What Makes a Beer a Saison?

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When it comes to cooling down with a refreshing beer during the hot summer months, typically pale ales, hefeweizens and IPAs come to mind. But more recently, saisons have made a huge rise in popularity in the States. The light flavor, bold taste and reasonable ABV of Belgium’s saisons have made it climb up the ranks to one of the most popular styles of summer beers today.

We’re here to help you understand what makes a beer a saison so that you can better enjoy it and get your hands on the best ones out there. Before we jump into how to identify a saison and its characteristics, let’s take a look at its interesting history so that you know where it all started.

From Belgium to the U.S. – A Brief Look At Saison History

Way back in the 1700s, French-speaking farmers in Southern Belgium brewed beer in the winter months to keep their workers busy during the off season. The beers, which were later recognized as saisons, were then served to farmworkers in the Wallonian countryside in the summer months, since portable water wasn’t easy to get. Those familiar with French should recognize that saison translates to “season”. This name speaks directly to saison’s history, as the main drinkers back in the day were seasonal summer farm workers, or “saisonniers”.

Since farmers created their own unique ales, saisons didn’t really share enough characteristics to be distinguished as their own style. They were all so different that people simply knew them as refreshing summer farmhouse beers. However, there were some similarities, including the spices that were used and the large quantities of hops added to keep the beer from going bad. Since the goal of the beer was to keep the farmworkers hydrated with up to 5 liters per day while not getting them belligerently drunk (to the disappointment of the farmworkers, we’re sure), the ABV was usually kept to a low 3 to 3.5%. The farmworkers literally survived on saisons during the summer while they were hard at work on the fields.

As this style of beer became more popular for pleasurable drinking than for farmworker survival, brewmasters began making them stronger. Saisons now usually rock an ABV of 5 to 8%. They also added different kinds of spices and ingredients, distinguishing saisons as a regional style of beer.

Modern Saison Characteristics

Saisons came into existence as a result of farmers creating their own original recipes, so it makes sense that it isn’t the most distinctive style in the world. Even so, there are some overarching characteristics that can help you identify a saison from other beer.

Saisons are typically complex, with lots of spicy notes and a medium bitterness. You’ll find many saisons taste and smell fruity and acidic, perfectly quenching your thirst during the summer months. This doesn’t mean you should expect them to be sweet though, as many of them are pretty dry. While sipping, you may also notice earthy notes from the yeast.

Though they clock in at up to 8% ABV, alcohol isn’t a prominent flavor in the beer. The focus is on the unique taste and flavors, which is a primary reason why saisons have become so popular in the growing craft beer industry in the US.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.