« on: April 28, 2015, 11:08:00 AM »
I've got opinions!
I've made saisons in the past, but last fall I decided to make them more frequently. I've been brewing saison almost exclusively since then and drinking lots of it commercially.
Here's what I think (so far):
Basics: Incredibly dry (but not watery) with subtle, balanced, preferably complex yeast character. Spiciness from yeast should be no more pronounced than spiciness from spices. Highly carbonated (3-4 volumes). If you miss on any of these points, its just a nice witbier (at best).
Sugar: Unless you're making a saison at 7% or higher without brettanomyces, you don't need sugar. In moderate-gravity saisons, you need all the malt/grain character you can get! Long, low sacch rest and healthy fermentation will produce sufficient dryness.
Adjunct Grains: Bump up the body (and potentially flavor) with adjunct grains. I like good-quality raw wheat, spelt and rye from my local Whole Foods or organic grocer. You have to mill and boil them first or your efficiency will suffer. Oats are good if you want body without (any) additional flavor contribution. Flaked grains sold to homebrewers are often of poor quality. Chew on them - they can sometimes taste like plastic or just bland oats. YMMV.
Fermentation Temperature: Regardless of strain, I start at 67F and allow it to free-rise OR raise 1F/day if it won't free-rise on its own. I only gain 1-2F total from the heat of fermentation, so I use a heat pad to slowly raise the temperature. Pitching <70F is important for fusel control and flavor balance, IMO. I usually hold at 78F (if fermentation isn't already complete). You can go into the mid 80s with 3724, but no reason to hit 90F with steady temp control, good aeration, and healthy yeast.
Yeast health: Make a starter, even if a vial/pack will technically contain enough cells. Even if you don't need growth, a small starter will increase viability, help maximize attenuation, and reduce off flavors. During the last few hours of brewday, stash the starter in an area that is a few degrees warmer than pitch temp. This way, your yeast will come up to pitch temp slowly. Aerate or oxygenate very well, as many saison strains have a higher oxygen requirement vs. normal ale strains.
Conditioning: Some saisons strains, specifically Dupont, require some conditioning time to 'smooth out' the flavor profile. Blending this yeast with other saisons strains can reduce conditioning time.
Packaging: I think bottle conditioning is critical to great saison, but its a PITA, so YMMV. Either way, don't undercarbonate saison just because you already have a bunch of 12 oz bottles or a keg line that's too short to pour it. Use heavy bottles or make adjustments to your draft system.
Mixed Cultures: I don't make saison without pitching several strains brettanomyces (and often lactobacillus) along with the sacch strain(s). I use strains that produce subtle fruity/citrusy flavors with limited phenolic, earthy, 'barnyard' character. I started growing the strains up separately and pitching by volume, but now I often repitch the mixed slurry in successive batches. Since saisons are already so highly attenuated, it can be packaged and drunk fresh or allowed to evolve over time. Brettanomyces is a critical component in my saisons, but not absolutely necessary.
Well... that ended up being a lot longer than I intended.