(edit Oct 2016: I expand upon and update this post in What is Grisette part II)
This post, which was some time in the making, was prompted by beer naming. This is a very difficult task for many brewers and I don't want to overplay issues in beer labeling or call any specific people out for poor labeling, but I do think that brewers should be thinking about appropriate labels and why that label is applied to a given beer. Labeling terms and beer styles have mutually agreed upon meanings and this is why they are valuable. But when those words are used to describe things outside of the scope of their mutually agreed upon meanings (or when brewers and/or consumers don't know the meanings of the words) then they loose their value. I'll save most of the philosophy and semantics discussion for a potential later post, but in brief, this need for integrity in the terms applied to beers was really brought home to me this past March when, on the same day, two different breweries close to me released a beer that they were calling a Grisette. Grisette seems to be one of the new buzzwords sweeping Belgian-inspired craft beer. It's like the new cool lost and obscure style. While I think grisette is a cool style and I want to see lots of good examples of it brewed, seeing beers popping up with the name grisette can be concerning because not many people have a good idea of what it should mean (both brewers and consumers included). And this is for a good reason - there is very little information out there about it! So consumers might learn grisette to be something that actually shouldn't be represented by the name, but that's all they've seen with the name so that's what they know. These local "grisettes" were, to my knowledge, the first two "grisettes" released in my area. And I didn't think either of these were very Grisette-y. So that got me thinking:
What is Grisette? What does it mean to me? Is that an accurate meaning? What else could it mean?
|Grisette Grenier - note the industrial-themed background|
After going back and looking through the available information I knew of on Grisette (there's not much), I started a couple discussions with other brewers and beer drinkers who think about these styles (one on the Milk the Funk facebook page and another on the Saison, BdG, Farmhouse appreciation society facebook page, I think you'll have to be a member of those pages to see the discussion). I got some good insight from other brewers and compiling that with the published information I knew about and some reasoned conjecture, here's my take on Grisettes with some historical context:
While Saisons are (historically) beers rooted in the farm, Grisettes are beers inherently rooted in industry and the industrial revolution. They were brewed for miners in the Hainaut province (and possibly adjacent mining areas) in south of Belgium, which until the World Wars was one of the centers of the Industrial Revolution in Europe (see this wikipedia page and the cities mentioned within). The Hainaut province is the same region that saisons come from, and there were likely significant similarities between the two beers. Both mining and farming are rural activities done on (or in) the land with the need for an urban area nearby to sell/process goods and for trading. And in addition both the styles are beers to refresh the workers and, as such, would have been lower strength and would have fulfilled the same basic requirements.
As the world industrialized as a whole, so did breweries. And this would have influenced beers (which influences grisettes as well as saisons). This means larger breweries with better/more specialized equipment and more desire for consistency. And more specific roles and trained people to work those roles rather than brewing being a part time task in the off season. For beer, and especially grisette as it would have been more central in industrialization than saison, this would mean beers trending toward cleaner fermentation and the regular use of certain ingredients rather than more variable recipes. It also might mean that with brewing more as an occupation and less as a role secondary to another occupation such as farming, the amount of time given to each beer for fermentation and conditioning would start to come down, resulting in 'cleaner' beer (by this I mean less influence of slower growing wild yeasts and bacteria and not a reflection on Saccharomyces yeast character, which is often developed and complex for strains common in saison) whether or not 'cleaner' pitches of yeast were used for fermentation. And beers being sold sooner would also lead to brewers wanting to produce beers that were ready to be released sooner.
Malting practices were becoming better at the same time, meaning more consistent and also likely paler malts were available. Consumer taste preferences were starting to shift as beers traveled further and imported beers came in. All of this combines to yield a very dynamic landscape for beer. And as writers of the time still for the most part didn't care about smaller styles of beer being brewed in these rural (though sometimes not so rural) areas of Belgium, there isn't a lot of sound documentation on what was going on.
