The rise of saison beers

Local craft brewers are discovering saison, a style of Belgian ale just made for summer, writes Max Allen.

"It's time to let the yeast do the talking," says brewer Costa Nikias as he opens a bottle of his La Sirène Saison, one of the best new beers to appear on the Australian craft scene over the last few years.

"So many brewers and drinkers go crazy over hops, looking for beers with the most extreme hop flavour and bitterness," he says. "For me, the yeast is much more important: that's where most of the really interesting characters in beer come from."

He pours the saison into a big goblet: it's glowing gold, with a thick, creamy head, bursting with fruity, yeasty aroma, medium-bodied, not particularly bitter, tartly refreshing. He's right: that delicious perfume comes from the esters - aromatic volatile compounds - produced primarily by yeasts during fermentation.

The saison style originated in Belgium as a farmhouse ale, brewed in winter, drunk in summer by farm labourers. Today, the benchmark Belgian producer is widely considered to be Brasserie Dupont - and luckily, Saison Dupont is imported to Australia so you should find it in most better craft beer shops. If you also come across a bottle of the limited-production organic Saison Dupont Biologique, buy it immediately: it combines all the hallmarks of the style - creamy head, golden cereal flavours, super refreshment - with extra layers of citrusy, spicy complexity. It's just gorgeous. Indeed, it was named Best Belgian Beer at last year's Brussels Beer Challenge.

A couple of broad-minded Australian brewers have included small batches of seasonal saison in their range for a while: Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth in Victoria released their first Chevalier Saison - with secondary fermentation in 750ml bottles - a decade ago, and have been making it ever since. It's a good example of the style, which benefits from short-term cellaring (six months to a year): because it's bottle-conditioned, the yeasty lees inside the bottle contribute complex flavours to the beer over time.

But in the past couple of years interest in the style has picked up as more brewers have jumped on the saison beer-wagon.

"I've always had a love affair with Belgium and the beers they produce," says Matt Houghton of Boatrocker Brewing in Melbourne's Braeside. "I've been honing the style, visiting Belgium regularly, and last year we released our own, the Saison du Bateau."

The trick in the brewing, says Houghton, is to keep the beer dry. The strain of yeast he uses for his saison - reputedly isolated at Dupont in Belgium, then cultured up and sold to other brewers around the world - can produce a lot of glycerol during fermentation. A little glycerol is a good thing and can give the beer a lovely mouthfeel - but if there's too much it can accentuate the high alcohol (6.5 per cent) and the soft level of bitterness, and make the beer taste sweet and cloying.

"Traditionally, a lot of saisons were brewed for farmhands to drink every day," says Houghton. "They were lower in alcohol - probably around three per cent. But the modern styles they make in Belgium - and we like to make here - are stronger."

Late last year, Boatrocker also released a small batch of saison with nine per cent alcohol. Called Gaston, this beer started fermenting as a regular saison before being put into old chardonnay wine barrels, along with a strain of yeast called Brettanomyces to continue fermentation until bottling.

As you may know, Brett yeast is considered the arch-enemy by most winemakers - it can produce flavours that make their precious pinot taste of horse sweat and dried blood. But some adventurous brewers love Brett, arguing that its funky, wild flavours are entirely appropriate in farmhouse beers such as saison.

Nikias from La Sirène uses Brett to ferment a tangy, almost vinous, funky beer he calls Wild Saison. The name is slightly unfortunate, as it implies the beer fermented spontaneously, using the wild yeasts that are around us - in the air, on brewery equipment, on our clothes. But truly wild, spontaneous fermentation is something that interests him immensely.

Just before Christmas, La Sirène released the first commercial batch of a beer called Wild Tripelle: it's brewed without the addition of cultured yeast, relying solely for fermentation on the organisms in the environment of the brewery in Melbourne's Alphington.

"We're going to be heading more and more down the path of doing wild ferments," says Nikias. "We think it gives our beers a unique sense of place."


Newsletter

Sign up to receive the latest food, travel and dining news direct from Gourmet Traveller headquarters.

Latest news
The World's 50 Best Bars 2017
10.10.2017
Seedlip, a non-alcoholic distilled spirit, arrives in Australia
10.10.2017
Bar Americano wants you to buy a stranger a drink
05.09.2017
Jacoby’s, a Twin Peaks-themed tiki bar, opens in Enmore
18.08.2017
Signature Drink: Spice Temple's Ox
14.07.2017
The Standard opens a bar in Hobart
06.07.2017
GT
Signature Collection

Find out more about the Gourmet Traveller Signature Collection by Robert Gordon Australia, including where to buy it in store and online.

Read More
Recipe collections

Looking for fresh dinner ideas? Not sure how to make the most out of seasonal produce? Or do you need to plan the perfect party menu? Our recipe collections have you covered.

See more

You might also like...

Signature drinks

Thirty of our favourite drinks from Australia's best bars an...

Top drinks this month: July 2015

Our top drinks for the month, including pinot noir, gamay, c...

Top drinks of the month: August 2015

Our top drinks for the month, including mataro, malbec, temp...

Hot 100 2015 - Drinks

The world is getting hotter and we’re not talking about glob...

Mover, shaker

The best thing you can take to a party, according to cocktai...

The Galley Room’s Herbie Hancock

Watermelon. Honey. Lemon. Gin. Just add summer.

Chandelier Bar’s Throgg’s Neck

The Horse’s Neck goes uptown in Adelaide.

1806’s Eros Gin Fizz

Yoghurt drinks are coming at you thick and fast.

Sky Bar’s Havana Pearl

Taking you higher with the flavours of rum, ginger and pine...

Loft’s Pimms and Roses

Everything’s coming up English-country-garden with this gent...

The Den’s 20th Century

An uptown classic from a downstairs favourite.

Romeo Lane’s Fortunato

Bourbon meets the complexity of sweet and dry Sherry in The ...

Australian malbec on the rise

Malbec is on the rise, with local winemakers producing plush...

Molly’s Port Side Flip

Porter syrup and a whole egg make a smooth, rich winter winn...