TL;DR: Yeast is Important, Saisons need yeast, Drew has a way to ferment them - Just take me to the yeast (Also, if you have any notes, you'd like to add - just leave a comment below or hit Drew up at firstname.lastname@example.org)
When I first started making Saisons back in 2000, I was one of the few out there. I think mostly because everyone else was busy exploring the British influence on the states, I was running around being a goof. I also think it's because most people hadn't heard of the style.
Nowadays, Saison is all the rage and it seems to be that if you want to be a "serious" craft brewery then you need at least two things - an IPA and a Saison. Ok, I can dig it. It's a great style to play with and offers so much versatility, that it's a playground beer. The spicy, fruity flavors of the yeast and the beer's dry finish make it a great playmate for all sorts of goofy ideas. Here are some Falcons takes on the style
The challenge for the modern Saison brewer is that there are so many different Saison strains, which do you choose? How do you deal with the idiosyncratic behavior of some of the strains? I honestly think Saison is the single style with the most commercially available varieities of style specific strains. Well, here's my advice and my tasting notes.
- A Saison for Every Season (free PDF download) -
- Beer from Your Backyard - A Saison for Every Region (Digital Zymurgy Issue - AHA Membership Required) - Sept/Oct 2011
A Saison Must Be:
- Dry – Thou shall not make a Saison that is not dry. These beers require an amazing level of attenuation. Any sweet characters should be perceptual - e.g. a sugar top note, an herbal sweetness.
- Earthy – A dry beer with nothing interesting is just a boring moisture suck. The best Saisons have a middle character of malt and earthy tones that set up the finish.
- Spicy – You need tones on the palette that grab and wake you up. A cinnamon thing, a pepper bite, herbal, hot. This spice breaks the earthy middle and leads right to the CO2 sting of the finish
- Lively – Nothing worse than a “dead” Saison. The beer needs to be alive in the glass with plenty of carbonation. A touch of sourness can boost the heart rate as well.
- Tangy? – Maybe, but it’s not actually a requirement. (nor is brett)
- Yeast Driven – More than any other style, Saison is defined by its yeast. Treated properly, the strains produce every one of the necessary characters for our beer. Damn the man and his ways.
A Saison Fermentation Schedule
Here's the basic approach on fermentation that I take. It generates the right balance of esters and phenols by controlling the temperature early during the lag phase when they yeast are reproducing. It's during this phase that you can get aggressive aromas and flavors if the fermentation is allowed to climb. So, yes, to my mind, proper chilling is absolutely required for this to work. (or in our new drought enhanced landscape - a long time in a fridge to get to the proper temp)
- Chill the wort to 62-64F (16.67-17.7C)
- Oxygenate/Aerate the wort with about a 30 second blast of oxygen through a stone.
- Pitch a very healthy starter - I use 2-4 quarts per 10 gallon batch. (Crashed over night and decanted before pitching)
- if it's a "Super Saison", I really prefer to do a yeast cake.
- Place the wort in a temperature controlled environment at 65F (18.3C) for 3 days before letting ramp (or if you're like me and don't have enough space for temp controlling everything - I'll place the fermenter in an iced water bath and let the heat of the day and the ferment melt the ice and raise the temperature to mid 80's and 90's (29-35C). It's perfectly safe to drive a Saison yeast this hard if you've started cooler.
- And then we get to the big one:
Avoiding the Saison "Stall"
Look at White Labs site or read the experiences of a 1001 homebrewers and you'll see everyone complains about the "big" saison strains - Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison and WLP565 Belgian Saison I. "It started like gangbusters, chugged along like mad making my airlock burble and then it stopped, so I took a gravity sample only to discover that my gravity still read 1.030! What can I do? grumble, grumble, stupid yeast, grumble"
Most of the advice out there goes along the lines of "pitch big, let the wort get hot and then just wait it out or pitch WLP001, US-05, etc". Wait it out because hey, if you wait a couple of weeks, the yeast come back with a vigor and drive to doneness. This stall and it's infuriating nature is what has driven so many homebrewers to rely on Wyeast 3711 French Saison, which is a reliable monster attenuator. My problem, I don't like it as much when trying to produce a classic saison profile.
