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Saison Season 2021, Part 1: La Blonde Africaine

I’ve always loved saisons—to me they’re the perfect summer drink, and they go down pretty damn well in spring and fall as well. I’ve made my fair share of them over the years: The first I made was the last batch on my original Northern Brewer starter system, back in the spring of 2017, a partial mash rye saison that I used an eye dropper to dose with Brett Brux at bottling. To this day it remains one of the best beers I’ve made. (I wish I still had some bottles around, but the last one got poured sometime in 2019. RIP.) Since then, I’ve made straight saisons, sour saisons, tea saisons, and more.

So: Why do I love saisons? Well, they’re crisp and dry, yet full of fascinating flavor—even at lower ABVs. They’re simple and cheap to make, and they’re surprisingly adaptable to whatever ingredients you may have on hand. Add a bit of Brett into the mix—whether in primary, secondary, or at bottling—and the fascination only deepens.

Late last year, I picked up a packet of Omega’s C2C Farmhouse yeast blend, which combines the Saccharomyces strain from a famous east coast beer mecca with the Brettanomyces from a noted west coast farmhouse brewery. (The internet’s consensus is that these breweries are Hill Farmstead and Logsdon, respectively, though it hasn’t been verified.) Obviously, saison was the only way to go with such a blend, but the question was what kind?

Figuring a Brett beer would take a few months at the very least to finish, I decided to go with a simple blonde saison in the hopes that it’d be drinking well in time for the warmer days of spring and early summer. But of course I had to put my own little spin on it, this time with the help of an ancient grain from Africa.

What’s in it?

The Vitals

  • Method: BIAB, full-volume mash
  • Batch size: 5 gallons
  • Mash: 154
  • Boil: 60 minutes
  • Fermentation: 85F during primary, left 1.5 months at room temp (~72F) before bottling
  • OG: 1.053 (13 Bx)
  • FG: 1.006 (5.8 Bx)
  • ABV: 6.2%
  • IBU: 31

The Grain

  • 2.3 lbs Briess 6-Row Malt (24.6%)
  • 2.3 lbs Gambrinus Pilsner Malt (24.6%)
  • 1.25 lbs Mecca Grade Rimrock Rye Malt (13.4%)
  • 1.25 lbs Mecca Grade Vanora Vienna Malt (13.4%)
  • 1 lb Bob’s Red Mill Freekeh (10.7%)
  • 1 lb Briess White Wheat Malt (10.7%)
  • 0.25 lb Briess Aromatic Malt (2.7%)

The Hops

  • 50g Saaz [2.9% AA, 15.7 IBU] @ 60 minutes
  • 50g Saaz [12 IBU] @ 30 minutes
  • 50g Saaz [3.1 IBU] @ 5 minutes

The Rest

  • Yeast: 1 packet Omega C2C Farmhouse (OYL-217), direct pitch
  • Water: 6.15 gallons Bend tap + 0.75 tsp CaCl2, 0.75 tsp gypsum, and 4.5g lactic acid 88%

How’d it go?

You may have noticed the freekeh in the ingredient list above. That’d be the twist I mentioned in the intro. What is freekeh, you ask? Technically it’s a process for cooking grain, but functionally it’s a kind of cracked, roasted young wheat. It’s used often in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, usually in salads or as a cereal grain. It has a hearty, savory, slightly smoky flavor that I thought might add a bit of interest to an otherwise relatively mundane grain bill.

Like other unmalted grain, freekeh needs to be cereal mashed in order to convert. So before I fired up my Robobrew, I simmered it in half a gallon of water for about 30 minutes before adding it to the main mash. While quite a lot of the water evaporated, I removed about 0.15 gallons from my mash water to compensate.

Freekeh is more often used for Middle Eastern salads than brewing, but why not give it a shot? Photo: Bob’s Red Mill

After that, the mash itself was straightforward, as was the boil (aside from my timer dying partway through, leaving me to guesstimate how much time was left). I ended up just a single point under my target OG of 1.054, which is certainly close enough for me.

One of the joys of saison is that you don’t need to worry about temperature control during fermentation, and you don’t need to chill the wort too much before pitching your yeast. In this case, I simply dropped the wort to a tepid 80F, transferred to my fermenter (in this case, a ported Big Mouth Bubbler), and pitched the packet of C2C Farmhouse directly.

By the following morning, active fermentation was underway and the ferment was running at around 85F. The most active part of primary fermentation was done in just under two days, with the beer sitting at a SG of 1.010, but it took another three weeks for the Brett to finish attenuating and hit the FG of 1.006. Still, a bit over three weeks to FG was a lot quicker than I had expected for a Brett saison.

Out of an abundance of caution, I left the beer in primary for a further two weeks to make sure it was finished before crashing it to near freezing and bottling another week later. At this point, the Brett profile was already well-integrated with the typical saison aromatics, but I only expected it to intensify as the bottles aged.

How’s it taste?

Well, it’s delicious—almost exactly what I’d want out of a Brett saison. I’ve been drinking some killer stuff from Fair Isle in Seattle lately, courtesy of my homebrew buddy Travis, and I’d say my beer stacks up well against their highly praised offerings. I can’t say I taste the freekeh in the finished beer, though. But then again, it is only 10.7% of the total grain bill, and the saison and Brett aromatics are strong.

Appearance: Deep, deep gold and crystal clear after more than 6 months in the bottle at room temp—as long as you don’t jostle the bottle too much when pouring, anyway. The head is fluffy white and lasts forever, with decent lacing. Seriously, it doesn’t go away, right to the last sip. A very pretty beer.

Aroma: It’s clear it’s a saison from the first whiff. Bubblegum leaning toward jackfruit, honey, hay, soft biscuity malt. There’s a strong floral component, too, probably from both the Saaz hops and the yeast. A warming alcohol presence, but not hot. The Brett is there too, but fuck me if I’ll ever be able to properly describe what Brett smells like, or separate it from the other aromas.

Taste: More or less follows the nose: classic saison notes of spice (clove) and hay, an underpinning of crisp fruit—pear?—and a gentle graininess from the malt. The Brett is still there, but not overpowering. It’s definitely more saison than Brett, but I’ll be interested to see how that balance shifts over time as it ages in the bottle.

Mouthfeel: Dry yet pillowy thanks to the high carbonation and moderate FG. It encourages another sip in the best possible way.

Would I brew it again?

I’m extremely impressed with the performance of the Omega C2C Farmhouse culture, and once I’ve beaten my initial pitch to death, I’ll definitely buy more. It’s nice to have a blend that’s not only finely balanced between saison and Brett flavors and aromas, but also one that can produce a notable Brett profile and hit a stable FG in just a month in primary.

The beer itself was great, and I’d definitely make it again, but I would most likely simplify the grain bill. With the heavy yeast-derived flavors, I feel like the subtle contributions of some of the specialty malts here get lost. I’d most likely cut the Vanora, merge the 6-row into the pils (or vice-versa), and use double the white wheat while dropping the freekeh. With this culture, though, I think you could throw just about any grain bill at it and get a delicious result.

…which is exactly what I did with my next beer, fermented on the yeast cake from this one.

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