A saison, anyone? For thousands of drinkers and brewers, Phil Markowski’s 2004 book Farmhouse ales, and especially the contribution it includes by Belgian brewer Yvan De Baets, has shaped the notion of what the beer type saison is or should be: a so-called ‘farmhouse ale’. But has anyone actually checked the sources on which all this is based? Especially for you, I will do so now. Warning for saison lovers: this may shake some firm beliefs you have cherished for a good part of your life.
In a few preceding articles I’ve been looking into the history of saison. This beer type has enjoyed a no less than colossal revival over the past decades: thirty years ago, only a few rural breweries in the province of Hainaut (in the French-speaking part of Belgium) were making it, today ratebeer.com counts over 12,000 different saisons brewed worldwide, and untappd.com lists no less than 43,390.
A major boost for its popularity was the 2004 book Farmhouse ales by American brewer Phil Markowski, currently brew master at Two Roads Brewing in Stratford, Connecticut, USA. In the book, Markowski described the different Belgian saisons of that moment, defined what saison is and gave guidelines for brewing it, and also for its Northern French counterpart bière de garde. The bottom line of the entire book is: saison is what it is because originally it was a ‘farmhouse ale’, brewed on Belgian farms in wintertime to quench the farm workers’ thirst in summer.
It’s a book that has inspired a lot of people worldwide, and saison is now being brewed everywhere from Trinidad to Tokyo, by people who think they are part of a Belgian farmer’s tradition. It helped to spread an until then quite unknown and probably endangered beer type, and it boosted sales of great Belgian beers, especially the beer that is definitely presented as the standard: Saison Dupont, from the Dupont brewery in the small Hainaut village of Tourpes.
Therefore, it may come as a shock to saison lovers that this influential book actually shows how Phil Markowski is oddly unaware of the very basics of Belgian geography and history. For instance, somehow he thinks that Wallonia and the French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were ‘once collectively known as Flanders’. Unfortunately, this is a laughable assertion to anyone who even remotely knows anything about Belgium, its politics and its linguistic problems. No less unfortunate is the mythical ‘Kingdom of Flanders’ Markowski somehow invents, as well as the border that according to Markowski has divided Wallonia and the French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais since 1831. (I hate to tell you this, but there never was such a kingdom and the border dates from 1713). To put it differently: to a Belgian, saying Wallonia is part of Flanders is like saying New York City is part of Canada. It makes you think: if Markowski couldn’t get this right, why should we trust him on the farmhouse story?
At least, Markowski had the good sense of asking a Belgian to write the chapter about the history of saison. Like Markowski, Yvan De Baets is a brewer. Then working at De Ranke brewery in Dottignies (which is, admittedly, a rare Flemish brewery in Hainaut), he would shortly after co-found the well-known Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels. De Baets made a great contribution to the Belgian beer scene and has created wonderful beers. Also, his contribution to Farmhouse ales for many has become a classic reference when it comes to saison and its history.
In fact, De Baets’ article is the only text I know on the history of Belgian saison. In it, De Baets paints a rather idyllic picture of the brewing farmers of Hainaut who, so to speak, hardly ever left the farmyard. That’s why I was surprised when I recently found out that most historical evidence I found myself on this beer type, didn’t really align with what De Baets is saying in his famous article. Surely, also in the past saison was defined as a beer brewed ‘in the good season’ (i.e. winter) that was kept for a few months or more. However, I found a lot of 19th century professional breweries making and selling saison in cities, especially Liège, which isn’t even part of Hainaut. I felt it was time to give De Baets’ article a very close reading and see what exactly he is basing himself on.
Clearly, De Baets spoke to the people at Dupont brewery and some other (former) brewers. He may have looked at their archives as well. Also, he tasted some old bottles of saison and drew some conclusions from that. Still, it is rather odd that although De Baets admits that ‘very few written records exist’ for the rural beers he is writing about, he somehow still feels confident enough to proclaim that the saisons of today are ‘similar to those of the past’.
