It's the season for saison beer

Taste of tradition: Costa Nikias from La Sirene makes five kinds of saison beer.
Taste of tradition: Costa Nikias from La Sirene makes five kinds of saison beer. Photo: Supplied

In 1990, when brewer Olivier Dedeycker started work at Brasserie Dupont, the western Belgian brewery made little of the peppery, complex, hazy golden ale known as saison. "It was not popular at all," he says. "When I arrived here, we were only brewing this beer two or three times a year – a very small quantity. But we never stopped."

These days, however, Dupont produces plenty of saison, and it's far from alone. The style is increasingly popular all over the beer-drinking world, including in Australia, where it has been embraced by some of the country's most forward-looking breweries, including La Sirene in Melbourne's Alphington and Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth.

"The Australian public are definitely becoming more aware of saisons, if our demand is anything to go by," says La Sirene owner Costa Nikias. "Drinkers are becoming more and more like wine drinkers – they really want to know about how the beer is made, where the ingredients are from, who the maker is and what the inspiration is behind the beer."

La Sirene saison.
La Sirene saison. Photo: Costa Nikias

Saison's story is as compelling as any wine's. Traditionally made in tiny farmhouse operations, it was brewed towards the start of the year in order to be drunk in the summer, by the saisonniers (seasonal workers) who worked the land in the French-speaking Belgian province of Hainaut.

Dupont's saison is both peppery and acidic, lactic and light – but these elements come together beautifully. For Nikias, that's the key. "Saisons should never be too smooth in flavour but should bring the various components of fruit esters, funky yeast characters, supporting hop bitterness and warming alcohol together in an integrated manner," he says.

Saison is the food-matching beer par excellence, as Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York and the world's leading expert on beer and food matching, points out in his seminal book The Brewmaster's Table. "If I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it. It seems to go with almost everything."

Its recent renaissance began with Dupont's export programme, says Dedeycker, and a refusal to change the recipe.

"It's really traditional," he says. "It's a rustic beer. We haven't changed it, we haven't made it sweeter to appeal to more people. But people are interested now in going back to beer's roots – I think that could explain its success."

By contrast, many of the newer saisons being made around the world seem wilfully experimental, with all manner of ingredients added, but there is, or should be, one constant: the yeast. Saison's suitability for the table owes a lot to the yeast, which gives it a spicy, peppery character. "This beer style is all about the yeast," says Nikias. "The hops and malts play a more supportive role, for once."

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The popularity of the style has led to all kinds of new iterations (La Sirene, for example, brews five different saisons, including Fleur Folie, which is made with honey) but for Dedeycker, a saison should comply with certain restrictions. "If the beer is dry, it is hoppy, it is refermented in the bottle, not too high an alcohol content, then it's OK," he says. "You have a beer which respects the style. It is incredible to see so much saison on the market, even in Belgium. It's quite unbelievable."

Despite its complexity, saison is perfectly suited to warmer weather, according to Nikias. "The slightly tart finish, higher-than-normal carbonation and dry finish is thirst-quenching; it's perfect for the sweltering heat," he says.

Saison Dupont is now widely regarded as one of the best beers in the world. "It's an honour for us, and it demonstrates that we must respect this product," Dedeycker says. "It's why it's so important to respect the tradition. Even if we increase the capacity – as we have for more than 10 years – it's always the same process. If we want the beer to be respected, we must do this."

Five food matches for saison

Aged goat's cheese

The farmhouse character and high carbonation of a classic saison works perfectly with a tangy, lemony aged goat's cheese.

Grilled salmon steaks

Saison's bitterness and acidity cuts through the oiliness of salmon.

Thai food

The citric notes in saison work beautifully with lime, chillies and coriander, staples of Thai cuisine.

Pork sausages

There's a green-apple note in Saison Dupont that works beautifully with a full-flavoured, peppery pork sausage.

Endive salad

Tangy, bittersweet endive, with a citrus-heavy dressing, is a good match for saison.