YEAST FEAST: SAISON YEAST
It’s been a while since we delved into the murkily wondrous world of yeast, so we figured it was high time to focus on another branch of the single-celled family tree. Last time out we focused our attention on the powerhouse that is American ale yeast, so for this edition we are taking a slight change of pace and looking at one of the more specialist strains – saison yeast.
But to fully understand the yeast, first you need to appreciate the style (although this point is very much a chicken/egg kind of deal). Saisons are effectively beery time capsules – they take brewing right back to its agro-industrial roots. ‘Saisonniers’ were migrant French-speaking farmhands, who arrived in summer to the fields of the Low Countries, looking for work. Once employed, these labourers would need refreshment, having spent long days sweating in dusty fields or sticky orchards. So to this end, the farms would provide them with beer.
As the operation of scythes, ploughshares and the like tends not to sit well with the lunchtime absorption of 9% imperial stouts, the beers these workers were given were lighter, to quench thirst whilst avoiding gruesome injury. Yet they were brewed in winter (providing work for their year-round labourers), so had to be sturdy enough to survive until needed, half a year away. In addition, no two were alike, as the farms utilised whatever ingredients they had to hand – these beers were for migrant workers, after all – so used barley, rye, wheat, herbs, spices and/or fruit.
As a result, the yeast that ferments these beers needs to be able to handle pretty much anything!
That, in turn, means that there are very few hard and fast rules about brewing saisons – they are a blank canvas due to the sheer versatility of their yeast. And it is this fact that could well be the reason why saisons have become so popular recently. But, just because it is easy-going and can take a wide range of featured ingredients, doesn’t mean saison yeast lacks notable characteristics of its own – far from it, in fact. Here’s Senior Brewer Ciarán to fill us in on its very particular personality:
Saison yeast produces fruity esters reminiscent of lemon and orange citrus notes. They often produce a slightly peppery aroma also. Some of the modern ones tend to produce small amounts of isoamyl acetate, which is the banana/bubble-gum flavour found in wheat beers. This ester production will increase with the amount of wheat malt used in the recipe.
So Ciarán, here’s a hypothetical question. If saison yeast has such an interesting aroma/flavour profile, yet the beers it was historically used to ferment had a wide range of ingredients, how does one affect the other? What if, say, we brewed a batch of Punk IPA and fermented it with saison yeast?
Well…we’d most likely see an accentuation of the citrus aroma from the US dry hops being complemented by the citrus esters from the yeast. Not much isoamyl acetate would be present due to Punk being all barley malt. Spicy peppery notes might be muted because these notes are typically seen in European hops rather than US types.
It would be interesting to see how the bitterness of Punk would fall in line with the acidity of the Saison yeast. It could be fantastic, maybe creating an intense dryness, which could be awesome depending on your taste. Usually with hybrid styles, it’s hard to say what would happen until you actually brew it!
Ok, so moving away from the idea of theoretical beers – what are some of our actual, bona fide, saison yeast-containing brews? And what effect does the yeast have on the beers’ final aroma and flavour?
Our 2013 Shareholder collective brew produced this hugely well-received hopped up saison. The yeasts’ citrus esters buttressed the orange peel added to the brew, and the crushed black peppercorns really worked well with the complementary spicy notes the yeast also provided. Both of these pointed flavours (with the Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin hops) were then rounded out by heather honey for a truly fascinating brew. What will Beatnik Brewing Collective produce this year?
Speaking of fascinating, Black Jacques is one of the more out-there beers we’ve put together for some time. An imperial black saison aged in red wine barrels for nine months, it resulted in a near-endless combination of chocolate, mint, spice, brandy and cola flavours. If ever a beer proved the versatility of saison yeast, it is this one – and that’s before the myriad of flavours generated by barrel-ageing are accounted for.
Another saison yeast-toting beer is Everyday Anarchy, the lighter, energetic cousin of the dark and overwhelming Black Jacques. Another imperial saison (only one brewed without Jacque’s black malt), it was then aged in wine barrels – only those which had previously held white wine. With apricot, spice, toffee and redcurrant notes – maybe it’s something a bit more along the lines of the beers of old the original ‘Saisonniers’ would recognise (even if they may run away having spied the label artwork). It’s yet another example of the sheer flavour onslaught that saison yeast can accept.
So, in summary we love saison yeast because of its versatility and it’s effervescent flavour profile. Whether used for an authentically historic farmhouse-style beer, or something as thunderous as Black Jacques, it’s a vital component in any brewers’ arsenal. What are your favourite saisons? And if you homebrew, what effects do you see from using saison yeast?