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Brewmaster's Secrets: Shaun E. Hill - Nørrebro Bryghus

Brewing Belgian Saisons


carnets (2K)
 No 8 - Mai 2007 www.mabiere.ca

Any discussion of the Belgian Saison, and its inspired American interpretations, must first begin with a reference to Southampton Brewmaster Phil Markowski's book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewer's Publications, 2004). For the release of that publication, Yvan De Baets compiled a most definitive study of the history of the Belgian farmhouse tradition (Port Brewing/Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur wrote the introduction). It is an indispensable text for the lover of this unique and unrivaled style.


farmhouse60 (56K)
markowski (21K)
Phil Markowski
Source: www.kilkelly.com

book (52K)My love affair with Saison Dupont began about five years ago. Unfortunately, it was not until several years after that torrid romance began that I had the opportunity to brew the style professionally during my tenure at the Shed Restaurant and Brewery in Stowe, Vermont. While there, I brewed as many as a dozen variations - from golden to black to hoppy, and was able to refine my understanding of the style. It is certainly one of my favorites. It is both refreshing to drink and a joy to brew. I always open a bottle of Saison Dupont on such a brew day - as a sort of testament to the spirit and passion of this rustic creation.

Similarly, Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garret Oliver couldn't seem to agree more. In his "foodophile/beerophile" compilation The Brewmaster's Table (HarperCollins, 2003), Oliver writes, "if I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it. At any given time there is at least one case of saison in my cellar. Saison is not just versatile - it's downright promiscuous. It seems to go with almost everything. The combination of dynamic bitterness, scouring carbonation, bright aromatics, spicy flavors, pepper notes, dark earthy underpinnings, and racy acidity gives these beers a hook to hang their hat on for a wide range of dishes." I, like Garret, often have at least a dozen bottles of various saisons in my basement and am known to uncork a bottle for nearly every occasion. I have cellared them for up to three years (thus far) and they drink just as well as the day that I bought them - no small feat for a beer of 6-8% abv. I have consumed one-year-old Russian Imperial Stouts that cannot boast this level of cellar ability.

De Baets and Markowski craft a laudable summary of the history of the saison style. It is essential to visit their text for a full primer should anyone venture further into the fields of this tradition. Saison means, quite simply, season. It would seem that this style, or family of beers, has no particular origin or recipe - but is likely to have sprung from the Wallonian region of Belgium, especially the Hainaut province. It appears that the beer style has arisen from its agricultural origins - les saisonniers - seasonal farm laborers and the farmers who crafted these ales. The beer would not be brewed during the summer months due to both the increased risk of bacterial contamination and the lack of refrigeration. The beer would thus have to be brewed through the winter (October or early November) and the beginning of spring - keeping in mind the fact that the resulting ale would have to be robust enough to be stored (garded) throughout the summer and into the autumn harvest. To quote De Baets:

"Saisons were brewed at the beginning of winter in a farmhouse brewery in order to quench the thirst of the farmhands who worked in the fields in the summer. The saisons that were brewed in the winter had to survive the spring without becoming too infected. Sometimes these beers were called saisons d'ete or summer saisons. Each brewer had his own recipe and it is thus difficult to attribute a precise flavor profile or brewing method to the style. However, all shared certain general characteristics that connected them to 'the family'."

Due to the nature of sanitation and facility cleanliness, it is likely that such beers would become 'infected' - especially by lactobacillus, brettanomyces, and acetic acid bacteria - resulting in a mixed fermentation that would make the beers tart and aromatic while also contributing the preservative benefit of lowering the pH. We modern consumers might associate this characteristic, that which is imparted by the mixed fermentation, as imparting a "barnyard funk." It is interesting to note the character of some of the beers that I brewed during a residency at my neighboring cheesemaker friends, Jasper Hill Farm. Over the course of their bottle conditioning, the beers would develop a terroir, so much so, that the beer often tasted as if it were brewed in the proximity of a barn (it was).


