Originating in Wallonia, Belgium, the saison is an elusive beer with a diverse history. Instead of pertaining to a specific flavour or brewing technique, a saison describes a loosely related family of beer. Historically, saisons are thought to date back to the start of agriculture when beer was brewed during colder months for consumption during the harvest season. They were rarely distributed outside of the immediate region and as a result, recipes varied greatly.
Seasonal workers or les saisonniers were hired by farms to work as labourers over the busy summer months. Spending their days in the fields, farmhands needed a potable drink that was both refreshing and fortifying. At the time, access to clean water was difficult and beer proved to be the safest option. One historian suggests that during Middle Ages, the average consumption level of low gravity (alcohol) beer was around 5 litres per day.
With the rise of mechanization, the need for farmhands declined significantly and the last of the farmhouse breweries disappeared after WWII. At the same time, there was a rising demand for stronger foreign beer as consumers wanted beer with a softer taste, more clarity and a longer shelf life. Fighting back against foreign influence, Belgian brewers started making higher gravity beer with many traditional saisons serving as the basis for these new brews.
Historically, saisons were dry, refreshing ales with an average strength of 3-3.5%. They had a wine-like character, vinous and sour with some farmhouse funk. The sourness of saisons, closer to that of a traditional gueuze, can be attributed to open-air fermentation and exposure to naturally occurring bacterias such as lactobacillus. Over the years, brewing techniques advanced significantly and brewers gradually attained a less infected beer, which became less sour. In contrast to traditional saisons, modern versions have a more elevated ABV of 4.5-6.5%.
Although historic farmhouse breweries have all but vanished, Brasserie Dupont managed to survive both world wars. Founded in 1920, and housed in a 19th century farmhouse, Brasserie Dupont successfully combines traditional and modern brewing philosophies. A classic beer in the farmhouse style, Brasserie Dupont’s Vieille Provision, is bone-dry, hoppy, spicy and highly effervescent blond ale that pays homage to the past, while serving as the prototype for modern saisons.