Before the modern era drinking water was a dangerous proposition. Water contained many pathogens; a fact I first learned while playing Oregon Trail. I can't count how many fictitious children I had who died of dysentery. In French Belgium their solution to this was to ferment water so that yeast could create alcohol and kill all of the dangerous bacteria. As we know the keys to fermentation are yeast, water, and sugar. As avid drinkers we also know that high alcohol beers are more of a meal than they are refreshing. The eventual outcome from all of this knowledge was the Saison.
Farming was hard work. Long days in the fields in the hot summer without supplies of fresh water. So farmers fermented beer light enough to be refreshing and in high enough quantities to last the warmer summer months. This is what farmers drank and where saisons drew their roots. Beers were blended to achieve fermentation, or served still, adjuncts were added, or not. This was home brewing at it's earnest.
Saisons changed however as modernity came about, Adam Smith changed things with his revolutionary ideas about the division of labor. Once brewing became a more practical profession, and larger more modern practices were employed. Saisons became a pure culture product without the farm flavors they had before. The consistency increased, and later the clarity and classic Belgian head were added. What remained of the rather modest roots of this working man's favorite was a beer of modest alcohol, with a characteristically dry finish, and spiciness/fruit from the saison strains.
(Read more after the break.)
What I get from Drinking a Saison:
The beer has a crisp finish, often with a tart lemony tone too it. Some Saisons are more aggressive with the lemony flavors: Jolly Pumpkin gets funk from their house yeast culture, Brooklyn Brewing gets it from a high dose of Sorachi hops in their Sorachi Ace Saisons. The dry finish is refreshing and makes they beer an easy sipper, the somewhat aggressive carbonation helps lift the beer off the tongue. The range of flavors in beers labeled saisons is as diverse as pale ales or stouts, which is to say large.
What the BJCP says should go in a Saison:
"Pilsner malt dominates the grist though a portion of Vienna and/or Munich malt contributes color and complexity. Sometimes contains other grains such as wheat and spelt. Adjuncts such as sugar and honey can also serve to add complexity and thin the body. Hop bitterness and flavor may be more noticeable than in many other Belgian styles. A saison is sometimes dry-hopped. Noble hops, Styrian or East Kent Goldings are commonly used. A wide variety of herbs and spices are often used to add complexity and uniqueness in the stronger versions, but should always meld well with the yeast and hop character. Varying degrees of acidity and/or sourness can be created by the use of gypsum, acidulated malt, a sour mash or Lactobacillus. Hard water, common to most of Wallonia, can accentuate the bitterness and dry finish."
Commercial Saisons worth taking a look at:
Hennepin - Ommegang - It's a good gateway saisons, a dry finish, bold Belgian flavor, approachably drinkable.
Tank Seven Farmhouse Ale - The Boulevard - nice and drinkable; gets tarter as it goes - neat version called saison brett.
Saison Rue - The Bruery - a touch of tartness and brett funk - nice warm malt and dry finish for an 8.5% beer