In any case, what De Baets relates about early 20th century saison seems plausible. Around 1900, saison must have been relatively sour. Also, it was weaker than today’s saison at around 3 to 3.5% ABV. Only during the course of the century did saisons become less sour and more bitter. Also, they got heavier, between 4.5 and 6.5% ABV, and in the end saison became a beer that was brewed year-round. De Baets describes the rural context these saisons had at Dupont and elsewhere: in the first half of the 20th century, farmers would go to a local brewery a few times during winter, and brew a reserve of saison. Marc Rosier of Dupont relates that before the Second World War, farmers would take bottles of saison to the field and put them in a hole in the ground to keep them cold. I have no particular reason to doubt that: I’m sure that’s what happened in that particular rural part of the region by that time. My idea is however, that it is a very narrow view of what saison actually was.
De Baets says a few things I’ve dealt with in earlier articles, such as the idea that ‘it was almost out of the question to brew in the summer’ or that ‘saisons originated in Wallonia, in southern Belgium, with an important concentration in the province of Hainaut.’ In short: there certainly were breweries in Belgium that continued to produce throughout summer, and saison was much more a typical beer from the province of Liège than from Hainaut. De Baets gives no source for the ‘saison was brewed at the farm for the farm workers’ story, apparently considering it common knowledge. In reality, the oldest reference to this narrative I found so far only dates from 1989, by an author who clearly based himself on what the people at the Dupont brewery told him. I’ll get back to this in an upcoming article.
Anyway, things really go off the rails when De Baets wants to make it any more specific than that. For the details, De Baets consulted 19th and early 20th century brewing manuals and made a few more or less educated guesses. I’ve looked at the same works to see what exactly De Baets is basing himself on. What is to follow now, may shock saison lovers.
Let’s have a look at the grains used by the ‘farmhouse breweries’ De Baets wants to describe. He claims that they ‘usually grew their own barley and malted it themselves’. To confirm this, De Baets quotes a brewing manual by Cartuyvels and Stammer from 1879, on the primitive kilns used in Hainaut. But when you look up that old book and see what these gentlemen actually say on beer in Hainaut, you read: ‘malt is generally prepared in breweries… The grains used are most often six-row barley from the region, from the polders [=Flanders], from Beauce [Central France], Vendée [Western France] and barley from the Danube.’ Does that sound like home-grown barley malted by farms (not breweries)? Not to me.
De Baets also quotes French beer writer Georges Lacambre (1851) on kilning, but picks it from a section on Walloon brown beer, a beer type that according to Lacambre (contrary to saison) was usually drunk fresh. Then, De Baets references Vanderstichele (1905) on malting barley for bière de garde, but De Baets somehow fails to communicate that the original text recommends barley from the polders, especially from the district of Cadzand (in the Netherlands, right across the border)!
Conclusion: did these idyllic farmers grow their own barley? Not if the sources De Baets misquoted are anything to go by.
Then, there’s hops. De Baets quotes Cartuyvels and Stammer on the quantity of hops used, but then goes on to say that ‘it is well understood that Belgian hops, traditionally grown in the province of Hainaut, were most often used since they were grown near the brewery and were the most readily available.’ Unfortunately Cartuyvels and Stammer actually say something quite different on the hops used in Hainaut beers: ‘The hops that are most often used are those of Aalst and Poperinge’. As you may know, these places are in Flanders, and not in Hainaut ‘near the brewery’.
De Baets goes on to talk about the use of old hops, apparently to encourage the development of lactic bacteria that would have been incompatible with fresh hops. De Baets: ‘Farmhouse breweries would most likely have a stock of old or imperfectly stored hops on hand. The use of older hops was frequent, bringing saisons close to traditional lambic.’ He provides no evidence for this, and worse: the brewers of the ‘traditional’ lambic of the 19th and early 20th century actually used fresh hops, not old hops. One would almost be inclined to believe that De Baets is simply inventing this out of thin air. It doesn’t end here. On fermentation temperature De Baets again quotes what Lacambre had to say about Walloon brown beer, again: this was a fresh beer that was completely different from saison.
I have to admit, that after verifying De Baets’ claims, he really fell off a pedestal for me. All in all, I don’t believe he is giving a fair representation of his source material here. Quite the opposite, actually. So what went wrong? I think De Baets was desperate to write about what happened at farms, but found very little material to work with. Instead, he turned to brewing literature that obviously described what professional brewers were doing – and then was happy to misquote it.
