As we near the end of spring and roll into the hazy, hot days of another Florida summer, the traditional season for saisons, or farmhouse ales, arrives. Before the days of refrigeration, brewers made certain beers in the cooler months of the year and stored them to enjoy in the warmer months.
This method required the beers to be hearty enough to survive months in casks, but not so strong that customers could drink them only in moderation. After all, saisons—the word directly translates to “season” in French—were thirst-quenchers, not barn-burning party brews.
As is the case with many beers, saisons emerged to meet a specific need. In the early 1700s, Europe was in the midst of a water crisis; teeming with potentially lethal microbes, the water was undrinkable. Someone had to find a solution, or the population would die off in the grips of dysentery. The solution? Beer! Though water was decidedly not potable, beer made from that water was safe to drink and quite tasty.
Farmhands, called les saisonniers, in particular needed some sort of liquid refreshment. Belgian farmers, being the practical, work-oriented sort they’ve always been, realized they needed to create a refreshing beer with a lower alcohol level that would quench field laborers’ thirsty throats and provide vitality without creating an angry workforce—thus, the birth of saisons.
Each farm had its own recipe, dependent on the herbs and spices abundant locally, so a single historic description is hard to pinpoint. The creation of saisons was more of an idea of how a beer of its sort ought to taste than a complete thought, despite the drink’s popularity across the region.
As the world industrialized, the need for field workers and the demand for saisons waned. By the mid-19th century, the world was enamored with Bavaria’s pale lagers. Couple that with the onslaught of two world wars, and the fate of saisons as a beer style was all but sealed.
Even through those tumultuous times, several small farmhouse brewing operations survived and became full-fledged breweries, producing other Belgian styles as well as their own distinctive saisons.
True to the Belgian brewers’ spirit, creative touches began to turn up in the brews, getting well-earned attention. Additives like coriander and black pepper, along with infusions of beet or Havana sugars appeared over time, raising alcohol content from around 3.5 percent to 7.5 percent or higher.
The most common characteristics of saisons are their spicy, herbal flavors and the use of wheat as a major ingredient. The wheat causes the brews to appear generally hazy and pour with a generous, billowing head of foam.
The color ranges from straw to dark honey. The aroma is often reminiscent of bananas or even bubble gum, depending on what was used in the brewing process. Saisons, which are arguably the most complexly flavored style of beer, may taste sweet, tart, crisp or herbal. This style is often said to have Champagne-like qualities.
So, as summer swiftly approaches and the requisite heat shimmers after, turn to a cold, refreshing saison to quench your thirst and lift your spirits.