‘Tis the Saison

It’s no secret to anyone who has ever talked beer with me that I am a big fan of all things Belgian. Strong Trappist ales, sour lambics, Flemish red ales, bring ‘em on. I usually can’t get enough. I brew my fair share too. In fact (stop me if you’ve heard this one…), I once won Best of Show at a regional home brew competition with an Oud Bruin, a soured brown ale, that happened accidentally. It was supposed to be an English Brown ale but it got infected and turned lactic – I didn’t tell anyone until after the competition, but the few who know the story still refer to it as my “compost bucket brown ale”.

One of the Old World styles that I enjoy less frequently, mostly because of its scarcity in the New World, is  Saison. Like with most Belgian categories, there are many different varieties of Saison. Some are very light and refreshing, some are quite bold and strong; some are spiced, some have a touch of fruit… They range in color from straw to dark amber, and can be quite hoppy or very mild in bitterness. Several of the home brewers I interact with in the Market brew Saisons regularly. I try to keep several Saison yeasts in stock at all times. I recently had a friend ask me to help her design a Saison, get her the yeast and special order a Brew Belt to help keep her fermenter at a high (70’s to almost 80°F) temperature during primary fermentation. Since I was ordering one I ordered three and decided I would also try my hand at an authentic Saison.

My research led me to Phil Markowski’s excellent book, “Farmhouse Ales”, which provides a detailed history of the various styles (including the French Bière de Garde style), the traditional ingredients, and concludes with a few recipes. In the end, I opted for a “Super Saison”, substantially stronger and more full-bodied than the usual thirst-quenching styles traditionally brewed for the farmers and miners of Wallonia and Flanders. My plan is to divide the batch in half and age part of it on strawberries, just for fun.

Mud Saison
5 gallons, all grain

Ingredients:

  • 10 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 3/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/2 lb. malted wheat
  • 1/4 lb. amber candi sugar
  • 2 oz. Hallertauer hop pellets (@ 3% aa)
  • 1 oz. whole Kent Goldings hops (@ 5% aa)
  • White Labs Saison Yeast blend (WLP568)
  • plus the recultured dregs from various Ommegang and Unibroue beers…
  • 1 lb. chopped strawberries
  • 2 doses of 3/8 cup corn sugar (for bottling)

Procedure:
Crush grains. Heat 15 quarts of water to 160°F. Mash in grains and hold 60 minutes at 149°F. Heat another 15 quarts of water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 26 quarts of sweet wort. Add candi sugar to the kettle. Bring to a boil and add the Hallertauer hops. Boul 55 minutes, add the Goldings hops (in a mesh bag), boil another 5 minutes (60 total) and trun off heat. Cover and allow the Goldings hops to steep for another 10 minutes. Remove Goldings hops, chill wort to 80°F and take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeasts, seal and ferment warm (75 – 80°F) for about eight days. Rack to two 3-gallon carboys, in one of which you have first put the strawberries. Age 15 – 20 days for the plain Saison, 30 for the one with the fruit. Add 3/8 cup corn sugar to each batch when you bottle. Condition cool (50°F) for three to four weeks.

OG: 1064
IBU’s: 29
Notes on style: as mentioned above, some Saisons are spiced, making them similar to a Belgian White Ale (or Witbier). Many home brewers think that they MUST be spiced, but in fact less than one in four actually has any spices added. The name “saison” probably comes from the French term “saisonnier”, a seasonal farm-laborer, for whom this type of brew was the regular lunch-time dram.

Notes on yeast: I had a few bottles of assorted Ommegang products a few weeks ago, and it seemed a shame to dump the yeast, so I poured them carefully and added the dregs, one bottle at a time, to a glass bottle with an airlock. Five days ago, I began feeding the yeast cultures with a weak malt-extract-based wort. Then I decided to add the dregs from a couple bottles of Unibroue products, in the same manner. There are perhaps 5 or 6 different yeasts in this blend, which may help to replicate the diversity of the old farmhouse wild yeasts.

The yeasts used to brew Saisons benefit from warm fermentation temperatures; indeed, some of the characteristic flavors of a Saison are created BY the warmer fermentation. Hence the use of a Brew Belt, a small heating element that wraps around the bucket and maintains a constant high-70’s to low 80’s temperature. My house right now averages around 60°F, which is not suitable for this brew.

Notes on fruit: strawberries? Because I had some left over from something I baked…

 

 

Beer for Keeping

There are many beers brewed in France, overshadowed of course by the many great French wines. Most of the French breweries make products that are more or less German (in Alsace, especially) or Belgian (in Flandres); there are Celtic beers produced in Brittany, and standard European-style pilsners in the Paris region. Only Bière de Garde, produced mainly in the Artois and Picardie regions, often with barley grown in Champagne, is considered a truly French style.

Ah, but what is a Bière de Garde? And how is it different from the Saison-style produced not far away in Flandres? And how do you pronounce it? Last question first – in French, an i followed by another vowel becomes a consonant y. And the accent grave on an e in the middle of the word is pronounced “eh”… so its “byair”, one syllable, more or less.

How does it differ from a Saison? Bigger, maltier, less tart, often with a little oxydized “cellar character”, earthy and rough. Traditionally, BdG were brewed along the same timeline as a Märzen or Oktoberfest – brewed late in the winter (March) and put away to store cool during the summer months when brewing was not possible. “Garde”, from the verb “garder”, to keep, indicates it was meant to be stored long-term. So it had to be higher in alcohol than the ordinary table beers. They were traditionally brewed as an ale, although with the advent of modern lagering techniques, some breweries switched to a bottom-fermenting yeast; some even use a technique similar to a Steam beer, using a lager yeast at a warmer ale-friendly temperature.

