Saison is one of those wonderfully complex beers that puts even the most delicious white wines to shame. The fruity, somewhat spicy aroma, the crisp dry palate with even more fruit and spice and sometimes funky finish – what’s not to love?
Lately, I have been obsessed.
Over the summer hubby and I brewed up our own saison using pilsner malt, torrified wheat, flaked wheat, and some light munich malt for complexity. We added just a dash of spices at the end of the boil (whole peppercorns, fresh orange and grapefruit peel, and coriander) for that extra something. You’re probably wondering to yourself, um, it’s November, wtf happened?
Well, somewhat stupidly, we chose a notoriously slow fermenting yeast (Wyeast 3724), which meant our beer bubbled slowly but consistently all summer long. This yeast loves warm temperatures (>90 degrees Fahrenheit ideally), but even after two months in the warmest part of our house, the beer still wasn’t quite as dry as we wanted. On our next trip to the brew store we chatted up the employee, and when we told him of our saison dilemma, with a twinkle in his eye suggested we add brettanomyces. Mike and I exchanged sideways glances and I remember thinking and saying out load, I’m not sure if we’re ready for that . . .
Brettanomyces (brett) is a very hearty wild yeast strain that produces a funky, barnyard-like or horse blanket quality to the smell and taste of beer. This might sound like a crazy thing to want in a beer, but it really does add a whole new dimension of flavor.
Brett is most commonly used as part of a blend of yeasts in beers such as lambic, geuze, and your Flanders red ales. These beers are all mouth puckeringly sour in most cases. Brettanomyces has the added benefit that it will eat sugars that most yeasts won’t touch, which results in low final gravities, which is the measure of residual sugar in your beer, and hence, much drier beers. In saison, dryness is a hallmark of the style, and being someone who loves a dry crisp beer, a real necessity.
In some instances, and because brett is so hearty, it can easily contaminate beers that you don’t want to taste funky. You see why we hesitated. We certainly don’t want all of our beers from here on out to taste like sour barnyard. In order to avoid this kind of contamination, you basically have to use a dedicated set of all your different plastic materials for primary fermentation, racking to secondary, and bottling, which is a pain in the butt. We were just given a boatload of brewing supplies from a friend who had given up on the craft, so we actually had enough equipment to make this crazy idea a reality.
To brett we went!
We chose Brettanomyces Bruxellensis (Wyeast 5112) for the job. This yeast is isolated from brewery cultures in the Brussels region of Belgium. Saison as a style emerged in the Wallonia region of Belgium which is the Southern, mostly French speaking area. It was originally brewed in small farmhouses as a beer strong enough to last through hot summers but still drinkable on a warm summer day. Back then, nearly all beers had a sour bent to them from the local flora, so to add some brettanomyces to this beer is probably not too far off from the original beers of yore.
On September 15th, we added our brett. We wanted to give it at least a month to ferment out enough sugars. We decided to bottle condition the beer as opposed to kegging in order to develop the high carbonation in most saisons and to keep the beer as true to the farmhouse tradition as possible.
In order to get volumes of CO2 at around 2.8, we used 190 grams of Dry Malt Extract (DME) to boiling water and let it cool in an ice bath before adding to the beer. The extra sugar is added to carbonate the beer in the bottles, the remaining yeast eats it up and farts out CO2, Lovely, eh? Most beers have a volume of CO2 around 2, but Belgian beers like saison or tripel have up to 3 or even 4 volumes to get that super effervescent characteristic they’re known for. To avoid exploding bottles, we opted for just under 3.
We ended up with a final gravity of 1.006, which is basically perfect. BJCP style guidelines give a range of 1.002-1.012, basically super dry to mostly dry. Our saison fell right in the middle. With that final gravity, we ended up at 7.2% ABV.
After measuring our final gravity, we nervously took a long whiff of the final beer – slightly acidic, but subtle and earthy. And then, we tasted. Boom, deliciously delightful funky saison. The beer has all of the flavors you would want in a saison: citrus, pepper, a slight hint of banana, with a dab of barnyard funk.
We are so proud of how this beer turned out that even though the yeast took foreeeeever, it was completely worth every bit of waiting. I think next time we’d try the French saison yeast (Wyeast 3711) , just for shits, but I really wouldn’t hesitate to do exactly what we did with this beer again. The fact that we have to wait an additional two weeks for the beer to be carbonated gives me the major sads but I know it will be worth it.
How about you? Have you ever brewed a saison? Which yeast(s) did you use? How ’bout brettanomyces? I’d love to hear your experiences.