Current Issue #488

'Let the yeast do the talking': The secret to great Saison beer

'Let the yeast do the talking': The secret to great Saison beer

When it comes to brewing the original session ale, it’s all about keeping it simple, says award-winning home brewer Ben Rowley.

From ambergris ale to bull testicle stout and beer made with belly button lint, it seems there’s nothing that brewers won’t add to their products in the quest for something new. Searching for ever-crazier ideas is one of the great temptations of any new brewer, and it was certainly a temptation Ben Rowley wrestled with.

“When I first started brewing, I just wanted to add more,” he says. “It was ‘more of this, more that, more everything’. It’s kind of the way I cook as well, so it’s been an interesting process to try and pare that back and just keep it really, really simple.”

Rowley was encouraged to go back to basics after attending a range of talks given by international brewers at the Wheatsheaf Hotel. “The ones that I really, really liked were the ones who were just doing traditional beer styles and not being overly gimmicky. Sure it’s fun [to use unusual ingredients] and I still do it sometimes but there’s so much variety in the traditional beer styles that there’s really no need to go over the top and do all sorts of crazy things.”

Though he enjoys many other styles — “I know it’s a bit of a stereotype but I love Stouts and I love big IPAs,” he laughs — Rowley’s quest for simplicity eventually led him to homebrew Saisons.

One of the most traditional beer styles of all, the Saison is a refreshing summer beer that lays claim to being the original ‘session ale’. Historically brewed with low alcohol content, it provided sustenance and slaked the thirst of farmers in Belgium and France during the long days of harvest. It was a strictly seasonal beer, brewed in winter and drunk in summer (hence the name). Each farm had their own version too, which makes it a very broad style.

These days, it’s usually brewed a bit stronger than the original 3 per cent but still retains its reputation as a versatile and exceedingly drinkable beer.

“The thing I love about this beer is that it goes really, really well with food,” Rowley says. “It’s excellent with smelly cheese and really good with all sorts of things… It’s a bit of a blank canvas, it just complements other flavours really well.”

Since Rowley wanted to brew a Saison that could pair well with a range of other flavours, he didn’t go over the top with his. The only ingredients are pilsener malt, wheat, German hops, yeast and water.

“The key thing to this beer is the yeast, that’s what gives it all the flavour,” he says. “A lot of people go a bit mad, they want to add a lot of fruit, they want to add every spice under the sun but it’s usually better to just let the yeast do the talking.”

In this case the yeast hails from the Ardennes on the border of France and Belgium in a nod to the beer’s origins. The resulting brew is hazy and straw-coloured with a hint of farmhouse funk. Rowley describes it as “malty but with a bone dry finish and pepper and clove notes towards the end.”

When he entered it in last year’s Robe Homebrew & Craft Beer Festival, he was pleasantly surprised to win best farmhouse ale and best in show. Robe Town Brewery is known for doing things differently — they make the aforementioned ambergris ale — and the prize included the chance to upscale his recipe to commercial quantities. So in late April this year, he drove up to Robe with a yeast starter bubbling away in the passenger seat and worked with owner Maris Biezaite to brew 900 litres of his Saison.

Ironically, it was the home brewer who was more worried about the collaboration. Though Rowley brews in his laundry, he approaches the craft in a very scientific fashion, controlling temperatures and making sure that everything is hermetically sealed during the fermentation process. Biezaite takes a bit more of a mad scientist approach, mashing the grain in wine barrels rather than stainless steel and filtering the beer through hay. Everything is open fermented, and the contrast between the two brewer’s styles led them to christen the result ‘The Stowaway’.

It’s not an exact replica of the Saison that Rowley makes at home, which has since won Best Saison at the State Amateur Brewers Show of SA. The pair tweaked the ingredients and methods and Rowley says “it’s definitely got a little bit more funk than the one I made,” but he’s very happy with the result.

It was on tap at the Beer & BBQ Festival earlier this year and the longer it ages, the better it gets. It’s destined to be a favourite at the upcoming Robe Homebrew & Craft Beer Festival, where Rowley will be on hand to pour and taste next year’s entries as a judge.

The Robe Home Brew & Craft Beer Festival takes place from October 26-28

Photography: Ross McNaughtan


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