Rethinking the American Saison
How does one rethink the saison, a style that has been around for centuries? It gets Americanized. Saison Americain, a term coined by Dann Paquette of the, now defunct, Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, is a thoughtfully distinct take on the traditional Belgian Saison. Pretty Things’ flagship Jack D’Or, a beer that set a standard for what an American Saison should be, was revolutionary for its time. A time that, sadly, was just moments before the great American craft beer boom. Jack D’Or is a beer that has yet to be recreated or developed upon. With the renaissance of hoppy beers currently going through the country, it seems like a good time to. Saison Americain is, succinctly, a hybrid between a Belgian Saison and a bitter hoppy American beer. It captures the essential qualities of both styles and it provides a creative outlet for a style that, for the entire history of brewing, has been used as a base for thinking outside of the norms.
Having focused on a study of farmhouse ales over the past year, it seemed like the best time to try and develop and add to the style Dann created, Saison Americain. The aim of this piece is to, hopefully, set a standard for a new American Saison – one that stands apart from American Farmhouse Ales and Belgian Saisons. There is not much written about his interpretation of the style, but we do know a bit about the original beer, Jack D’Or, itself – a hoppy, dry, rustic, and peppery beer. It is a Saison that is full bodied, bright, and highly attenuated.
The only writing on the style, outside of Dann, comes from Michael Tonsmiere, aka The Mad Fermentationist. He wrote, in a piece titled “American Saison – Re-imagining Farmhouse Brewing,” a brief mention of the style with some notes on mash temperature and fermentation temperature from Dann Paquette. Jack D’or was mashed low, in the 142-147º range, and fermented in the high 80º’s. The key take-away for Saison Americain is that it is hop forward and bitter for a Saison. It is a beer that is accented best by hops that are known to be floral and with a higher Alpha Acid content.
Knowing this gave a starting point on how to approach brewing this beer. While Pilsner malt may be the base grain used in traditional Saisons, we opted to use Pale 6-Row. This base grain was chosen because of its high protein and enzyme content, which will allow the beer to dry out more during fermentation. It is also a distinctly American grain, not heavily used outside of the USA. 6-Row, also, has a slightly more rustic profile than 2-Row or Pilsner. In addition to the healthy portion of the 6-Row base grain, Flaked Oats, White Wheat, Vienna, and Belgian Aromatic malts were used to build up body, head retention, and impart some of the breadier notes of a Saison.
One important aspect of this beer is the body, as saisons are typically a little lighter bodied. Saison Americain, from the few times we’ve been lucky to have Jack D’Or, should be fuller bodied. In order to achieve this goal, and burn off any potential DMS from the 6-Row base, Saison Americain works best when treated to an extended mash and boil of ninety minutes or longer, respectively.
Where Saison Americain truly differs from its Belgian counterparts, however, is not in grain or yeast – but hops. Instead of using Noble hops traditionally found in a Saison, such as Saaz, Hallertauer, and Styrian Goldings, this style calls for the use of American bittering hops – such as Columbus, Northern Brewer, and (a personal favorite) Loral. Instead of using light additions of Noble hops, this beer has substituted in a high-alpha bittering charge at the start of the boil, a dual purpose floral hop mid-boil, and an aromatic hop at the end of the boil. Ideally, when brewing Saison Americain, one wants to aim for an IBU of 55-80, which is notably higher than the typical saison range of 30-40 IBU. We chose to forego dry-hopping this beer, as it was unnecessary with how layered the beer can be.
Fermentation is the only process that follows tradition in this style. Wyeast 3724, Belgian Saison, was chosen for its ability to be fermented in the high 80’s and for the pepper and clove notes that the yeast creates at that temperature range. This is the one portion of Jack D’Or that was found to be impossible to accurately reproduce – as the beer purportedly used a blend of 5 or 6 different yeast strains. Sticking with a high percentage of a Saison strain, if you are going to do a blended yeast culture, seems to be the optimal route.
Our goal, going forward with hoppy saisons, is to define Saison Americain as a respectable sub-style of Saison. It is distinctly not an American Farmhouse Ale and not a Belgian Saison. This lies somewhere inbetween, and hopefully it can gain traction. Lastly, one important aspect of Saison Americain, going back to Pretty Things’ flagship – is that the beer should be bright. It shouldn’t be murky or opaque.