Saison: Experts Explain the Best Ways to Brew One

Published: April 22, 2024
A saison beer in a bottle and glass on a honey yellow background

From the French word for “season,” saison is a refreshing, crisp, and dry beer generally lower in ABV. Much like farmhouse ales, saisons have morphed into a style with many interpretations, depending on the brewer. Which means nailing one can be pretty tricky.

We chatted with Scratch Brewing Company, Keeping Together, and Fonta Flora Brewery to learn more about the style, its top considerations, some challenges you might need to overcome, and the ideal yeast to crank out a top-notch saison.

(Above photography courtesy of John A. Paradiso | Hop Culture)

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How Do the Experts Define a Saison?

A saison style craft beer in a Scratch Brewery glass

Photography courtesy of Kendall Karmanian | Scratch Brewing Co.

Originating from the French-speaking farmhouse region of Wallonia, Belgium, the saison style is typically lighter in body and ABV, extremely dry, with higher carbonation and a pleasant yeast ester character. All these factors play into what Keeping Together Founder and Beermaker Averie Swanson looks for in her saison.

Fonta Flora Co-Founder Todd Steven Boera says precisely defining saison is a “loaded question,” but that also shows the “beauty and romanticism surrounding the style.”

“For me, generally speaking, the perfect version of saison is of mixed grain, assertively hoppy, crushingly dry, ever so slightly tart with Brett-forward aromatics and conditioned naturally, in a bottle, to a very high carbonation level,” Boera says. “Also low ABV.”

Swanson enjoys saisons because they are more textural.

“They have a medium body, but it can feel a little silkier or give the perception of more fullness depending on the grains used,” she says. “It has rusticity to it.”

Swanson adds, “The sensory attributes I look for would be a fairly dry beer—I would be surprised if a saison has residual sweetness. Some bitterness, higher carbonation, and effervescence are what I would appreciate.”

..the perfect version of saison is of mixed grain, assertively hoppy, crushingly dry, ever so slightly tart ...
Todd Steven Boera - Fonta Flora Brewery

Scratch Co-Owner Marika Josephson admits that everyone these days brews saison differently depending on their interpretation of the style.

“We sort of aim for something dry, refreshing, effervescent that is slightly lower in ABV—below 6% ABV, and recently, we’ve been aiming for below 5% ABV,” Josephson says. “Super drinkability is important to us. [We want] something characterful that represents the place it comes from.”

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What Are the Top Considerations for Brewing a Saison?

A field of wild sunflowers at Fonta Flora brewery

Photography courtesy Fonta Flora

“Literally everything,” says Boera, who adds that he believes most American brewers don’t understand the style. “Saison is not just picking French Saison yeast and whipping up a beer. To understand saison, folks really need to get a handle on what saison is in Belgium.”

He adds, “For us, the biggest no-no for saison is that it should never smell like bubblegum, banana, or clove, and saison should never be sweet.”

Josephson says that for her, it’s essential that you aim for something relatively dry to piece the saison puzzle together. The yeast—Scratch uses a house-made sourdough culture for its saison—plays a massive role in getting that dryness.

“That culture is not highly attenuating. It’s important to be dry, but not every yeast is able to make things dry without knowing how to manipulate it,” Josephson says. “We dry the beer out by adding a simple sugar. Usually, that means honey. … Our culture really likes that. It helps with the attenuation, which is nice.”

She says you don’t have to use any specific type of yeast; just aim to achieve something dry and refreshing.

Swanson says saisons often use diastatic yeast, which will devour all the sugars to dry out the beer. If that’s a yeast you’re uncomfortable with, proceed cautiously.

That culture is not highly attenuating. It’s important to be dry, but not every yeast is able to make things dry without knowing how to manipulate it,
Marika Josephson - Scratch Brewing Company

“If you bring it into a tank and it’s present [for a future beer] that needs residual sugars, it’ll eat all that up,” Swanson says. “Take precaution.”

Swanson adds that focusing on the grain bill is also important. Deciding between raw or flaked malts lends to the beer’s texture, rusticity, and body, she says.

“I enjoy using a lot of flaked oats in my saison. They contribute a fair amount of body and texture,” Swanson says. “I also enjoy mashing at a high temp—154 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take—to create a higher dextrin wort—bigger sugar for the yeast to chew on.”

