Saison, French for “Season,” is a very old rustic brew style which has retained much of its heritage over the years. Much like the Abbey Ale of Belgian background, the Saison is a Farmhouse brew where Farmers represent the “Monks” of the style. Most of us cannot remember a time before electricity was popular, refrigeration was scarce to non-existent and life was a bit more “organic.”
The Saison style comes from a time when brewing a beer was done primarily as a form of hydration, something we now frown upon. In our age, we use a refreshing glass of water to hydrate out bodies properly and in a healthy manner, however, clean water wasn’t always readily available on a farm. Beer was the best solution for a hydration technique that wasn’t contaminated or simply awful tasting.
Instead of drinking dirty water, it was healthier to drink a refreshing beer with a lower alcohol content. By lowering the alcohol you could sustain a beer or two without impairing your ability to work in the fields in the hot sun. Your farm workers are more productive when their not sloshed.
A Saison is an earthy flavored beer, organic tasting and a bit rough around the edges compared to that of a Pilsner. It was a cheaper style of beer designed with a real purpose. The appearance of a Saison is a cloudy golden color because of the malt types but some do have darker colorings resembling that of an amber ale.
“Being brewed on a seasonal basis, these beers, which became known as saison, had to be within a specific strength range. Too strong, and they wouldn’t be a decent thirst quencher. Too weak, they wouldn’t hold up during the storage period. Moderate to medium-strong became the default potency. And, similar to other ales, like IPA, that had to endure prolonged storage, saisons were hopped liberally to combat contamination and add stability.” (allaboutbeer.com)
So what makes a Saison a seasonal besides the French translation? Lack of refrigeration plays a huge factor on the brewing methods used in many beer styles, especially on a farm. The ideal time to brew such a beer was in late Autumn or early Winter because the cool temperatures created natural refrigeration and the hoppy styled brew would then maintain its stability throughout the hot summer months.
The style of a Saison remains much like its original historical recipe with a few modifications in the alcohol content; todays Saison’s tend to be between 5% and 8% ABV, which would knock a farmhand in the hot sun on his ass–defeating the purpose. Beer lovers looking to explore new personalities in beer may look for the scarce Saison style brew, but I’d not suggest this to a new drinker or someone favoring mass market beers, which tend to be lighter Pilsner style beverages.