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I just read the copy in this Northern Brewer saison kit which says "Saisons are brewed hoppy and fairly strong in order to keep through the summer". I had always thought that, as a farmhouse ale, saisons are a low-alcohol beer brewed for consumption by farmhands. Though now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've ever had a modern saison lower than 5 or 6 percent, which has me doubting the low-alcohol provenance.

Which is it? And if it's traditionally low-alcohol, why are modern saisons not so?

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Not sure if Saisons followed the same path, but virtually all the traditional English beers went from "strong" ABV's (6-9%) down to fairly weak (3-5%) during the war rationing. Even styles like Brown ale and Mild ale used to be fairly strong by today's standards. Its likely that Saisons followed a similar fate, starting out strong, but getting weaker as wheat got rationed during war time. –  Graham May 29 '12 at 13:46

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

"Farmhouse Ales" (Markowski, Brewers Publications) confirms that traditionally saison – while, yes, brewed in the winter or spring and needing to keep until the summer – obtained what preservation they did have from hops, not alcohol. It also mentions that sourness was an accepted part of saison (and in fact many beer styles :) until relatively recently.

It also mentions pre-1900 OGs around 1.025-1.036, around-1900's OGs of 1.040-1.050, rising later to 14°P (1.057). Even though saison is a very high-attenuating style, 90% attenuation of 1.050 only results in 6% abv.

Modern beers are strong because it's easier and less costly to make moderate-/high-alcohol beer, and generic "stylistic inflation" across all styles and categories.

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The wikipedia article on Saison is not terribly helpful. In one paragraph it states that traditionally, saison beers were less than 3% alcohol:

originally saisons were meant to be refreshing and thus had alcohol levels less than 3%

In the very next paragraph, it says

The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage

Strong or weak? Which is it?

The Brew Your Own article on Saison is interesting but doesn't get much into the history of the style.

The BJCP guidelines permit alcohol levels between 5 and 7% ABV.

The thing to keep in mind is that the notion of beer styles is a modern one. Historically, brewers did not attempt to make beer that conformed to a style. Particular regions produced characteristic beers, but that was due mainly to ingredients that came readily to hand, water profile, climate, etc.

As to why no one brews a 3% ABV Saison any more, my guess is that it's simply the case that stronger beers sell better.

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