Another tip Josephson says helps create a great saison is adding sugar about twenty-four hours into fermentation. They pasteurize raw honey by boiling it and cooling it down before adding it when the yeast is already active.

“The yeast goes crazy,” Josephson says. “Even more so than just [adding sugar] in the boil.”

She adds, “It helps keep the yeast active to chew on complex sugars.”

Regarding yeast, Boera adds that you should avoid selecting one that throws off too many esters and phenolics.

“Ferment colder as to limit those aromatics,” he says.

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What Challenges Can Arise When Brewing a Saison?

A bottle of Watching the Mind Watching the Body, a Saison craft beer fro Keeping Together

Photography courtesy of Averie Swanson | Keeping Together

Beware of the temp as you make your way through fermentation.
Marika Josephson - Scratch Brewing Company

Swanson says many people have a preconceived notion of how to ferment saison.

“You don’t have to let it rip at a high temperature,” she says. “If you do, you get really intense yeast-derived aromas, and I don’t think it lends to a balanced beer.”

She adds, “Also, stay patient when you ferment the beer. Give it time, and the yeast will ferment out all the sugars. Don’t package it too early.”

Josephson echoes Swanson about the challenges in fermentation.

“Beware of the temp as you make your way through fermentation. It’s really important to keep that temperature up throughout fermentation,” Josephson says. “The worst thing about a saison is under-attenuation. It’s not as refreshing [and has] too much residual sugar.”

Boera says to mash low to ensure you get the best out of your attenuation.

“Somewhere around 146 degrees Fahrenheit,” he says. “And an injection of simple sugar into the fermentation will assist in full dry fermentation.”

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What Is an Ideal Saison Grist?

A bottle of Undulant and Impermanent, a saison style craft beer from Keeping Together

Photography courtesy of Averie Swanson | Keeping Together

Swanson says it’s simple: a pilsner or pale malt base and something with a little extra toast to it, like Vienna malt.

“Usually, I have sixty-five to seventy-five percent base and eight-ish percent oats—which is on the higher end, but I enjoy that texture,” she says. “And I make up the difference, anywhere from ten to twenty-five percent, with wheat, rye, or spelt for body-contributing non-barley additions.”

Boera says a saison grist build should always be of mixed grain.

“Barley, wheat, and rye are always a solid blend,” he says. “Typically, it’s something like seventy-five percent barley, fifteen percent wheat, and ten percent rye. Flaked or raw grains can also help add some body to the beer.”

Josephson says they use mostly pilsner malt and add about five to ten percent raw wheat, about twenty percent Vienna, and around ten percent raw honey.

“Saison is best served by a very simple grain bill,” she says.

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Which Hops Work Best in a Saison?

Two saison style craft beer bottles from Scratch Brewing Co. side-by-side

Photography courtesy of Scratch Brewing Co.

“My favorite hop to use hot side and [for] dry hopping is Czech Saaz,” Swanson says. “It has a low alpha acid but a ton of character.”

She adds that you can really use anything, citing Tettnang, Mittelfruh, and several fantastic old-world hops.

“You just want to use a lower alpha acid, especially if you add calcium sulfate,” says Swanson, who adds they shoot for around twenty to thirty IBUs. “You don’t want to add too much bitterness.”

For dry hopping, Swanson says it all depends on the beer.

“It could be a half a pound per barrel to five pounds per barrel,” she says. “Generally, I take a looser approach to brewing saison. It’s based on historical stylistic parameters, but I take a modern approach.”

Boera shoots for thirty to forty IBUs and says you should layer the hops throughout the brew.

“Focus on noble varieties,” he says. “Saaz is a favorite. For American varieties, we really like Cascade.”

You don’t want to add too much bitterness.
Averie Swanson - Keeping Together

Josephson says Scratch buys all their hops from a local farm in Illinois, and their lots of hops’ alpha acids change year to year, so they switch up the hops for their saisons regularly.

“It hasn’t been too important,” Josephson says. We’ve used Chinook and Magnum.”

She adds, “For aroma, we use Crystal, an American version of a Noble hop, aiming for old-world aroma: spicy, earthy.”

Josephson notes that sometimes they don’t use any aroma hops, opting to forage for ingredients from around the brewery “to showcase that plant.” Some saisons Scratch has brewed feature wild carrot and nettle, sassafras, and wild grape vines.

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How Important Is Yeast in a Saison?

