In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.
But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.
So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.
With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.
There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?
I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.
I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!
Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.
Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.
So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.
My Hobbit-inspired Old Took’s Midwinter IPA is now in the keg. If it seems like that happened really quickly, it’s only because of how late I posted my blog post about the brew day. I fermented it for three weeks before dry hopping it for 6 days. All in all, it was about 4 weeks from mash tun to keg.
I dry hopped it with an ounce each of the same finishing hops I used in the boil, hoping to achieve a nice mix of floral and citrus aroma notes to round out the beer:
- 1 oz Willamette (4% AA)
- 1 oz Cascade (6.2% AA)
It’s been in the keg for less than a day, so it’s too early to know for sure how it’s going to turn out. It tastes good, and it’s got more hop character than it did a week ago. So I think it’s going to be good, but I’m a little concerned that this wasn’t my most successful attempt at dry hopping.
In the past, I’ve dry hopped with pellets either tied in a disposable loose-weave muslin bag, or tossed into the fermenter loose. I prefer loose over bagging if possible for maximum contact, but hop particles in the keg are a problem with more than about a half ounce of hop pellets. With 2 oz of loose pellets, I’d be serving up pints of hop debris for a month.
I didn’t have any muslin bags on hand, nor any time to go to Austin Homebrew Supply to buy any. Searching local retailers for a solution, I came across these spice bags at a kitchen store. They’re for chefs making bouquet garnis, but they are muslin (a tighter weave but still porous), and they are advertised as reusable. The biggest drawback I could see was that they were smaller than the bags I usually use, but since I got 4 in a pack I figured I’d use several.
When bagging dry hops – or when using a tea ball-type infuser, which is also popular – the size of the bag or ball is important. Hops shouldn’t be packed too tightly or else you reduce the surface area in contact with the liquid, which decreases the amount of hop goodness that gets into the beer. After sanitizing the bags with boiling water, I split up my 2 oz of hops into 3 bags along with sanitized marbles for ballast. Two thirds of an ounce per bag seemed to provide lots of breathing room, although I knew the hops would expand a little.
I didn’t count on just how much they would expand.
After I racked the beer into the keg, I found my 3 muslin spice bags at the bottom of the fermenter. The hops had expanded so much the bags looked about to burst, like overstuffed pillows. I didn’t worry about it too much until I was cleaning the bags out, in the hopes of maybe reusing them someday. As I emptied the bags into the kitchen sink, I inhaled deeply, smelling the rich, floral-citrus bouquet coming from the green sludge washing down the drain.
And then it hit me: that’s hop aroma going down the drain. Not in my beer.
The hops expanded so much in those small bags that they ended up packed too tightly. Some of the available hop compounds got into the beer, but not all. So the beer is better than it was, but not as good as it could have been. Should have been. And I’m left feeling disappointed at the waste. A spontaneous decision potentially compromised the end result, and that’s going to bother me until I taste the chilled, carbonated beer and know for sure.
If only I had just used my usual bags! Or something else – anything else!
I should breathe deep and repeat the mantra of Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Even if the IPA isn’t perfect, I haven’t ruined it. It’s far from the worst disaster ever to befall a homebrewer, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve faced. Yes, it was avoidable and it’s annoying, but the beer will be fine.
Then from the back of my brain comes a nagging: Is “fine” really good enough?
It’s not beyond repair. I can still add more dry hops to the keg, if needed. And I probably will. But I’ve learned my lesson. I’m sure I’ll find many other uses for these spice bags in the brewery, such as infusing dry herbs that won’t expand. But I don’t think I’ll be bagging dry hops in anything smaller than a nylon stocking in the future.
The film Fight Club (and I assume the Chuck Palahniuk novel, which I haven’t read yet) introduced the concept of the “single-serving friend”. They’re the people you meet briefly – on a plane, or at a crowded bar in an unfamiliar town – and start talking. You enjoy each other’s company for a few hours, then go your separate ways, never to meet again. In Fight Club, it’s a humorously cynical observation: casual partners for pointless conversation. An illusion of companionship to get you through a few hours of another day on your inexorable way to the grave. A brief distraction, nothing more.
Coming home from a trip to Miami for my day job, I had a 2-hour layover in Atlanta. I stepped off the plane hungry, but mostly thirsty, and beelined to the SweetWater Draft House & Grill (thanks to GateGuru on iPhone for the tip) for some hopefully good beer, and whatever meal they could provide.
The place was small and packed. The line for available seats moved quickly, but by the time I got to the front, no one was about to get up anytime soon. A voice said, “He can sit here if he wants,” to a hostess. As she walked over to relay the message, I realized the voice was referring to me. Why the hell not? I thought, and took him up on the offer.
Before I committed myself to the unorthodox arrangement, I eyed my unexpected dinner companion with the kind of guarded scrutiny that comes from having been in airports too long. He was my age, looked harmless, so I thanked him and sat down. He ordered a pint of 420 Extra Pale Ale and another for me on his tab, then introduced himself as Larry and told me where he was from. He too was on his way home from a business trip, and about to start the last leg of a grueling journey involving multiple connections.
I mentioned where I lived. “Austin! Keepin’ it weird!” he hooted. “What kind of music do you like?” It’s assumed worldwide that all Austinites are music fans (and it seems to be true). I named some of my favorites, and then asked Larry his.
“Gangsta rap,” he said. I nodded and told him how as a teenager I discovered what was left of a tape of N.W.A.’s seminal Straight Outta Compton next to an apartment complex dumpster, and how from that day on it’s been one of my favorite albums. Larry high-fived me enthusiastically across the table. We exchanged some profanity-laden lyrics that frightened the table next to us.
From N.W.A. we moved to Parliament-Funkadelic. Then hoppy ales. We talked about whatever either of us mentioned that excited the other. Larry told stories about the origins of idioms and customs – like toasting before drinking – with the zeal of an elder passing sacred knowledge to his tribe. They might have been good-natured bullshit, but in that moment it didn’t matter; I applauded each one. At some point, he complimented me on my quick wit. But mostly he talked about how much he loved his wife, and how much he was looking forward to holding his baby when he got home. I shared something equally vulnerable and private.
When his plane was boarding, Larry got up. We shook hands and wished each other safe trips. He left. A few minutes later so did I, and boarded my plane going in an opposite direction. Then it occurred to me that I had been speaking with a complete stranger in a way more honest and unguarded than I often do with my real friends, at least on a daily basis.
What was it that loosened our tongues, convinced us to let our guard down so completely? The beer? Doubtful. Two pints in an hour is hardly enough to get me going. No, I think it was the fact of speaking to someone I’d never see again that gave me a sense of liberating anonymity. But it was unlike the shadowy anonymity of the Internet, where faceless alphanumeric handles respond to candor by shitting all over people they’ll never have to look in the eye. This was anonymity with a face, with eyes that glistened and a mouth that curled up or down as the conversation turned: indelible markers of the reality of the human being across the table. It was radiant, like an element that burns too quickly to be viable as a long-term fuel.
We didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t friend each other on Facebook. I did get a few laughs for the flight home, a fun story to share, and maybe some personality traits that will work their way into some character I write in the future.
But I also got a reminder of the fact that every other person in that airport, whether racing from gate to gate or standing in line for an overpriced beverage, is a real human being. They have names and stories to tell. They have spouses and children waiting for them somewhere. They have favorite songs playing behind those headphones fused to their ears, and they might be the same as yours.
So maybe the key is to appreciate single-serving friends for what they are: short distractions, yes. But distractions that can be enjoyed and remembered, and learned from. Does that make them much different from the books and movies we bury our faces in at the airport, trying desperately not to talk to strangers?