By Jake Endres, co-owner
Saison is not the hottest style. We released two saisons in the past month, which in normal times wouldn't exactly fly out of the cooler. However, this being the times of COVID, it seems like any beer you make is gone in two seconds. Regardless, we love making this style of beer and will keep doing it. Why isn't saison very popular? On paper it seems like it could be up there with pilsner. I have a couple of theories.
1) Wild variation in flavor. Some are straight banana/bubblegum. Some are really grassy. Some are hoppy, some have lots of Brettanomyces-deriven funk.
2) Difficult to understand. This ties in with number one. Even most beer geeks may have an oversimplified idea of what saison is--something along the lines of a Belgian or French farmhouse ale fermented hot.
3. A lot of mediocre American saison. American brewers seem to mostly have the above mentioned simple view of the style. Imported stuff is not readily available. Dupont is probably the most easy good saison to get your hands on, but the green bottle means it often suffers badly due to being light-struck.
So, what's a good saison then? Here are a few items I think are key to a good example of the style:
1) Moderately low esters. A good saison should not just be a banana/bubblegum hot-fermented beer.
2) If mixed fermentation, low levels of funk. More emphasis on minerality, lemon, and orange pith flavors. Very slight tartness.
3) Super dry with high carbonation.
4) Bottle conditioned. This one is extremely important and ties in with number 3. More on this later.
5) Dry hopped. This one is personal preference but I feel like dry hopping just makes any saison better.
A good saison is slightly more robust than a lager or wit, but its dry finish and high carbonation make it less filling and a great accompaniment to your meal. If clean-fermented, it can exhibit almost lager-like qualities. If mixed fermentation, it can almost be reminiscent of lambic, with notes of gunpowder, citrus pith, and mineral flavors. It is a fantastic beer to pair with lighter fare such as crisp and airy Neapolitan pizza or pasta.
There are several important steps to achieving this type of beer and flavor profiles. In my mind, this is a great style to brew on the homebrew level, since you really don't need a lot of equipment and it absolutely should be bottle conditioned.
1) Bottle conditioned. This is hands down the most important step for making good saison. You cannot achieve the same flavor in a keg. First, clean bottle conditioned saisons often develop a fantastic candy-like sweetness that is hard to achieve otherwise, and mixed ferm saisons develop better Brett-derived flavors in the bottle. Second, bottle conditioning allows you to carbonate to over 3 volumes of CO2 (vs. 2.6 for most beers). Even if you keg condition, most draught systems will result in pours that are painfully slow and cause the beer to release a lot of the extra carbonation.
2) Controlled fermentation. For clean saisons, underpitching and starting cold can help keep the yeast from producing too many esters and keep the resulting beer from having too much banana flavor. For mixed ferm, pitching higher cell counts of Brettanomyces either during primary fermentation or bottling helps keep plastic and funk flavors from developing.
3) Lagering. After bottle conditioning is complete (which can take a couple of weeks to a year plus depending on what you're doing) the beer usually benefits from a month or two of cold storage. Good saison should be brite, in my opinion.
Of course, this is all just my personal opinion, and what you like in a saison could be very different than what I like. However, if you are not a big saison fan I think you should give them another try. You might find the right one and change your mind.