The conundrum of Saisons and Farmhouse Ales

Have you ever noticed on beer menus that beers are sometimes listed under the style Saison/Farmhouse Ale, as if this was one and the same thing? True, beer styles generally are a bit fluid, rolling with the punches of modern beer tastes and brewers’ freewheeling notions. But piling it all together seems a bit lazy, not to mention confusing for the consumer. In my mission to learn all about beer I set myself the task to clear this up once and for all.

What kind of beer is a Saison?

Saison is originally a Belgian beer style. A well-known and universally loved classic version is the Saison Vieille Provision by Brasserie Dupont. Though the recipe has now been adapted to the modern age, they have been making this beer since 1844, traditionally brewing it in winter in order to serve it to the seasonal farmhands who were helping with the harvest. This was common practice in the rural French speaking part of Belgium. In the northern part of France, close to the Belgian border, they made a similar seasonal beer called Bière de Garde, though modern Saisons tend to be dryer and have more hop character while Bière de Garde are generally more malty and full-bodied.

Back then beer was often made in the winter months due to lack of refrigeration. According to beer master Garrett Oliver (whose wisdom is beyond question), the seasonal brewing of beer was born from practicality, “to refresh the seasonal workers in summer, to make work for the full-time farm workers during the winter (a period of “unemployment” on a farm), and to produce spent grain, which served as quality feed for the livestock in the winter”.

Saison Dupont
Brewdog Saison

In contrast to most other styles, Saison is quite hard to define. It is generally a highly attenuated (meaning dry) top-fermented beer that is heavily hopped and high in carbonation. Traditionally they were (at least partly) fermented in casks and served in a very ‘lively’ condition with lots of fruitiness and fresh, resiny, bitter hop flavors. The beers nowadays usually undergo a second fermentation in the bottle and some are dry-hopped.

Since they are no longer brewed seasonally or on farms for that matter, breweries all over the world have taken to making their own interpretation of this style, leading to a copious and colorful variety. American breweries are – unsurprisingly – leading the way with brews such as tart, wine barrel-aged saisons (Funkwerks), with an ‘absurd amount of pumpkin’ (Trinity Brewing) or quirky hoppy versions like Brooklyn’s Sorachi Ace. The one I’m drinking right now while writing this blog is another weird Brewdog experiment, a barrel-aged saison of 10,5% tasting very much of a fruity, almost sherry-like dessert.

What it comes down to is that Saison is a type of Farmhouse Ale, one of many styles within a bigger category. Why then the style is often labeled as ‘Saison / Farmhouse Ale’, as if all Farmhouse Ales are also a Saison, is a still a complete mystery to me.

The family of Farmhouse Ales

Ales have been brewed on farms for almost the length of human rural history. Once most beer in Europe was farmhouse ale and every country had its own regional or even local recipe. Belgian Saisons may be the most famous style in this category, but there are many more to be found in the family of Farmhouse Ales. Unlike the Belgian and French versions, which are modern hoppy brews, the Nordic and Baltic traditions are still largely domestic brewing practices, closely related to ancient homebrewing. I recently had a Norwegian farmhouse ale, or maltøl, at the Dutch beer festival Borefts called Såinn by Klostergården Håndbryggeri (which was actually the inspiration for this blog). It was a fascinating smoked beer made with juniper instead of hops, and kveik, which means ‘yeast’ in a particular Norwegian dialect. Often these traditional ales are raw ales (not boiled).

Similarly Finnish Sahti is made with a juniper infusion and not boiled. This increases the chance of infection and because of the absence or minimal use of hops, these traditional farmhouse ales do not store well. That is probably the reason why you rarely find them outside the country they are made. A little further to the east the farmhouse ale style also survives in the Baltic countries like Lithuania (kaimiškas) and Estonia (koduõlu).

One thing is for sure, when you order a Farmhouse Ale you’d better be ready for anything, ‘cause you never know what you are going to get.

Juniper branch
A juniper branch (www.brewingnordic.com)

Update October 12, 2018:

I’m happy to hear that some people have read the blog! A friend of mine pointed out that there is more to the story (as there always is with historical narrative), which historian Roel Mulder describes in detail in this article. Luckily when it comes to beer I never run out of new things to learn.

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