Farmhouse Ales and Brewing With Unmalted Spelt

Saison DuPont

Saison DuPont. The most well-known Saison.

First off, I’d like to say that this is my 50th posting! I like to thank all the readers that have checked out this blog since its inception in March ’11. Cheers to you all!

  • Saison

Recently I’ve been obsessing about a Belgian beer style known as Saison. Probably because its summertime and a light, low ABV saison is both a great tasting style of brew, but can also be a refreshing treat when the summer heat is relentless. Saisons tend to have a dry hoppy, finish, and usually taste somewhat tart.  I feel the best saisons are “session” beers: a thirst quenching, tasty beer that makes you want to grab another one. They usually will have a peppery yeast profile that can be attributed to the Belgian yeast used in the fermentation and are sometimes spiced in some way. According to the BJCP there is a wide interpretation for this style. There are light and dark saisons, and they can range from small session style with and ABV of 4.5% to as high as 9% is some rare cases!

The saison style began on the farms of Wallonia: the French-speaking side of Belgium. (That’s why “saison” sounds French). Apparently the farmers would brew them for the workers as a means of refreshment. The farmer/brewers would obviously use the ingredients on hand (i.e. spices, malts, “raw” grains, etc) often home malting their own malts. This is why they would often spend many hours making these beers due to the less than stellar malts made from the home malting process. They also used wild yeast on some occasion, (in fact if you buy the WLP American Farmhouse Ale strain, it includes a strain of Brettanomyces B along with brewer’s yeast) ,of course the wild yeast was not by choice. This was just how the brewing process was back then. “Cool ships” were often used to cool the hot wort. These are a flat, wide open container that was exposed to the open air, (think of a huge cookie sheet). Of course the beer was completely exposed to open air and the wild yeast. The open air around Belgium is said  to contain the best wild yeasts in the world!  The farmhouse ale is not just limited to saison, its close cousin; a style known as Biere De Garde is also similar.

  • Biere De Garde

Biere D’Hougoumont by Ommegang of N.Y. This beer is great example of a Biere De Garde.

The Biere De Garde was brewed predominately in France. Both Saison and Bier De Garde show their French influence by using champagne bottles and corks like the beloved “bubbly” of France. Both styles are thought of as rustic or artisan ales…which is exactly what they are. Using Jolly Pumpkin as an example, many of their beers are heavily influenced by these farmhouse brews and other Belgian styles. They proudly show this by the use of Brett, Lacto, Pedio along with wood/barrel aging. All of those factors add an artisan profile to the beer and give a rustic flavor to the aged ales they release. The biere de garde beers however are not traditionally brewed with Brett, Lacto, or Pedio bugs and are usually considered a cleaner style than the saison but are sometimes described to have a “cellar” character. I suppose a Brett C strain could be added to the biere de garde as it is sometimes described as have a cellar character and is much less intense as opposed to other strains of Brett. Saisons are sometimes brewed as a sour ale and often offer a spicier, drier, more tart flavor than biere de garde. Both were traditionally stored or “lagered” for extended periods of time; hence the name biere de garde (garde meaning to keep / lager).

  • A recipe comes together

Back to the Saison: To achieve a traditional saison-like flavor, a highly fermentable wort is what is necessary. This includes not only mashing low, 146 to 148 for 60 minutes (90 mins is better), but careful attention to yeast health as well. Today’s saison strains are capable of high temp fermentation, (75-80 degrees in primary), and some actually prefer it! This reason alone helps tremendously when looking for a drier beer; typical of saison. I have found that adding acid malt to the mash helps to meet that acidic dry flavor found in the style. Just watch the PH level during mash as the acid malt will drop the PH making it more acidic(hence the name acid malt). For flavor, acid malt should occur near the end of mash time, unless you are correcting the PH..

Since the saison yeast strains are a Belgian strain, they are typically are spicey in flavor and will sometimes add some clove-like elements to the beer. Many brewers add grains of paradise, lemon peel, peppercorns, or coriander to these beers to reinforce the spicy sense. Tettnanger hops and other spicier varieties like Saaz are used late in boil for flavor.

For malts, Pils is usually used as the base (that means a 90 min boil to suppress DMS off-flavors), along with some wheat malt or rye. Vienna and Munich malts are sometimes added for color and some extra maltiness. To get even more rustic, consider adding some wheat, rye, or spelt berries…which is just whole grains that will add some cloudiness from the high protein they will add. Of course that means a cereal mash is needed: (more on this in minute).  Adding sugar or honey in place of some malt will surely help dropping the final gravity. Remember, be light handed with this step as using too much simple sugar will give off flavors. If your original gravity is not too high,(1.055 or lower), the addition of corn sugar or honey should not be considered necessary; as the yeast should be able to attenuate enough for proper dryness. Saison yeast strains usually have an outstanding attenuation percentage (75%-80%) if properly cared for.

Use yeast nutrient in the last 10 minutes of the boil and add some pure oxygen to the wort and there should be no issue with a stuck fermentation! Saison strains have a reputation of starting aggressively fast, but slow to reach the proper attenuation. So be patient!

  •  Cereal Mashing Unmalted Grains: Spelt 

In my recipe I have decided to add a twist to the saison. It actually is something that is pretty common among saison home brewers…adding unmalted grains, specifically spelt berries. Spelt Berries are really not berries in the traditional sense, but more of a dried grain in this case. It has very little flavor as is, but toasting the grains will add a deep nutty flavor.. Anyone who has tried spelt bread before can tell you that it has a distinct flavor that is very rustic in taste. When ground into flour. it is tricky to use in bread making due to the lack of gluten. This lack of gluten makes it very easy to overwork the dough resulting in flat bread with little to no structure. However, spelt offers a good amount of protein and B vitamins. It is the most nutritional whole grain you will find and has a ton of starches: which is good for beer! The trick: mash the unmalted grain separately and add it to the main mash.  

Cereal mash “after” picture. This is 1 lb of raw spelt grains and 1/2 lb of 6 row for extra enzymes. This is what the  cereal mash should look like when the mash is over.

It’s simple, you are just cooking the grain before you add it to the mash tun. I mashed on my stove top for the ability to step mash. The idea here is gelatinize the grains to make the starches soluble. First, the grains are cracked or milled to open up the grain for mashing. Second, add the milled grain to some milled 6-row malted barley,(just for the enzymes), and some water. 1.5 qts per LB of grain is a good ratio, but feel free to adjust. Raise the temp to 120 for 15 mins, and then raise the temps to 152-155 for 30 mins. This is the most critical step in the cereal mash as this is the temp where 2 things are happening. A) Enzymes are in conversion mode, B) this is the temp that unmalted spelt gelatinizes. The next step is a 15 min boil. After that the mash should look more like loose oatmeal as opposed to crushed grains at this point. All that is left is adding this cooked down mash to the main mash. Of course, be aware that if you are adding a freshly boiled cereal mash to the main mash, you are now essentially adding a boiling infusion! So watch your mash temps, it could raise temps quickly. The best practice is to cool it down close to your main mash temp then add it.

Of course all of this can be avoided if you use flaked wheat, flaked spelt, or flaked barleyBut what fun is that?!

  • Saison Recipe

Main mash after mashout. Note the huge amount of protein on top of the rest of the spent grains. Looks like sand!

I used a decoction mash schedule of mashing in at 130 F and letting it sit for 30 mins. I pulled the decoction and brought it up to conversion temps (155 F) for 30 mins. It was then brought to a boil for another 30 mins. (I realize this a long mash schedule, but I wanted to make sure that the spelt starches would be converted). The decoction was returned to the main and allowed a 60 minute rest or until the iodine test showed no starches present.

Fermentation temps are the key to using this strain of yeast. Start the primary in the high 60’s (68 F), and begin to ramp up the temps to the high 70’s – low 80’s. No worries!….this yeast can take the high temps! The best flavors of this yeast are created beacuse of this high temperature. This will also make sure that the beer reaches full attenuation. The saison yeast strains have a history of finishing slow so, again be patient. Don’t freak out if the gravity seems to drop slowly…that is normal!

Lastly, White Labs offers the American Farmhouse yeast blend (WLP 670) that features a saison yeast blended with a brett strain. I look forward to brewing with this blend in the future. I have tasted a saison with brett added and its great! The saison style and the brett yeast meld very well together but that’s for another time…

So see if you can brew this simple but complex flavored ale that so many Belgian farmhouses brewed as a way of life. Good luck and Cheers!!!


Recipe: Rustic Summer Saison

Brewer: Beaconhills Brewhouse

Style: Saison

TYPE: All Grain

Recipe Specifications


Estimated OG: 1.053 SG

Estimated Color: 3.4 SRM

Estimated IBU: 24.4 IBU

Brewhouse Efficiency: 88.00 %

Boil Time: 60 Minutes



Amount        Item                                      Type         % or IBU

8 lbs         Pilsner (Weyermann) (1.7 SRM)                  Grain        76.19 %

1 lbs         Spelt Berries (raw spelt grains) (5.0 SRM) Grain        9.52 %

8.0 oz        Acidulated (Weyermann) (1.8 SRM)          Grain        4.76 %

*8.0 oz        Pale Malt (6 Row) US (2.0 SRM)                  Grain        4.76 %

8.0 oz        Vienna Malt (Weyermann) (3.0 SRM)        Grain        4.76 %

0.45 oz       Summit [17.60 %]  (60 min)                        Hops         22.5 IBU

2.00 oz       Saaz [2.00 %]  (4 min)                                   Hops         1.8 IBU

1 Pkgs        Belgian Saison II  (White Labs #WLP566)   Yeast-Ale

*Added the 6 row to the cereal mash.

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3 responses to “Farmhouse Ales and Brewing With Unmalted Spelt

    • Although the iodine test has its skeptics, I was able to get a negative result after a grueling mash process including a stove top cereal mash. Your result could be either of the things you mentioned, but I would bet on an incomplete conversion after my own experience. You are correct in that wheat is very similar to spelt…it even looks VERY similar to wheat malt. I only used spelt to be traditional, in hindsight I believe I would choose to use some sort of wheat in its place.

      • Yes, I used the same methods. Never had problems with incomplete conversion, but also did not use an unmalted grain before in those amounts. I followed the mash schedule for Hoegaarden to the letter (the brewing with wheat book). Your cereal mash was probably not a bad idea. cheers!

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