I stumbled on what I think is the magic trick to prevent the "Dupont" stall and confirmed it with much brainier folks than I who work with intimately with the strains - those main Saison strains are backpressure sensitive. The increased pressure and CO2 levels created by an airlock or blowoff tube are possibly the culprits causing the stallout. At least that's the speculation I get from the PhD types who work with the strains all the time! How did I discover this by accident? I've been fermenting "open" for years in my primaries and noticed "wait a tick, I don't stall when using those critters, why?" All I do for primary is slap a piece of sanitized foil on top of the carboy or keg and wait for primary fermentation to subside. As long as the yeast are active, they'll keep bad things at bay and the foil prevents dust and bugs from raiding the fermenter.
In other words, follow the fermentation schedule above, eschew the airlock and use foil to avoid stalling out! (for most values of avoiding stall - this process truly works for me when I do it, so...)
FWIW, there's also some play in the notion that fermenter geometry plays a role. Dupont, for instance, had used large square fermenters when I first visited them.
How to "Open Ferment"
- It all starts with good old aluminium foil and some Sani-Clean (or Star San)
- Carboys: Easy, just cap the carboy with the foil and just lightly crimp it.
- Buckets: Place the foil over the gasket port and secure the corners
- Kegs and Conicals: Pull the lid, use the foil to cover the opening and put the lid (turned 90 degrees from how you install it) on top of the foil to hold it down.
Hey I Don't Believe You (Updated - July 2016)
Well, that's fine - a great many people don't. You're not alone. Most of the objections lay around the idea of the strains being that backpressure sensitive. I get it. Seems absurd that an inch or two of water would have an impact. Fortunately, you don't have to believe me. We ran a test on the Experimental Brewing Podcast with 6 different brewers following my simple protocol. Of the six, five saw the airlocked batch stall out while the lone outlier - Marshall Schott of Brulosophy.com - didn't see any stall in either batch. (That jerk). You can read Marshall's results here. You can hear Denny, Drew and Marshall discuss the experiment on Episode 18 - Saison Under Pressure of the Experimental Brewing podcast. The writeup is coming shortly!
Underpitching - Yeast Do or Yeast Don't
There's been a popular practice recently of purposely underpitching yeast to encourage ester and phenol formation due to reproductive stress on the little critters. When Denny Conn and I were doing research for Experimental Homebrewing this was one of the techniques we looked at. Turns out that studies and opinions are a bit mixed with some arguing in favor of it and others pointing out that the enzyme acetyl-coA is used for both ester production and reporoduction, so if you force the yeast to reproduce, the enzyme won't be avaialble for ester production during the lag phase. With some of the Saison strains being finicky and prone to underattenuative behaviors when stressed out, I really don't recommend trying to force increased ester/phenol production with underpitching. Trust the yeast and the heat to give you what you need!
The Test Recipe Saison
For 5.5 gallons at 1.048. 20 IBUs
8.75 lbs Pilsner Malt
0.5 lbs Flaked Wheat
1.0 lbs White Table Sugar
0.5 oz Magnum (12.9%) 60 min
149F (65C) for 60 minutes
Whatever strain your heart desires.
Unless otherwise noted, all of these notes stem from the 2011 Saison Brew at Eagle Rock Brewery. Newer strains would be tasted independently on new batches of test saison. The batches were fermented with the previously outlined protocol, except the "heated" batch of WLP565 which was ramped up immediately to 85F with a BrewBelt.
* = Contains Brett or other bugs
- Belle Saison - CURRENTLY TESTING 9/2016 (ReBrew as unhappy with first attempt)
East Coast Yeast Company (website)
- ECY03 Farmhouse Brett *
- horsey, leathery, horehound, crisp pop, earthy, mushrooms, but not muddled thanks tfinishing tartness
- ECY08 Saison Brasserie
- cinnamon, pear, berry, "mellow", feels fluffy, nice finishing zing - not harshly dry
- One of the crowd favorites at the NHC
- My favorite for a classic saison, but hard to get reliably
- ECY14 Saison Single Strain (Test in Progress)
Omega Yeast (website)
- Saisontein's Monster (Tested 4/2015)
- nose initially of rusty red apples with peaches thicker body with a strong cinnamon mid body. Final body is dry, but not aggressively so - softer than many of the other strains. Probably would benefit from a cooler ferment to avoid the red apple ester. Will retest
White Labs (website)
- WLP072 French Ale - Biere de Garde Strain - (TEST IN PROGRESS)
- WLP564 Leeuwenhoek Saison Blend - Vault Strain - (TEST IN PROGRESS)
- WLP 565 Saison 1 (Heated – straight to 85F)
- Deep, dry spice, black pepper, dry as hell, slightly medicinal
- WLP 565 Saison 1 (Free Rise to Ambient)
- Fruit, cherries, subdued spices, more balanced with a sneaking of malt – still dry, but not overly so.