bel-dupont-saison-dupont-vieille-provision-35 (18K)
Source: www.bov.ch
Cuvee_des_Fleurs-30 (22K)
Source: www.nwmicrobrews.com
SPF_45_Saison2-30 (23K)
Source: www.nwmicrobrews.com

The benchmark of the Saison style is, undoubtedly, Brasserie Dupont's Saison Vieille Provision - known to us North American consumers as Saison Dupont. Located in Hainaut province, within the bucolic village of Tourpes, this beautiful brick brewery is the archetype of a farmhouse operation - bread, cheese, and beer are all produced onsite. Other recognizable and easily attainable imported examples include all of the beers from Brasserie Fantome in Soy and Brasserie Blaugies in Blaugies. Notable domestic examples of the style are often easier to locate in brewpubs and rarely seem to be bottled for the market at large. Phil Markowski at New York's Southampton Publick House crafts several saisons including an outstanding representation that he brands Cuvee des Fleurs (brewed with varieties of edible flowers). Port Brewing/Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur has received critical acclaim for his SPF series of saisons at southern California's Pizza Port brewpubs. Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York produces two celebrated examples - Hennepin (perhaps the only widely available domestic bottled version) and their brettanomyces aged saison, Ommegeddon. It is rumored that Ommegang will bottle their Ommegeddon this summer. I have produced multiple examples of the style, including my golden saison, farmhouse ale, Substance D (pure brettanomyces fermentation), black saison, and miel devient (literally "the honey becomes," a honey saison fermented and aged with brettanomyces on oak). As I move toward the construction of my own farmhouse brewery, Hill Farmstead/Grassroots Brewing, you will see the introduction of these beers in their bottle-conditioned state via the New England marketplace.

shaunehill (44K)
Shaun E. Hill

Farmhouse breweries usually grew their own barley and malted it themselves - making use of any localized ingredients. My vision of a farmhouse brewery is one that is agriculturally diverse and self-sufficient, displaying the bio-diversity of integrative and cooperative sustainability - the spent grain feeds the cows, the cows fertilize the soil, the spent yeast is composted along with some of the spent grain, which in turn feeds the soil that grows the hops, berries, etc. There is little distinction between food, beer, and earth. The cows, chickens, and vegetables that are nourished by the byproducts of the brewery in turn feed the brewer and the local community. A farmhouse brewery may utilize various assortments of adjuncts and grains - all produced locally: myriad types of wheat, spelt, oats, buckwheat, rye, honey, maple syrup, hops, wild yeasts, berries, and fruit. In the United States, the average distance from farm to plate is greater than 2,000 miles - resulting in the depletion of natural resources at the expense of localized economies and, more often than not, nutrition. Farmhouse to me is symbolic of the resistance to the tendencies of "constant convenience consumerism."

The saison family seems to be characterized by its quaffability. Refreshing. Often pale in complexion. Sometimes sour, sometimes hoppy and bitter. Aroma is often of fruit and spice - peppery and estery often with noticeable earthy hop aroma. In the spirit of the saison, some examples are red, brown, and even opaque in hue. The beer is likely to be well attenuated, in the range of 80 to 95% apparent attenuation. Original gravities often range between 12° and 17° Plato but, once again, are dependent upon the brewer's interpretation and spirit. Some examples of saison may originate as high as 20° or more Plato. Terminal gravity is often in the range of 1° to 2° Plato. Attenuation and terminal gravity are dependent upon mash temperature and the development/depletion of maltotriose and dextrins in the wort.

Brewing a saison requires a particular appreciation for the style and a fondness for the agricultural heritage of the craft itself.


