Saisons with a Twist
Since last spring I’ve had a love affair with saisons. I had always been a casual fan of the earthy, dry saison style, but last year it turned borderline obsessive. Each time I stood in front of a beer cooler, I’d find myself uncontrollably drawn to the saisons’ siren song.
As a long-time homebrewer, when I become smitten with a style of beer, I’m inclined to brew a batch in my kitchen. Homebrewing allows me to get intimate with a beer style, becoming acquainted with its nuances from the inside out.
But like that green-eyed, enigmatic girl at a school dance, the saison intimidated me. Saisons get the heft of their flavor from yeast. The beers I’ve traditionally brewed are hop-forward ales.
On a snowy day in late winter, I sit down with Allagash brewer Patrick Chavanelle at the Industrial Way brewery in Portland to get some tips on how to work with the sexy, if not unruly, saison yeast.
Clad in a one-piece brewing suit, Chavanelle explains that he originally brewed the Allagash Saison as a homebrew beer when he was hired at the brewery. Head brewer, Jason Perkins, liked the homebrew, and the Allagash team spent two years piloting batches before they settled on a final recipe for their dry, citrusy saison.
“The most important part of working with saison yeast is controlling the fermentation temperature,” Chavanelle states.
With most saison yeast strains, a homebrewer can achieve a range of flavors depending on the fermentation temperature.
High fermentation temps, in the mid-eighties for example, bring out spicy, funky flavors from the phenols, though fermenting too high can produce plasticy, band-aid-esque off flavors. Lower fermentation temperatures around seventy degrees bring out fruity flavors. However, if you ferment too low, the yeast will stall and homebrewers won’t get the proper attenuation to produce a dry finish—a vital saison characteristic.
Recognizing the frightened look on my face, Chavanelle assuages my fears by explaining that a fermentation temperature around seventy-five degrees will bring out the spicy, fruity saison flavors I’m looking for.
With growing confidence in my understanding of saison yeast, I contact Tim Adams, head brewer and owner of Oxbow Brewing Company, to help me better wrap my head around hopping a saison.
“You can use as much hops as you’d like, but be careful about when you add them to the boil,” Adams cautions. “The biggest problem you can encounter is making the beer too bitter.”
Adams continues that the longer a hop boils the more bitterness gets extracted from the isomerization of the alpha acids in the hops. When I explain that I’m interested in adding American hops to my saison for lush citrus flavors, he advises I add the majority of my hops in the whirlpool at the end of the boil and in dry-hopping. This advice saves me from making the mistake of over-hopping my wort at the start of the boil.
I’m now ready for my last stop before homebrewing: Maine Brewing Supply in Portland to consult with homebrewing Zen master Gordon Jones.
When I utter the word saison to Jones, a twinkle appears in his eyes; I know I’m talking to a kindred spirit.
“Saisons are the best style of beer to play with, because you have so many flavor components going on,” Jones states.
Clarifying the type of saison I want to brew, Jones rattles off a half dozen saisons brewed in the U.S. using domestic hops.
During this discussion, the Amarillo hop continually comes up. With bold flavors of oranges and grapefruit, Jones explains that many brewers turn to the Amarillo hop to get a clean, citrus interplay with the funky saison yeast.
Recalling that Tim Adams had mentioned the Centennial hop as a good choice for saisons, Jones and I put together a hop schedule of Amarillo and Centennial hops, saving all the hops for five minutes left in the boil, the whirlpool, and dry-hopping. Eschewing the bittering stages of the boil altogether.
Jones suggests Wyeast 3711 French Saison, a hardworking yeast strain known for its ability to work through residual sugars to create the dry finish I crave.
Keeping the malts simple—six pounds of extract pilsner malts and one pound of crushed wheat—will allow the French saison yeast and the American hops to shine in this homebrew.
My brewing partner, Tim Ebersold, and I head off to brew our saison. Imagine a month-long movie montage of us boiling, steeping, spilling, bottling, and impatiently waiting while Tom Petty sings, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
After five weeks, I wistfully crack open a bottle, and there it is: the spicy, funky aroma of saison yeast. There’s a nice bouquet of hop citrus flavors from the Amarillo and Centennial hops when I sip the saison, but they don’t get in the way of that beautiful French saison yeast. As the warm weather hits New England, brew up a saison and let the dry, fruity flavors accentuate your summer days.
— Text & Photos: Dave Patterson