What should you expect a Bière de Garde to taste like? The commercial examples are all over the map – ranging from a pale gold to a deep reddish amber in color, they also range from 5% abv to upwards of 9%. Most emphasize maltiness (cookies and biscuits are frequently mentioned in comparison) and hops generally only serve to balance the malt. Yeast character is prevalent, leaving many examples fruity and estery. Bières de Garde tend to be very complex, with layers of flavor that change and swirl as the beer warms.

Le Bossu, Bière de Garde Blonde

5 gallons, all-grain

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs. Weyermann Abbey malt
  • 3 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 1 lb. Cara-Belge malt
  • 1/2 lb. Belgian Biscuit malt
  • 1/2 lb malted wheat
  • 2 oz. whole Strisselspalt hops (at 3% aa)
  • White Labs French Ale yeast (WLP072)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure: Crack malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 168°F. Mash in grains, hold at 155°F for 90 minutes. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 27 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, add 1 oz. Strisselpalt hops. Boil 30 minutes, add 1 oz. Strisselspalt hops. Boil 30 more minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Remove hops and chill wort to 80°F. Take a hydrometer reading, pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment warm (68°F) for 6 to 8 days. Rack to secondary, condition cool (50°F) for two to three weeks. Prime and bottle, age two to three months cooler (45°F).

OG: 1060

IBU’s: 22

Note on the name: Le Bossu is the title of one of my favorite French novels of swashbuckling and derring-do, by Paul Féval,the story of a discredited Musketeer who resorts to disguises and cunning to outwit a powerful corrupt nobleman. The 1997 film adaptation, starring Daniel Auteuil, is called “En Garde”.

Note on malts & hops & yeast: I hope that the mix of Belgian and Bavarian malts will approximate the straight French grain bill one would normally find in this beer! The hops are the only variety native to France (developed from Bavarian Spalt), grown in Alsace. Most Bières de Garde would use local hops, as well as German, Czech and Styrian aroma hops. The yeast is, according to rumors, the strain used by Brasserie Duyck, brewers of Jenlain.

Note on this brew: I brewed a darker Bière de Garde some months ago, and have not been very happy with it. This brew will hopefully make up for what the prior one lacks.

Note on style: For those interested in tasting a commercial example of this style, I reccommend the following (if you can find them!): Jenlain, Ch’ti (by Castelain), St. Arnoldus (also by Castelain), Trois Monts (brewed by St. Sylvestre), Vieille Garde (brewed by Monceau St. Waast) and La Choulette.

Brew News – New Brews (and an old favorite)

I consider myself very fortunate to work where I work and to have an understanding boss like I have. I manage the homebrew department, but Wendy, the store manager, manages the wine and beer section. I am constantly appreciative of her willingness to try to get new and interesting beers in the store. Today was a great day – two new beers to taste and the return of an old favorite. A nice evening’s quaffing, worthy of a review.

I have always loved collaborations. I collected comic books as a kid (and on into my college years), and my favorites were always those issues where the characters from one series ended up teaming up with those of another (Spiderman with the FF, the X-Men with the Avengers, etc…). I also used to have a database to keep track of musicians from my favorite bands and their work with other bands…

Lately there have been a few interesting collaborations in the craft brewing industry, and here are two very successful ones.

Stone/Dogfish/Victory Saison du BUFF
Three of the most respected and most innovative of the craft breweries in North America, all known for their “extreme” approach to brewing, teamed up to create this most interesting beer. It’s a Belgian Saison, in style, but with the added intrigue of a dose of herbs – specifically, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Simon and Garfunkel would be proud. I’ve brewed with sage, rosemary and thyme before, but not parsley. I guess if you’re going to brew with three of them, you might as well go all the way to Scarborough Fair…

A nice moderately full-bodied ale, not very sweet, and, in this instance, quite herbal. The malt balances the herbs, the herbs complement the malt and the yeast, and in the end everyone is happy (if not hoppy)… 6.8% abv, no indication of IBU’s which suggests they may have skipped hops entirely… BUFF stands for Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor… and, just in case you missed it, the name is a play on the name “DuBoeuf”, the name of a real Belgian/French saison…

Sierra Nevada XXX #2 Charlie, Fred & Ken’s Imperial Helles Bock
Back in the winter Sierra Nevada introduced the first of their 30th Anniversary brews, a collaboration with Fritz Maytag of Anchor, a delicious Imperial Stout. This is the second of four, and it’s every bit as noteworthy. Co-designed by homebrewers and homebrew writers Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt, the Imperial Helles Bock is a HUGE chewy, bready blond lager at 8.3% abv, smooth and and amazingly malty.

There are two more installments of the XXX series coming later in the year, and I for one am really looking forward to them…

Westmalle Dubbel
Ah, the Trappists. If you really want to know what Belgian beer is all about, you have to start with the Trappists and their amazing brews. Abbey beers, golden Tripels, and amber/brown Dubbels… Had I been born a more religious man, I might have considered becoming a Trappist monk just to be involved in the brewing of these heavenly beers… but alas, I must observe from the outside.
The Dubbel style is probably best exemplified by this brew, made in Malle, Belgium, by the brothers of the Westmalle Abbey. An outstanding strong brown ale, it has malty notes but is dominated by the yeast. I often describe the Trappist yeast profile as being almond/pistachio-like, and this is a superb example of that. Absolutely delicious, yet less full-bodied and less alcoholic (only 7% abv) than the tripels of Westmalle and other Trappist abbeys, the Westmalle Dubbel may be the best starting point to appreciate this unique class of beers.