Imagine it's mid-January. The days are slowly getting longer again, the college football bowl season has finally ended, and crocuses are just popping their heads out of the ground. You get home from work and go the fridge in search of refreshment. You want something that inspires hope for spring rather than reminding you of the Christmas presents you didn't like and the house full of in-laws wearing silly holiday sweaters. You don't want that delicious but heavy Winter Warmer or the last of the Pumpkin Ale. You want to be uplifted. 'Tis the season for Saison.
Saison is a light-colored, light-bodied, dry, fruity, and effervescent ale with medium to medium-high alcohol. It originates from the Wallonia region of Belgium, where French is spoken. Traditionally, it was brewed in the spring for consumption over the summer, but I like it as a late winter ale because of its higher alcohol content and spiciness.
The aroma of a saison should be citrusy with a hit of spice. The appearance ranges from clear to cloudy, straw-colored, with a white cloud of a head the lingers, leaving "Belgian lace" on the sides of the glass (be sure to serve in very clean stemware). Understated pale malts give way to fruitiness, tartness, some mild noble hops, and some herbal notes and pepperiness in the flavor. This beer is highly attenuated and dry and an effervescent mouthfeel.
When crafting a Saison, use noble hops and continental Pilsner malt or malt extract. You can rely on Saison yeast for some spiciness, but adding some spice is common. Consider grains of paradise and bitter (Seville) orange peel. Some Saisons are dry-hopped (again with noble hops), and some are even soured. Mineral additions—gypsum and baking soda—can give some punch to the bitter flavors and dryness.
For commercial examples, look to Saison Dupont Vieille Provision from Belgium or New Belgium Saison or Ommegang Hennepin domestically.
As with any beer, feel free to experiment and make it your own!
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About the author: Peter Reed is a homebrewer and future pediatrician, promoting the health and well-being of children and yeast.