Saison doesn't have quite the storied past of styles like bock or porter. Its humble birth occurred in the farmhouses of Wallonia, Belgium. Saison was the beer brewed by households for their own consumption. This style brewed by the French-speaking people in southern Belgium shares a lot of similarities with the Bière de Garde style of France. Originally this was a seasonal beer brewed in spring to last through summer and into autumn. Therefore it had to be durable and refreshing - a tall order for ales brewed in the days before refrigeration.
It wasn't too long ago that saison was regularly referred to as a "dying style." But it has enjoyed a strong resurgence in recent years. It is still brewed as it always has been in small, artisanal breweries in southern Belgium. These quaint operations are often a high point for the growing beer tourism business in Belgium. But the real leap in growth of the style has occurred in US-based craft brewing. At the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, this is the style that had the biggest increase in entrants with 76% growth over two years. It is no longer a dying style.
As with many Belgium styles, almost anything you fancy can go in a saison though the style remains unique and distinctive. Most saisons are based on Pilsner malt with adjuncts such as candi sugar or honey common. The style contains a bit more hops than other Belgium styles with Noble hops, Styrian or East Kent Goldings. It is also sometimes dry hopped. Many saisons contain herbs and spices. The yeast is an ale yeast that contributes lots of flavors. This is often enhanced with a sour mash or Lactobacillus to add some acidity to the beer.
If someone tells me that they like big, complex wines but they've just never found a beer that they cared for, this is the type of style that we'd recommend. Saison is full of complexity as would be expected from the wide range of ingredients. A soft malt character contributed by the Pilsner malt supports spicy and fruity flavors resulting from the yeast and adjuncts. Though the hops presence is pronounced it never overwhelms the spicy complexity of the beer. All of this plus the acidic sourness and a typically dry finish contribute to a complex and very satisfying brew.
One might think that, given its complexity, saison might be a fickle beer for pairing. Actually, the opposite is true. With so much going on in the aroma and flavor of a good saison, it's got the stuff to go with almost any dish. The fruity and spicy notes can lift a simple barbecue to angelic heights. The spicy and peppery notes will really enhance the flavors of any hot or peppery dish. It can transform sausage in ways you just wouldn't believe. The only word of caution we have to offer when pairing with saison is that it will overbear more delicate foods.