In the summer I brew a lot of Belgian beers. One of my favorite Belgian styles to brew is the saison. It also happens to be one of our featured styles this month, which is BJCP Category 25: Strong Belgian Ale. I’m not so sure if the original brewers of the style would agree that it belongs in that category. The original beers were low in alcohol, brewed to satisfy thirst during a hard day’s work.
Belgian Saisons in the 19th Century
Saisons originated in the predominantly French speaking Walloon region of Belgium. Today, common characteristics of saisons are the dry finish (high attenuation) and the spicy yeast phenols. Belgian farmers brewed the saison as a thirst-quenching, low alcohol beverage for harvest workers because water wasn’t always fit for drinking. Before the days of refrigeration, some farmers buried the beer casks to keep them cool and would provide a shovel for the workers to unearth the ale when they were thirsty. Another cooling technique was to keep the sealed casks submerged in a nearby river.
Every farm had its own recipe and ingredients to brew during the cold months. The farmers would re-pitch the yeast from batch to batch. Many, if not all of these fermentations, included multiple strains of yeast, including some wild strains. These saisons were sometimes tart and often had very complex yeast profiles.
Towards the end of the 19th century brewers had the ability to use isolated yeast strains, and as sanitation standards improved, more “clean” saisons emerged. The modern interpretations of saisons, or Farmhouse Ales as Americans prefer, are as varied as the originals. And that is why so many brewers and drinkers love the style.
Like the masters of the 19th century, I plan on re-pitching the same yeast all season. Last year I used the Omega Yeast Labs strain OYL-500 and loved it. This year I needed a hearty and versatile strain like the OYL-500 and selected Yeast Bay’s Wallonian Farmhouse, boasted as one of their funkiest “clean” yeasts. It devours sugars, leaves the beer bone dry and is described as having a slight earthy funk and tart character but with the expected saison yeast notes.
Most good farmhouse recipes are simple. This one is no different. It uses three basic grains in the grist. I have a sack of Breiss Two Row Pale Malt, so the decision for base malt was easy. I wanted to add some Vienna malt (breiss) for nuttiness, and for head retention and body I added cara-pils. Most recipes include wheat or oats for head stability and enhanced body, but since I always use them I decided to forgo both as a flavor experiment. Also, half of this batch will be bottled with WLP-650 Brettanomyces Bruxellensis, and I’ve had luck keeping body in the beer with cara-pils in conjunction with brettanomyces.
When I was researching this style, I read that some farm owners with less land would make their one and only batch soon after the harvest. They would use freshly harvested ingredients, especially the hops. Generally the entire harvest of hops was added “wet” to the boil kettle and sometimes this meant adding copious amounts of wet hops in the wort. With this knowledge, I decided to add an abundance of hops to my version of a farmhouse ale. I added Centennial hops for their citrus and spice characteristics and Citra for its giant aroma. These two hops make a great combo.
If you really want to channel the original farmers and brewers of the style, mill your grains by hand, like I did. (Or don’t—I really need to get a better power drill.) I mashed this beer a bit unusually by starting at 150F for 20 minutes, then lowering to 144 for 30 minutes, then returned to 150 for another 30 minutes before letting it drop and finish at 146F for the final 30 minutes.
I heard Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker describe his mash profile for many of their drier beers and it was not unlike the profile I described, though likely less complicated and more efficient.
In pursuit of a dry beer, I added simple sugars. I used corn sugar and Mexican piloncillo which helped darken the color of the beer.
Fermenting at a mild 68F for three days and then allowing the temperature to naturally rise to 72F for the following three weeks resulted in a surprisingly clean yeast profile. There was a bit of grass from the hops and a shockingly toned down citrus nose and flavor. The grain bill added a nice mild toasted bread character, which smelled of a freshly baked loaf of bread. The yeast imparted a nice but muted earth note. As it ages it becomes a bit more pronounced. The half of the batch that had the Brett Brux added has not yet been sampled since it’s only been in the bottle for 30 days. I will be sampling that at the three month mark. Check back in September for those tasting notes!
Farmhouse Ale Homebrew Recipe
10lbs Briess 2-Row (68.1% of fermentables)
2.5lbs Briess Vienna (17%)
.5 lbs cara pils (3.4%)
Sugars (added 10 mins before flameout)
1.8 lbs corn sugar (8.1%)
.5lbs piloncillo sugar cones (3.4%)
60min - 1oz Citra
5min – 1 oz Citra
FO – 1oz Centennial
FO – 1oz Citra
Water – Chicago tap water with added minerals in the mash for ph adjustment:
1 tsp calcium chloride
1 tsp lactic acid
Ph reading – 5.3
Mash - 6 gallons of water at 161F (strike)
150F 20 mins
144F 30 mins
150F 30 mins
146F 30 mins
Sparge – 5 gallons at 168F
Added – 1 tsp gypsum and 1 tsp lactic acid
Boil for 120 minutes
Chill to 68F and pitch Yeast Bay - Wallonian Farmhouse Yeast (1.5L starter)
Ferment at 68F for first 3 days and naturally let ramp to 72F for next 3 weeks.
Bottled 6 gallons (roughly) with 250 grams of forest honey (hoping to get a bit of it’s earthiness). I used the heavier duty Belgian bottles since these are carbed to 3.2 vols of C02.
Half of the bottles received WLP-650 additions. The smaller bottles (330-375ml) received 10 drops from a 3 ml pipette and the bigger bottles (500ml+) got 20 drops.
FG – 1.006
ABV – 7.2%