I feel that if De Baets had stayed closer to what the sources are actually saying, he would have painted an entirely different picture. At least Cartuyvels and Stammer devote a small chapter on the beers of Hainaut, which do not include saison but do include ‘bière de garde, vieille ou de conserve’ which at least in definition is more or less the same thing. But the only actual saison these old books talk about is the saison of Liège, which according to Vanderstichele was made in ‘the province of Liège, parts of Limburg, Luxemburg and Namur, and even [sic!] in Hainaut’. It was a poorly attenuated (sweet) beer traditionally based on spelt malt. De Baets dismisses this Liège saison in a footnote as a completely different beer, referring to the current well-attenuated (dry) saisons as the only ‘true’ saisons. Sure, De Baets may choose to look at it that way, but to a 19th century Belgian, ‘saison’ almost always meant ‘Liège saison’. It is a bit unfair to walk away from that so easily.
More in general, Yvan De Baets wants you to believe that in 19th century Hainaut, idyllic farmhouse brewing was somehow the norm, even if Wallonia was, as I’ve stressed in a previous article, one of the most industrialised and urbanised regions in the world. He is happy to ignore that his sources are talking about professional breweries, situated in towns like Ath, Chièvres, Péruwelz, Tournai and Soignies. Instead, I feel that De Baets is trying to give an idealised vision of the countryside, and by doing so he often paints himself into a corner, for instance when talking about the kraüsen method used to carbonate beer. Realising such a sophisticated technique, typically used by commercial breweries, was not the sort of thing that simple farmers would do, he tries to get out of it by saying ‘This technique wasn’t used frequently in farmhouse breweries (…) Later, this technique could have been spread when the farmhouse breweries became only breweries.’ Yeah right.
In a few instances, De Baets gives no reference to source material at all, for instance when claiming ‘each brewer had his own recipe’ or that some brewers also used wheat, oats, buckwheat and malted spelt. The same for the use of spices such as star anise, sage and coriander, or for his description of the developments in the 20th century. It’s not that I find all this particularly unconvincing, but it would have been nice if he had provided some sources. (Also, who would use spices in a beer that was then supposedly mainly appreciated for its sour taste and vinousness? But that’s another story.)
Markowski’s book and De Baets’ article in it have inspired people worldwide to drink and brew great beer, and that’s wonderful. But I feel that what De Baets writes is hardly representative of the actual history of saison or even of the Dupont-like variety from rural Hainaut. Clearly, De Baets took Dupont as a starting point and used only what seemed to confirm their story: saison as a farm beer. Think of this what you will, but I’ll just say this: I don’t mind if Belgian brewers engage in cherry picking, but only if it is to make kriek.
 Phil Markowski, Farmhouse ales. Culture and craftmanship in the Belgian tradition, Boulder (Colorado), 2004.
 Or the longer version of the real history: Flanders was a county; Hainaut was a separate county and never part of Flanders (nor were any of the other provinces that now constitute Wallonia, except for Walloon Brabant, which was only formed in 1995). Parts of Flanders were however conquered by France in the 17th and 18th centuries and are now part of the French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais. Markowski somehow forgets to mention the most important part of historical Flanders: most of the old county of Flanders is now, of course, in the provinces of Eastern and Western Flanders in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (now also collectively known as Flanders, to complicate matters).
 Yvan De Baets, ‘A history of saison’, in: Markowski, Farmhouse ales, p. 96-127.
 Achille Latour, Les brasseurs et la bière, Nonette , p. 6.
 Jules Cartuyvels and Charles Stammer, Traité complet théorique et pratique de la fabrication de la bière et du malt, Brussels / Liège 1879.
 Georges Lacambre, Traité complet de la fabrication de bières et de la distillation des grains, pommes de terre, vins, betteraves, mélasses, etc., Brussels 1851, p. 320-321.
 G. Vanderstichele, La brasserie de fermentation haute, Paris / Turnhout 1905, p. 280.
 Cartuyvels and Stammer, Traité complet, p. 413.
 http://lostbeers.com/eight-myths-about-lambic-debunked/ The Artois brewery in Leuven was using fresh hops in lambic as late as 1908 [EDIT: as late as 1914] (Brewing book ‘Nouveau Cornet’, Artois archives at the National Archives, Leuven).
 Lacambre, Traité complet, p. 320-321.
 Cartuyvels and Stammer, Traité complet, p. 412.
 Vanderstichele, Brasserie de fermentation haute, p. 286.
 Cartuyvels and Stammer, Traité complet, p. 412.