Outdoor seating at Scratch Brewing Company

Photography courtesy of Kendall Karmanian | Scratch Brewing Co.

“Obviously, yeast profile is the salient ingredient of saison profile,” Swanson says. “Stereotypical yeast will be fruity esters … with light pear, apple esters, strawberry, citrus fruit character, and a phenolic spice character, like pepper or clove.”

Keeping Together uses a specific yeast strain derived from French Saison and DuPont yeasts.

“We knock out at seventy-four degrees Fahrenheit and let it free rise to around seventy-eight to eighty degrees Fahrenheit,” Swanson says. “I let it sit there for a week or two, depending on how the beer is doing. Then, I’ll drop the temperature a few degrees every couple of days once the ferment is complete and the flavor profile is stable and fully integrated.”

Josephson says their sourdough culture has its own parameters but is no less important than any other yeast. She prefers to knock out the culture at seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit and let it free rise.

“We let it start there and let it bring it up to warmer temps,” Josephson says. “Ours can ferment at ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit.”

Boera, like Swanson, uses a yeast blend, opting for DuPont and LaChouffe. They differ, however, on ferment temps.

“We ferment a bit cooler, around sixty-six degrees Fahrenheit,” Boera says. “From here, the ideal scenario for saison would be to bottle or keg condition with a Brett strain.”

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What ABV Should You Shoot for in a Saison?

“If you asked me that seven to ten years ago, I’d have a different answer,” Josephson says.

Scratch aims for low fours for ABV now.

“That’s been our sweet spot,” she says. “But that’s up for interpretation.”

Josephson adds, “Around a decade ago, I would have said 5.5% to 6% ABV. Our [sourdough] culture works better with lower ABV.”

Three percent ABV to five percent ABV is what I would consider to be the standard.
Todd Steven Boera - Fonta Flora Brewery

“Low ABV saisons are my favorite,” Boera says. “Three percent ABV to five percent ABV is what I would consider to be the standard.”

Swanson says the ABV depends on the beer.

“I produce a table beer at 2.9% ABV, which is great,” she says. “But most of mine end up in the 5.5% to 6.5% ABV range. That’s the sweet spot that I enjoy.”

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Three Examples of a Great Saison

A saison style craft beer bottle photographed outdoors from Keeping Together

Photography courtesy of Averie Swanson | Keeping Together

Josephson likes their 131 saison. The 5.3% ABV beer has 131 different ingredients gathered from nature around the brewery.

“From roots to leaves to bark to mushrooms, it’s all different ingredients around the brewery in July when everything in the woods is going crazy,” Josephson says. “We did a good job of integrating all those things seamlessly. You get an earthy, woodsy aroma and spicy, too. It tastes like the woods in southern Illinois.”

Swanson says their Architects of Harmony saison is among the first she brewed at Keeping Together. It is a 6% ABV mixed-fermentation saison made with local ingredients.

“We used black locust honey local to the area, and Chinook hops from Michigan,” Swanson says. They were subtle additions but really well integrated. The honey gave a perceivable, subtle, fruity pear-like quality. And the Michigan Chinook was very melony—unlike any other Chinook.”

Boera says they’ve brewed hundreds of saisons in the decade Fonta Flora has been in business—with every aspect of saison covered. His current favorite is their Estate Saison.

“Each year, we take ingredients we grow on the farm and incorporate them into a yearly vintage of saison,” Boera says. “Even with that, the concept of saison can change.”

His favorite year included heritage corn and sunflower seeds, grown on the farm and used in the mash.

Boera says, “We fermented this beer with our clean saison strain and then bottle-conditioned the beer with Brett C.”

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Ollie author headshot for Giovanni Albanese, Jr.

About The Author

Giovanni Albanese

Giovanni is a content writer for Next Glass, contributing to the Ollie blog. He is a writer by day and a brewer/business owner by night, owning and operating Settle Down Brewery & Taproom in Gilroy, California.

Giovanni is passionate about a number of things, including history, documentaries and sports, but none more than reporting/writing and brewing beer. After receiving a radio broadcasting degree then a journalism degree from Salem State College in his home state of Massachusetts, he relocated to California in 2008.

Then, his writing career kicked off – covering sports, business, politics and more along the way – while concurrently dabbling in home brewing. The home brewing turned pro in 2021 when he launched SDB Brewing Company. Settle Down Beer officially opened in February.

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