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Saison (French, "season," French pronunciation: [sɛ.zɔ̃]) is a broadly defined pale ale that in modern versions is generally around 7% abv, highly carbonated, fruity, spicy (sometimes from the addition of spices), and is influenced by Saison Dupont Vieille Provision. As a beer style it originated from beers brewed during the cooler and less active months in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, and then stored for drinking by the farm workers during the summer months. It is believed that these farmhouse beers would have been of a lower abv than modern saisons—probably initially around 3 to 3.5% abv on average, rising in the early 20th century to between 4.5 and 6.5% abv. Modern saisons are brewed in a range of countries, particularly the USA, and are often bottle conditioned.
Historically, saisons did not share enough identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a specific style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales made by farmers. Modern saisons brewed in the USA tend to copy the yeast used by the Dupont Brewery, which ferments better at warmer temperatures—29 to 35 °C (84 to 95 °F)—than the standard 18 to 24 °C (64 to 75 °F) fermenting temperature used by other Belgian saison brewers.
The origin of saison is Belgian farmhouse beers brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the summer for the farm workers, who were entitled to up to five litres each workday. Brewing outside the summer months was common for all brewers before the discovery of refrigeration, due to the likelihood of the beer spoiling while fermenting in the summer, which is the height of airborne bacteria activity. Farmers possibly also brewed during the cooler months to provide work for their permanent staff during the quieter period. After brewing, the ale was stored until the summer when the main consumers would be the seasonal workers ("les saisonniers").
Historically, saisons did not share enough identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a specific style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales. Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version. Although now most commercial examples range from 5 to 8% abv, originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and it is thought they had alcohol levels ranging from 3 to 3.5%. Because of the lack of potable water, saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness.
The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage, but at the same time could not be so strong as to incapacitate the workers. Additionally, these beers were strongly hopped, as hops act as a preservative and have antiseptic properties. Saisons brewed in early Spring would often be blended with saisons brewed the previous Autumn, or even blended with lambic beers to increase the refreshing acidity of these beers. Blending also occurred to reduce the abv, and thus increase its refreshment value.
Although saison has been described as an endangered style, there has been a rise in interest in this style in recent years, with Saison Dupont being named "the Best Beer in the World" by the magazine Men's Journal in July 2005.
Modern saisons are generally highly carbonated, fruity and spicy—sometimes from the addition of spices—and are influenced by Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, the flagship beer of the Dupont Brewery, a 6.5% golden coloured pale ale with noticeable yeast character. They are brewed in a range of countries, particularly the USA, and are generally bottle conditioned with an average abv range of 5 to 8% abv.
The type of malt determines the colour of the saison, and although most saisons are of a cloudy golden colour as result of the grist being mostly pale and/or pilsner malt, the use of darker malts results in some saisons being reddish-amber. Some recipes also use wheat. Spices such as orange zest, coriander, and ginger may be used. Some spice character may come through due to the production of esters during fermentation at warm temperatures.