Some breweries would make both saisons and grisettes in addition to many other beers (see these label collections from Brasserie Bavery and Brasserie Fauconnier for example). It is likely that with the dynamic beer landscape of the time, these styles would have drifted both on their own and in relation to each other. What we know about grisettes from historical records is often contradictory. This could be because authors may be discussing grisettes from different time periods and/or different producers. Beer styles definitely changed over time and grisettes were around long enough to see some of that change. This caveat should be kept in mind for the rest of this discussion, as much of the grisette info I'll reference comes from the 1900s. So perhaps grisette would have been different in the mid 1800s. Differences in historical information could also be because the information at the time was not always accurate/representative and objective or something might be lost in translating outdated/seldom used terms and units of measure. Whatever the case, here's what we've got-
From Farmhouse Ales by Markowski, pp.131-133:
- No longer produced but used to be fairly common
- Modern beers in Belgium called grisette are not like historic grisette
- low abv (~3-5%)
- light bodied, dry and refreshing
- saison-like, but with hops giving all of the refreshing quality rather than acidity as well as hops as was possible in old saisons
- golden in color, clean blond ales
- OG of 16.3-17.5
- Amber in color
From Brewing with Wheat by Stan Hieronymus (p.xi, 23):
- Modern beers called grisette in Belgium are not like historic grisette
- Disappeared around 1960 (coincidentally around the same time as the major downturn of industry and the subsequent economic downturn of the region)
- Included malted wheat, around 10% of the grist
- The wheat was kilned at a very low temperature
- Grisette was brewed with relatively modern (for the time) brewing techniques
- Ranged in color from white to brown
- three strength classes
- Jeune/young: brewed all year, summer version 'stronger' at 10.2-11 P (1.043-1.046)
- de garde/de saison: brewed in the winter, 12 P and up (1.048+)
- Supérior/double: stronger, used first 2 runnings from mash (rest went to a small beer)
- Fermentation in metal and then wooden barrels
Old beer labels can also give some insight on grisette. A possible concern about basing this analysis partly on old labels is that I won't really be able to disambiguate marketing speak from truthful information about the beers. Another concern is that I am drawing only from the breweries that are large enough or sufficiently well known to have records of their labels. But given that grisette is by its nature tied to industrialization I am ok with that concern (it may be more of a problem for historic saison studies). Jacques Trifin's website is an awesome resource of old Belgian beer labels and all of the labels I'm showing here come from this site.
Taking the labels with the above precautions in mind, the old labels for grisette that give a strength indication list 2nd Catégorie or 3rd Catégorie. This category system likely has tax class roots, but it also gives us an idea of the strength range of the beer (see this link from the Netherlands, article 4, also this wikipedia page). According to the modern Dutch categories, a Cat. 2 beer has an OG of 7-11 P (1.028-1.046) and a Cat. 3 beer has an OG of 1-7 P (1.004-1.028). The specific gravity ranges of such a system have likely changed over time and country to country, but presuming that the categories haven't completely changed, category 2 and category 3 beers would be lower strength than what we would now consider normal strength beer (Cat. 1). Of all the numbered strength categories I saw, there were 3, 2, and 1 corresponding to beers I would expect to be increasing in strength in that order, so that gives us some confidence that the 1900's Belgium system is somewhat similar to the modern Dutch one. If someone knows what specific strength ranges these old Belgian categories meant that would give us a more definite answer, but I suspect it won't be extremely different from the ranges here. There is one label for a beer termed "Grisette double" (see here, note that this brewery closed in 1923, early compared to the other labels here) but mostly when I'm seeing a strength modifier it is 2nd category (see below left), something like table beer/house beer (here as well as Francois and sons above left and Grenier top of the page right) or 3rd category versions (here and here, the same shown below center and right).
|Cat. 3 Grisette|
|Cat. 3 Grisette|
|Cat. 2 Grisette|
Synthesizing this, the bulk of the information seems to be pointing toward a low strength, pale, hoppy wheat beer that would not have been aged especially long, though some versions may have been a bit stronger and aged a bit longer. But it seems that most of the grisettes that we have records of now were lower strength beers. Moving ahead with this, from something in the range of category 2-3, the 3-5% abv sounds about right, with grisettes perhaps more likely falling on the lower end of that range later in their history (category 3 would be on the lower end of that range, or quite easily below it, given the modern Dutch OGs associated with these categories). Unfortunately the labels don't offer any specific recipe info, but we can be reasonably sure that (at least at one point) wheat was a fundamental part of the beers given the info from Brewing with Wheat. Many of the breweries that the labels came from were brewing a number of different beers (saison, pils, bock, brune, abbey beers...) so it seems that in the 1900's at least they were confident working with different yeasts in the same brewery. Along with the general identity of grisette being tied to industrialization, this lends support the grisettes being more of a pure culture fermentation than historic saisons. Because the grisette labels have no indication of being an aged beer, while some other labels of the time do include a note for aged beers (and since it would add cost to a brewery to keep a beer around longer you'd think they would want to advertise it), we can also assume that grisettes were generally served younger. This would mean that the hop character would be more forward than an aged beer of a similar recipe and there would not be much time for bacteria (and in addition wild yeast) development, lending support to the Farmhouse Ales information that grisettes were crisp from hop character and without acidity.
|Saison Cavenaile - "matured in out cellars"|
|A category 1 saison|
Ok, so there's some thoughts on grisette. Here's a recipe for a beer that I was calling a Grisette, at least at the time I brewed it.
Apr 2016 Update: I will be presenting this and continued research on grisette at the 2016 AHA National Homebrewers Conference. Hope to see you there if you are headed to the conference! If not, I am hoping to post a follow with my ongoing research sometimes shortly after the conference.
June 2016 Update: I've started a series of posts expanding on various aspects of grisette based on the research from my NHC presentation. Here are those posts:
Categories of Grisette and Grisette Strength
What is Grisette part II