- Want a great combination? Pitch blend with Wyeast 3724 because then you've got a broad spectrum of classic characters
- WLP 566 Saison 2
- Surprisingly neutral, light phenol, spicy sandalwood flavor
- WLP 568 Saison Blend
- more phenolic nose, beer comes in balance, but muted – less “Saison”, more “Belgian”
- WLP 555 Belgian Spice (not commercially available)
- Cabbage, phenolic – something uninvited clearly climbed inside this vessel – sorry!
- WLP 585 Saison 3 (commercially available since people bugged them!)
- fruit driven nose, lactic (yogurt), ginger, sweetest perceived finish
- A crowd favorite
- 1056 American Ale (Control)
- Inoffensively bland, grain character predominated
- 3522 Belgian Ardennes:
- Subtle nose, dry, spicy, tropical with a touch of ham
- 3711 French Saison
- Leathery, big fruity nose, spicy (black pepper, cardamom) but approachable – like the flavors from this better when fermented cooler.
- absolute reliable monster attenuator
- My favorite for making bright hoppy Saisons (like my Citra Saison) and some of my really outré flavor combinations, but it's a bit lacking for me when making a traditional saison.
- 3724 Belgian Saison
- Phenols, fruit in balance, beautifully dry
- Want a great combination? Pitch blend with WLP565 because then you've got a broad spectrum of classic characters
- 3726-PC Farmhouse Ale (Private Collection - intermittenly available) - (Tested 4/2015)
- tropical fruit front nose - pineapple mixed with cinnamon and clove. woody notes underlie it all. bright sour character like a lemon candy mixed with earthy spice muted cinnamon type of flavor (not cassia - cinnamon). Finish is of ginger. (crowd favorite at NHC 2015)
Yeast Bay (website)
- Saison Blend - (Tested June 2016) - Initial nose of apple and cinnamon. Lightly sulfurous to close out. As the beer warms, becomes an apple bomb. Spicy forefront with a little bit of a corny aspect. Strong finish of herbal tea and cinnamon. Of the three tested this is the closest to "classic" with an overall balanced approach on the palate. Would benefit from fermenting a little cooler, I suspect.
- Saison Blend II - (Tested June 2016) - Clean nose that jumps into a grapey/winey sensation that becomes blended with sandalwood. Hops pop out of this batch more that the others. Mouthfeel is luxurious but not as "gummy" as the French Saison strains like Wyeast 3711 French Saison. The finish is bright and straight up clove/cinnamon phenol.
- Wallonian Farmhouse - (Tested June 2016) - Threw a lot of yeast on transfer. Had to work a little harder to get a clear pull. Initial hit on the nose is tropical fruit - hot spicy caramelized pineapple - think Upside Down cake. Palate is bone dry with a traditional "musty" earthiness that hangs through the mid palate until the spices hit in the finished with a bit of surprising tartness. (This is the only one of the three tested to actually really pop a tart character).
- Fantome Brett (courtesy The Bruery – not commercially available) *
- berry - strawberry with a phenol, (greenish), fluffy body, malted milk, eugenol, very dry and tart.
- if you want to make Fantome, this is the ticket, but... you gotta know who to ask for it!)
Still Waiting Formal Tastings
Am I missing any strains/providers? Contact Drew and let him know! (email@example.com)
Blackman Yeast (website)
Boutique Yeast (website)
Giga Yeast (website)
Imperial Organic Yeast (website)
- B51 Workhorse
- B53 Fish Finder
- B56 Rustic
- B64 Napoleon
Mangrove Jacks Dry Yeast (website)
- M27 - Belgian Ale Yeast
- M29 French Saison
RVA Yeast Labs (website)
- RVA 261 Saison I (Dupont)
- RVA 262 Saison II (Brasserie Thiriez)
- RVA 263 Ghost Ale
White Labs (website)
- WLP590 French Saison Ale Yeast (Platinum Strain series - limited availability)
- WLP670 American Farmhouse *
- Wyeast 3031-PC Saison-Brett Blend*
- 3725-PC Bier de Garde Yeast (Private Collection - not currently available)
Yeast Bay (website)