History of Grisette
In the late 1800s, Southern Belgium’s Hainaut province became an industrial mecca, moving away from agriculture, into coal and stone mining. With industrialization on the rise, local brewers began producing beer for growing population of local miners. Saison was the brew of farmhands, and grisette became the brew of miners. The term grisette, or little grey, is often attributed to the young female factory workers dressed in distinctive grey smocks, who would pass out beer to fortify miners at the end of the work day.
Saison & Grisette
The history of grisette is largely based on that of the saison, so it’s important to mention saison here too. Saisons represent a family of beer, not a specific type, born in the Wallonia region of Hainaut. Literally translated, “saison” means season, a nod to the fact that the beer was brewed in the winter to quench the thirst of farmhands, les saisonniers, who worked the fields in the summer. Each farmhouse brewed beer based on available ingredients, often using grains like oats, spelt and wheat, in addition to malted barley. Saisons were commonly low in alcohol, pale-coloured and refreshing, though they could be either sour or bitter.
Grisettes were originally brewed as a fortifying beverage for miners – revitalizing, refreshing and low in alcohol. As grisette was born in the same region where saison had been for centuries, there were likely significant similarities between the two beers. Available accounts of historical grisette points to a low strength, pale, hoppy wheat beer served fairly fresh, though some versions may have been stronger and aged longer.
As the rest of the world became industrialized, so too did breweries. For beer, this meant a more concerted effort for standardized brewing, with regular ingredients and cleaner fermentation techniques. Historical evidence suggests that during this time grisette would have been served very fresh, before souring microorganisms would have time to acidify the beer. At the same time, saisons were typically matured in cellars, often allowing for the expression of wild yeast and bacteria.
Writing on farmhouse ales, Phil Markowski suggests that French and Belgian brewers have an artistic approach to brewing, focusing on achieving a unique interpretation of a given brew, rather than adhering to its prescribed style guidelines. At least 30 different brands of grisette existed at the height of the mining industry in Belgium. Few written references exist for these beers, though historical oral accounts they were “saison-like golden ales” – low -alcohol, light-bodied, clean and refreshing.
Since much history of grisette has been long forgotten, modern brewers have a lot of freedom to reinvent the beer, giving it their own signature twist. In general, a modern grisette is a wheat-based brew, refreshing, low in alcohol, with subtle fruity, peppery yeast.
Treat yourself to a refreshing brew this summer and try a grisette – we currently have one from Shillow on tap.
(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as the Beer Boss and a server at C’est What)