Lately, I’ve taken on a daunting task: to seek out the history of all the different beer styles of Belgium. When did they first appear, what were they like throughout the years, and in many cases: when did they disappear? In fact, of the many beer styles Belgium knew in the 19th century, only a few survived: white beer, lambic and its derivatives gueuze, faro and kriek, Flemish old brown, and saison. Others, like the Peeterman of Leuven, the drijdraad from the Land of Waas and the grisette of Hainaut, have all died out.
My method may be unorthodox, or at least by Belgian standards. I typically like to ignore whatever the brewers themselves may today be saying about the history of a certain beer, and instead I look at historical sources: old brewing logs, literature, advertisements, statistics, complemented by more recent literature if it’s well-documented.
One important beer type is especially problematic: saison. If right now I would have to write a short history of saison with the information I have found so far, it would look completely different from the narrative you usually hear. That narrative usually goes something like this: saison is typical for the Belgian province of Hainaut and was brewed on farms in winter time, when the farmers had nothing else to do, and that saison was drunk by farm workers in summer. And thus, saison is supposed to be a ‘farmhouse ale’.
My findings are different. This may shock saison lovers, but there is no historical text describing saison as a typically rural beer or specifically aimed at farm workers. Instead, the oldest mention of saison that I found dates from 1823, where it is described as ‘Advent or March beer, excellent beer that is brewed in Liège and that can be kept.’ Liège, for those who do not know it, is a typical industrial city with coal mines and metal industry, and this was already the case in the early 19th century. Hardly a rural environment, you would say. Also, it is not in the province of Hainaut.
It is the saison of Liège that is described in various 19th century brewing manuals, and it was markedly different from the Hainaut saison of today. It contained mainly malted spelt and unmalted wheat, and because of its low attenuation it was relatively sweet. It was brewed in winter time and drunk after 4 to 6 months. By 1862, there was also a double version and I even found a few rare instances of a ‘triple saison’. A few elements of this Liège version sound familiar: it was brewed in winter (the ‘season’ the beer was named after) and drunk a few months later. But there’s nothing to suggest an agricultural environment.
So what about saison in Hainaut? It is hard, very hard to find 19th century evidence of saison being a regularly brewed beer type there. The earliest mention of saison in that province is in Charleroi, in 1858 where a pub called Le Petit Caporal promised two litres of ‘bière de saison’ to anyone who would reach a ‘nine four’ in a bowling game.  Three years later, Charleroi-based singer Jacques Bertrand sang about saison in this way: ‘Brewed in March, this clear beer, quenches us during summer days’. Surely, this at least sounds like today’s saison, but maybe I need to remind you that Charleroi, too, was a very industrial coal mining city.
As I said, sources for 19th century Hainaut saison are sparse. Instead, other beers were seen as typical for Hainaut or for Wallonia in general: the grisette for instance, a light-coloured beer with some wheat in it. It originally came from a town called Antoing near Tournai, but that later spread as far as Brussels and Jodoigne in Brabant. Another one was simply called ‘brune’ or brown beer, either made from barley or a variety of other grains. While this could be made as a keeping beer, it wasn’t specifically known as a saison.
In fact, most 19th century mentions of a saison in Hainaut seem to use the term not as an indication of a beer type (as was the case in Liège), but more like an additional description of another beer. For instance, at the international hops fair in Dijon in October 1866 (when Burgundy was still an important hops growing region) the Bataille-Lenglet brewery of Quiévrain presented its ‘grisette de saison’, made in November the year before; at the same fair, Robillard from Hensies presented various forms of ‘bière brune vieille’ (‘old brown beer’), among which a ‘brune vieille de saison’, ditto ‘demi-saison’ and even one ditto ‘genre Lambic’. Both breweries were from Hainaut. Likewise, in 1883 the Misonne brewery from Lodelinsart, an industrial suburb of Charleroi, advertised grisette but also ‘brune ordinaire’, ‘brune supérieure’ and ‘brune saison’.
