now so it should be relatively easy to find an IPA or pale ale with it.
Sam Tierney is a brewer with Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles, CA.