(Biere Belge Belgian Beer)
By Moritz Kallmeyer
Master Brewer of Drayman’s Brewery & Distillery, Silverton Pretoria, January 2003
Introduction & History
In French-speaking Wallonia, especially the province of Hainut, they feel that their beers are overlooked and underrated. They complain that no one in Flanders has heard of their ales. It would certainly be a tragedy if the beers of this region were to disappear, especially the style known as saison. Clearly they are seasonal beers and were brewed – and sometimes are still brewed by farmers who make them in the winter and store them for drinking during the hot summers, much like the bières de garde across the border in France. Saison are now made all year round. The name is another reminder that before refrigeration, it was difficult to brew in warm weather. The batch specifically brewed in spring to be laid down as a provision for the summer was known as la saison de mars (like the German Märzen) or sometimes Vieille (old) Provision – a term that dates from the time when these stored seasonal beers were an important part of the farmers nutrition and diet. These beers were traditionally brewed to be served at family meals.
It had to be sturdy enough to last for some months but not to strong to be a summer and harvest time thirst quencher. The classic brewery of Saison is Du Pont and has been run by the Du Pont family since the 1920’s.
Brewing methods and flavour descriptions
Saisons are made to have a medium body and crispness and to deliver a robust flavour and big fruity character. The brewers of old sometimes worked to produce mashes that were only partly fermentable (to aid body).
One technique was to take the first extraction of juices from the malt at cold temperatures, producing milky turbid wort that was heated separately, and then added back for the mash. Sometimes the brewers used a small proportion of spelt (a variety of wheat that gives a very fine flour – or oats or rice both used raw).
Saisons flavour is heightened by a generous dose of hops usually of the East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings variety. Heavy hopping produces intense peppery spiciness. One brewer describes it as an aroma reminiscent of liquid snuff! Some beers are dry hopped.
In today’s saisons pale malts of Belgian and English varieties are predominantly used – perhaps gaining some colour in a long boil. Some artisan saison brewers still use dark and caramalts producing what we might call a dark saison.
The classic spiced saison producer is the Brasserie à Vapeur (small coal fired steam powered brewery). The beer is Saison de Pipaix 6.5% Alc and it is described as a fresh-tasting, fruity tart beer seasoned with six spices including star anise, black pepper, coriander, dried orange peel and medicinal lichen. Some brewers also use ginger along with the hops.
Saisons are top fermented beers. Traditionally fermentation was restrained by multistrain yeasts that worked quickly but not very exhaustively. These beers were also at least partly fermented in the cask. Today either Franco, English or Belgian strains – usually hybrids are used. These beers often have a warm conditioning in metal tanks at the brewery (8-13°C) and usually secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Foods to serve with
Most of these beers nowadays have a distinctive orange colour and a dense rocky head. Saisons have a refreshing crispness and lively carbonation with hoppy fruity flavours often with citric notes. Their tartness and fruitiness make them an excellent accompaniment to duck, hearty stews, spicy sausages or lamb with juniper berries.
Gravity of saisons is typically in the 1050-1055 range – although some Christmas specials weigh in at above 1065.