In contexts like these, the suffix ‘de saison’ apparently simply meant ‘a version of the usual fresh beer, brewed in winter for keeping for half a year or so’. In this way, it was considered more or less a synonym of other terms for keeping beers: ‘bière de garde’, ‘bière de provision’, bière de conserve’, ‘vieille bière ‘… Some writers saw some kind of difference in how these keeping beers were made, others seem to use the terms without distinction. In a way, even the Liège saison originally was simply the keeping version of the fresh spelt beer that was already made there in the 17th century.
It seems that only by the late 19th century, Hainaut breweries started to sell ‘bière de saison’ as a standalone beer, although even then sometimes the words ‘bière de garde’ were added to make clear what beer they were talking about.
So, what to make of this? For one thing, it is clear to me that the history of saison is way more than simply ‘it was made on the farm’. I doubt the earliest saison found in Liège was a farm beer (or a ‘farmhouse ale’, if you will). I doubt the earliest saison found in Charleroi was a farm beer. I doubt a simple farmer would have sent his simple homebrew all the way to Dijon to be judged by a professional jury, as was the case with the two early Hainaut saisons in 1866. For one thing, the 19th century saison that we know of was made by professional brewers. So what about the ‘farmhouse ale’ story? Surely, many Belgian breweries started out as farms (Duvel, Bosteels, Palm…), but why is saison supposed to be the typical farm beer? I’ll look at that more closely in an upcoming article.
 Grisette survived as a brand name owned by the Saint-Feuillien brewery.
 For instance, excellent research on Belgian beer history has been done by people like Raymond van Uytven, Erik Aerts, Frank Becuwe, Chris Vandewalle, Yvan Derycke, Paul Daeleman, Raf Meert, Dave Janssen and many others.
 Cf. Phil Markowski, Farmhouse ales. Culture and craftmanship in the Belgian tradition, Boulder (Colorado), 2004. In chapter six, Yvan de Baets describes this version of saison history in more detail. I’ll give a critical appraisal of this article in an upcoming article.
 L. Remacle, Dictionnaire wallon et Français, dans lequel on trouve la correction de nos idiotismes, par la traduction en français, Liège 1823, p. 309.
 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. 376-378; La Meuse 15-3-1862, 5-7-1886.
 Journal de Charleroi 27-10-1858.
 Charles Le Cocq, Coup d’Oeil sur la statistique commerciale de la ville de Tournay et de son arrondissement, Tournai 1817, p. 65-67; Le peuple 25-2-1894; Jean Palange, La brasserie Palange ou l’histoire d’une entreprise familiale Jodoignoise, Jodoigne 1988, p. 45-48.
 Le Cocq, Coup d’Oeil p. 65-67; Jean Baptiste Vrancken, ‘Antwoord op vraag 81’, in: Nieuwe verhandelingen van het Bataafsch Genootschap der Proefondervindelijke Wijsbegeerte te Rotterdam, Rotterdam 1829, p. 239-245; Lacambre, Traité complet, p. 320-321.
 Comité central d’agriculture de la Côte-d’Or, Concours international de houblons et de bières. Dijon Octobre 1866. Catalogue et list des récompenses, Dijon 1866, p. 37, 39.
 Gazette de Charleroi 4-1-1883.
 A. Laurent, Dictionnaire de la brasserie, Brussels 1875, p. 75, 139, 273. Cf. http://www.horscategoriebrewing.com/2018/01/biere-de-saison-1905-recipe-infusion.html.
 Joseph Kinable, ‘Glossaire technologique wallon-français du métier des brasseurs’, in: Bulletin de la Société Liégeoise de littérature wallonne, second series part 13 (1889), p. 293-319, here p. 310.
 Gazette de Charleroi 9-5-1904; http://www.horscategoriebrewing.com/2018/01/biere-de-saison-1905-recipe-infusion.html.