This little-known beer style emanates from the depths of the Wallonian (French speaking) part of Belgium. Once a purely summer drink, the beer is now available all year round. Originally, saison brewers found fermentation a tricky business during the heat of the summer, so, to combat this, brewed beers between 5 and 7% in the spring, then chocked them full of hops to survive the storage in the heat. During this maturation process, most of the sugar in the beer had turned to alcohol, boosting its strength (Holsten Pi-s eat your heart out!).
The result is that you have a very hoppy beer that has so many different subtle tones and flavours, and it is a beer to savour. Today, many of the old-style saisons have been so changed to compete with mainstream beers that they are not really saisons, but fear not, there are still excellent examples to delight you.
According to Tim Webb (author of the GBG to Belgium and Holland), the best saisons are "mature, delicately aged and complex darkish pale ales with a slightly dry sourness", and this man has to agree. However, there are now some lighter saisons on stream which are also excellent.
One of the best saison breweries is Brasserie A Vapeur (the steam brewery), based in the little village of Pipaix near Leuze en Hainaut. The brewery itself dates from 1785, and the buildings now in use date back to the 1890s. It also happens that I have visited the brewery and met the brewer, one Jean Louis Dits, who is extremely proud of the traditional beers he produces, and rightly so. The labels on some of his beers are also rather funny: he has four different pigs on the Vapeur Cochonne bottles, inspired by a Belgian artist, which mimic the motions of a Walloonian student drinking song, apparently! The labels might be different, but the beer is the same - excellent! Vapeur also produces Cochonnette. Although this is essentially the same beer, the brewery believes that the beer does not mature as well in 25cl bottles. And they are right - the best saisons are from 75cl bottles!
The brewery also produces Vapeur en Folie (or, in 25cl bottles, Vapeur Blonde), which is a bright gold colour, citric and sour, reminiscent of a good lambic, but in a class all its own. And last, but by no means least, one of my favourites, Saison De Pipaix. This has a gorgeous amber, almost orange colour, and so many different tastes and complexities. People have said this beer is like a toned down lambic geuze. There are indeed similarities, but enjoy this excellent beer for its own taste. At 6.5%, it won't blow you away - well, the alcohol won't, but the taste might!
The other favourite saison brewer of mine is Brasserie Dupont (Tourpes, Hainult). It produces two saisons. Saison Dupont Biologique is not bad, but has a peculiar tang to it. Saison Dupont Vieille Provision is an excellent saison, good for seasoned saisonists and newcomers alike! It has a nice citric bite, with a malty finish.
Some other breweries who do saisons are: