I've been thinking about the segment for the best part of a couple of years. The idea came to me when looking for some information on the subject of today's first "What's in Style?". For such a historically important beer style, there was very little information on Grisette available. That's changed slightly in the two years since, however none are as comprehensive as what I'm hoping to put together here.
Primarily I'm here to answer the question; what is Grisette? It's quite a change from my usual reviews only style, so I hope you all like it! As way of introduction; Grisette is a style originating from around the Hainaut province in Wallonia, the French speaking region of Belgium. Grisette is often referred to as "Table Saison", indeed if you were to submit a Grisette for judging under the BJCP guidelines this is what your beer would have to be classified as. To simply call Grisette a low ABV Saison is to do it an injustice. Like with most beer styles; there are a number of differences between the two styles;
Saisons have been inextricably linked to farming throughout their history. Saisons were an important part of Belgian farm life. The full-time farm hands used the quieter winter months to brew Saison to be consumed by, and refresh, the farming hands during the warm active farming months. A side benefit of brewing in winter, was that the spent grain could be used to feed the livestock, in months that their natural food would be less plentiful.
|A statue of a Grisette in Paris|
The etymology of Grisette is not entirely clear. The most commonly accepted theories revolve around "gris", the French word for grey. Grey is the colour most commonly associated with mining, due to the dust the workers collected on their bodies and clothing. Others say the beer is name after the porphyritic stone that was mined in the Hainaut province, which is a distinctive grey colour. While some attribute the name to the colour of the beer, with it falling in between white (witbier) and yellow (saison). Phil Markowski in his book Farmhouse Ales has a different take, which I will reproduce verbatim; "Grisette is commonly said to refer to young women who worked in factories and wore a distinctive gray frock as a uniform. As one story goes, these young women, grisettes, would hold trays of ale to refresh the workers as the exited the mines." Almost all the available literature cites one of the above theories, or a version thereof. Some sources state that the beer was actually called Saison in this region at the time, and that the term Grisette was purely a marketing term which sprung up years after it's initial popularity.
The beers sold as Grisette today tastes nothing like what Grisette would've tasted like in the Hainaut province in the 1800's. This is in part due to improved production facilities and in part due to no one alive knowing what real Grisette tasted like. World War 2 and the subsequent downturn in the 1950's or mining in the Hainaut province, saw Grisette die out as a style completely by 1960. Beers brewed under the Grisette name have been popping up here and there since 2010(ish), but have really gained popularity in the last year or so - as brewers search for ways to differentiate their farmhouse ales from the rest of the crowd.
In that sense, modern day Grisette is more of a marketing term. Brewers are more and more commonly naming their low-ABV Saisons, Grisette to stand out from a market flooded with Saisons, both good and bad. While I understand the marketing element, I'm also a stickler for correctly naming beers. Ill-informed people shouldn't say I love Grisette's when really they've had a Saison. From the research I've done, Grisettes were more than just low-ABV Saisons - but to understand the difference between past and present Grisettes, it is important to understand the difference between past and present Saisons.
Much like Grisettes, Saisons have changed markedly since the 1800's. This needn't be as surprising as it may sound. Saisons by their very nature changed from batch to batch. Brewing on farms wasn't the most sanitary of practices and wild yeast would regularly have inoculated the beer. They also would've varied by vastly different grain bills from year to year; whatever grain was left from the previous harvest would make that years beer. Fast-forward to today and there is still huge variance in what different brewers call Saison; some are tart and funky and some are lightly fruity and have a cleaner yeast element. I've always though it strange how big the variation is in what's considered "Saison".
Grisettes were industrially brewed from the outset of the style. This is in part because the style evolved later, but also because of it's clear links to industrialization. This in-turn limited the variation between batches, through both infection and base ingredient change. While we aren't able to taste what 1800's Grisette tasted like, we have learnt that wheat made up as much as 10% of the grain bill. Earlier researchers spoke to people who had sampled 1940's Grisette, who were able to confirm that the style was similar but distinct to Saison. The beers were lower in alcohol, less tart, had a light hop character but were still dry and refreshing. The use of more controlled fermentation is, I think, one of the key difference between the styles.