Brewmaster's Notes


Yeast/Fermentation: A great saison begins with the brewer's choice of yeast. A likely candidate is the Dupont culture (WLP 565, WY3724). This will always produce the peppery/estery/earthy characteristic that seems to define the style. Many brewers have reported difficulties achieving desired levels of attenuation while using this strain and are thus forced to finish the fermentation with a second strain of yeast. I have never encountered this dilemma but highly suggest that when using this strain it is necessary to maintain a very warm fermentation temperature - in the range of 75° to 90° F (24° to 32° C) and to use a yeast nutrient. Due to this occasional lack of attenuation, it may be more advisable to choose a more predictable and reliable yeast strain. Chouffe (WLP550, WY3522), Fantome (WY3725), Blaugies (WY3726) or any myriad of the wit/wheat yeasts (WLP400, WY 3463) available from White Labs and Wyeast are capable choices. The Blaugies strain (WY3726) is reputedly less finicky than the Dupont strain and has a very similar flavor profile (likely due to the relationship between the two breweries at Blaugies' startup). If choosing the Chouffe yeast, beware the "flavor bomb." Higher temperatures with this yeast can result in excessive phenolic/ester development. Pay particular attention to the suggested temperature profiles - but don't be afraid to experiment. Being cautious and living by the rules doesn't breed an inspired saison!

Primary: 1-3 weeks

Secondary: 2 weeks

Bottle Conditioning: 2-3 weeks, minimum

Cellar Indefinitely - three-year-old bottles still taste brilliant!

Water: Depending upon the profile of your water source, you may want to try and boost your sulfate levels into the range of 100 to 200 ppm through the addition of calcium sulfate (gypsum, CaSO4). This will benefit the perceived dryness of the final product and accentuate the hop character. If the pH of your source water is much above 6, you may choose to treat with food grade acid (lactic or phosphoric) to bring the pH of mash and sparge water into the 5.2-5.4 range

Grist: Feel inspired. Begin with a base of Pilsen malt. 2 row pale will work if you don't have access to Pilsen malt. This should contribute at least 50% of extract value. Try adding in Munich, Vienna, wheat, spelt, oat, or rye malt. Candy sugar, dextrose, and other sugars (1-10%) will add fermentability to the wort and boost attenuation

Mash: Infusion mash, unless you have the ability/desire to step. Mash temperature should be guided by your desired end result - the lower the temperature, the higher the level of attenuation and fermentability. Try mashing somewhere in the 146° to 152° F (64° to 67° C) range. Adjust as necessary

Boil/Hopping: 90 minute boil. 20-40 ibus. Noble hops are preferable. Try Styrian Golding, East Kent Golding, Hallertauer, Saaz, or try adding an American twist to your saison by using Mount Hood, Amarillo, or any other spicy variety. It's all up to the chef. Add bittering hops at 60 minutes (20-30 ibus); add remaining bitterness in the last 15-20 minutes of the boil. Finishing addition at the end of the boil should be in the range of 1-2 ounces per 5-gallon batch

Spicing: Star anise, coriander, lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, peppercorns, orange peel, ginger, figs, cumin, dates, etc. Minimal


My advice: follow your passion. I suggest just one caveat: please use moderation with your spices. I won't mention any names, but I've opened more than one inspired saison rendered completely undrinkable (drain pour!) by uncalibrated and heavy-handed spicing. "A little goes a long way". Spices are meant to accent and compliment, to add subtle nuances to the dish at hand. If you can detect the specific spice, then you've gone too far (Belgian brewers say the same thing about the use of oak, but that is for another article!).


hill60 (53K)

Shaun E. Hill is a native Vermonter and resides on his ancestor's pastoral farmscape in Greensboro. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Haverford college, is a food conscious consumer, and is obsessed with Bob Dylan circa 1965. After two years of experimental brewing at the Shed brewery in Stowe, he has moved on to Trout River brewing company in Lyndonville, Vermont, before becoming Head Brewer at Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is his hope to establish Hill Farmstead Brewing, a diversified farmhouse brewery, at his family's 200 year old farmstead in Greensboro by the end of 2009. Hill Farmstead will grow some of its own hops, apples, and berries, produce its own maple syrup, raise produce and livestock, and eventually hopes to craft its own line of cheese (to be cellared at Jasper Hill farm).