Yes, yes, yes, “saison” is the French word for season. But this is not the answer I am looking for. Instead of 10th grade French classes, let’s look at the other topic of desire when some of us were sixteen years old – beer.
Now if you happen to be a bit of a francophobe, this is not a French beer. Rather, it’s a Belgian beer made popular in the French speaking region of Belgium. I’d explain this aspect of European history to you, but it requires Gantt charts and Venn diagrams, and quite frankly, that’s more effort than I’m willing to indulge in on a Monday.
The reason this beer is called “saison” is that it is, or rather was, seasonal. It was made with the later harvests of barley, around the fall/winter-ish timeframe. The beer was allowed to ferment over the next nine months or so before it was served to farmhands working the fields around the start of the next years harvest. This once again proves the fact that beer can make any job bearable, including plucking grain from French-Belgian farmlands.
However, nowadays this type of beer is available year round, making the name rather irrelevant to the current production schedule.
So what does Saison taste like? Well, coming from Belgium, even the French speaking area of Belgium, you can expect some tartness. But not an overwhelming sourness that you’d get with Gueze or others in the lambic family. Instead, it also carries within it a peppery-ness (which isn’t even a word, I know) that is found at the other end of the Belgium beer spectrum, the pale ales. So, from a high-level, broad definition point of view, Saisons can be seen as the middle ground between young lambics (of the non-fruity variety) and Belgian pale ales. It’s a definition that’s a bit simplistic to be sure, and there are breweries who have their own approach to the style, to be sure. But it’s a good place to start.
They are higher in alcohol content, however. This is a trait which is recognized by most brewers of the style. Where Belgian pale ales hang out in the 4.8 – 5.5% ABV range, saisons check in between 5 – 7% ABV. This makes sense when taking into its history into account, as the beer had to sit for nine months before serving, and the yeasts had ample time to convert the sugars to alcohol. It’s not the punch-you-in-the-nose kind of ABV that barleywines have, but it’s different enough from other Belgian beers that it makes it distinctive.