In the 1970's Saison had almost gone the way of Grisette, with only Brasserie de Silly and the makers of the famous Saison Dupont still producing Saison on a commercial scale. The beer writer Michael Jackson is credited with helping save the most famous example of the style, Saison Dupont, from extinction by bringing the style to the attention of an English speaking audience for the first time. An American beer importer, Dan Feinberg, went to Dupont to import Saison Dupont to America and was told that they were actually thinking of discontinuing Saison Dupont as it only made up 2% of sales. Feinberg wouldn't take no for an answer and convinced the brewers to try exporting to America. The rest is history; Saison is one of the fastest growing styles in the craft beer world and Saison Dupont accounts for 40% of Dupont's sales, despite almost all of that being outside Belgium!
The popularization of commercial Saison production, a style that was not mass-produced historically, has seen a push towards a more homogenized product. The yeast used is all tightly controlled and their are very few Saison yeast strains available, leading to less variation. The same can be said of the malt bill - with Saisons trending towards a drier, cleaner finish. The beers no longer change from season to season depending on what grain was available. The mass-production of Saison, saw the product become more and more like historic Grisette.
My research has led me to conclude that modern-day Saisons, on the whole, are more similar to historic Grisettes than they are to historic Saisons. There are obviously exceptions; La Vermontoise, a collaboration between Hill Farmstead and Brasserie de Blaugies, was properly tart and funky and springs instantly to mind. Both styles were intended to be dry and refreshing, with the two main differentials being the cleaner, less wild, yeasts of Grisette and the ABV. The cleanliness of the yeast, and subsequent lack of tartness, appears to me to be the most important distinction, whether this is between historic and modern Saisons or between Saisons and Grisettes may be semantics, but is in fact why we are here.
As a stickler for beers being brewed to style; I would like to see all beers called Grisette to fulfill all of the following criteria.
- ABV range (3.0-5.0%)
- At least 5% wheat.
- No noticeable tartness.
- Light, but noticeable, hopping.
- Dry, refreshing finish.
Marketing; a ubiquitous part of 21st century life and responsible for the revival of beer terms, like Grisette. In 1970, the people of the Hainaut province of Belgium may have been able to recall Grisette beers. By 2000, the term would have been gone from the memories of all but the most strident of Grisette fans, and certainly no one outside Belgium would know the term. 2016, sees a number of beers called Grisette not seen since the late 19th century and most of them being brewed outside of it's historical heartland. The rise of craft beer in America has seen many of these historic terms and styles resurrected from the dead, as brewers tried to make their beers standout from an ever more crowded market. I feel that how Grisette is used now, is inaccurate in many ways, but strangely that in most cases, it is a more accurate term than if the brewer had simply called their beer, the more popular term, Saison. This is a rare occasion, where marketers have put their spiel on a product and actually turned it into a more accurate descriptor of the product. The average consumer almost certainly doesn't care, but I think it's fantastic!
churning it over in my head for a few days and find myself coming back to where I entered this post "Low-ABV Saison". After forming the premise that modern day Saisons are more like high-ABV historic Grisettes, I think the easiest way to explain Grisette to modern day drinkers is that; Grisette is like a low-ABV version of what you call Saison, whilst true/historic Saison is not what you think Saison is. I understand that this explanation won't be for everyone, or that many drinkers don't care about the evolution of the style, but I feel that this explanation will appeal to many of you who have finished reading this mammoth essay I've written. It certainly works for me, in a very wordy/nitpicky way.
I hope that piece has answered most of your Grisette related questions. As I'm not, currently, a homebrewer it's a little (read: very!) lacking from a technical side of things, but I hope gives you a base understanding on the history of the style. Some acknowledgements are in order. the works of Garrett Oliver, Phil Markowski, Stan Hieronymus, Jeff Alworth, Dave Janssen and other forum contributors have been used to form the ideas for post. I'd love feedback on what you guys thought of this post, whether you're a regular reader or someone who's found this post through your interest in Grisette/Saison. Please either email me (email@example.com) or comment below. Hopefully there will be a further What's in Style post in the future, if anyone has a style they want to know more about let me know and I'll see what I can come up with.
Remember it's always Beer O'Clock somewhere in the world!