Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What is Grisette?

(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
but also
  • 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
The Brewing with Wheat source is from a text that falls probably on the earlier half of the history of Grisette (the 1870's, source of info mentioned here thanks to Browne and Bitter) and that could explain why there are three versions mentioned there but not in Farmhouse Ales. The Farmhouse Ales info seems to fit best with the Jeune/young Grisette mentioned in Brewing with Wheat. The conflicting Farmhouse Ales description could be discussing the Supérior/double, or there could be something else going on. [edit Sept 2016: at the time that this was written I was guessing that the 1870s were the early half of the history given the info I had available, but was unsure of this as reflected in the original wording. The earliest source I have found so far is from 1812 and mentions a brewery that does at least some regional shipping of grisette, so that puts the likely origin of the style, at the latest, around 1800. Given this info, it is likely that the 1870s were either around the middle of the time range of grisettes or on the later half. Either way, the original point that modern English-language sources which offer inconsistent info could do so due to referencing historic sources from different points in grisette history is valid - grisette in the 1870s would probably have been different from grisette in 1812 and around 1950.]

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"
This gives us a good ballpark for the sort of beer that a grisette was. I think it is reasonable to think of grisette as a lost branch in the saison family fitting somewhere between historic farmhouse saison and modern saison. Many modern saisons are also more clean (using only Saccharomyces). Modern saison gravities are higher than historic saison, and given the gravity category on saison labels from around the time of grisettes, saison gravities were also higher than those of grisettes. Based on descriptions of "Vieille" or "mûrie dans nos caves" (matured in our cellars) on saison labels, saisons of the time were still beers with more age. With imperfect yeast management this would still allow for the expression of wild yeast and bacteria character, though at the time saisons were also moving toward being pure culture products. In looking at the modern day petite saisons, some of these may have considerable overlap with grisettes. I think a microbially clean (or at least mostly clean) but expressively fermented, shorter-aged, low strength beer with wheat and a more prominent hop profile could definitely be a description of either a grisette or a modern petite saison. To me petite saison is more open to the possibility of lactic acid and/or brettanomyces character, but that may be one of multiple sides of petite saison. So although I don't think the two are interchangeable, I think there are beers out there that could be appropriately described by either term.

A category 1 saison
It would be interesting to get a bit more information on Grisette de Saison as I didn't find anything with that name or mentioning longer aging for grisette in the label collection. That could be something more in line with saisons given the higher gravity and longer aging that Markowski mentions. I'd also like to find out some more info on earlier grisettes. So still some questions remaining. I'll update this post as I find more answers (or if there is enough new stuff then I'll do a follow up post).

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:

Hopping grisette
Categories of Grisette and Grisette Strength
What is Grisette part II


  1. Great info and research.

    I've been struggling with this myself as I've been making what I've called a saison but have felt because of it's cleaner attributes and being brewed in a town known for its granite mining community (Barre VT) that I should really call it a Grisette. And oddly enough I'm about to tweak the recipe to have 8-10% wheat. But, living in Vermont, I'm particularly sensitive to this notion of using style terms that don't align with the historical spirit of the style--so "farmhouse ales" and saisons get used in a way that to me is about marketing. In fact, Vermont brewery Long Trail is particularly guilty of this with their farmhouse ale series.

    So many thanks for reaffirming my inclinations and giving confidence to telling friends that it's a Grisette (and now I have some more info to have good conversation about what that actually is as a style of beer).

    1. Thanks Jake! I totally agree with you about the marketing thing and in writing up this post I ended up cutting a paragraph or two sort of ranting on that topic (I alluded to this with the semantics discussion comment). I do feel a bit funny calling my beers saisons at times. And, as i mentioned at the top, it was some breweries around me doing this sort of thing that prompted me to go down the trail that led to this post. So I know completely where you are coming from.

      Excellent, glad this helps you out!

  2. Great article, thanks!

    Looking forward to your update with some recipes. Reading this, I think Grisette is more what I had in mind when I first read about Saison's. Interesting and keen to try and brew one.

    1. Thanks Stefan! Yeah, it does combine some aspects you read about with saison (low strength to be refreshing and consumable in volume while doing field work) with what is represented by some of the better known modern versions (crisp hop character and no acidity). I'll try to get my recipe up shortly. I'm working on tracking down more Grisette info and have found some that adds nicely to this story, so "What is Grisette part 2" is probably in the works, but I suspect it will be some time.


  3. When I had my first Grisette a few months ago, I was skeptical. It looked, smelled, and tasted exactly like a Saison. I did a very small amount of research afterwards and came to the conclusion that modern Grisettes are merely a marketing trick to differentiate one Saison from the sea of other Saisons.

    1. I agree that in modern times the term Grisette is used basically as a synonym for any sort of lower strength saison (though the definition of lower strength is pretty loose here), regardless of hoppyness, barrel aging, funk, acidity, fruit/spice additions, etc. So you're totally right, the modern ones seem to frequently be a lot of marketing of 'try this new reincarnation of a lost beer style'. And that was a bit of a bummer to me, and it inspired me to do the research for this post. There definitely seems to be a historical difference between grisettes and saisons made at the same breweries at the same time in the 1900s.

      This is still an ongoing research project and I'd like to get a bit more into what it was like in the 1800s, but I'll have to wait a bit before figuring enough of that out for another post...

  4. Dave, a question about one more thing that I gleaned from Farmhouse Ales. I seem to remember that Markowski made a comment that a Grisette being made with a more common Belgian yeast than a Saison yeast. His recipe calls for WLP550. Did you come across anything indicating this? So to be a Grisette would essentially be an industrialized, small saison (same grist & hopping schedule). This goes along with the argument you make in the article, but I wondered if you would agree. Your recipe would counter this.


    1. Hi Mike, that's a good question. Thanks for asking! Up to this point I haven't found anything in the way specifics for yeast. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff is snippets here and there (the same is true with historic saison info) and it doesn't deal much with technical details in general. I've found multiple sources say that grisette brewers kept their recipe/process a closely guarded secret and that the authors didn't know much about how to make the beer.

      Unfortunately I don't have my copies of FA or Brewing with Wheat around (both are in Germany and I'll be re-united with them in about a week) so I can't look through those for what they say. I do think I remember an account in FA that describes them as saison-like. There was overlap with breweries producing both grisettes and saisons. Some of these breweries also made lagers and other ales that we now associate with cleaner yeasts so it is hard to say how many yeasts they kept around and what those were like. With a lower strength beer the yeast will generally be more muted anyway so I suspect a saison-type yeast is at least not out of place. I can't give any firm answer here but from what I remember from FA I'd lean toward something saison-like in yeast as well. I think there would be a major potential difference in aging between the two beers and therefore expression of other yeasts, so in that way as well I would expect grisette to be a more muted fermentation-wise than saison.

      Thanks and I'll come back and update if I find more about yeast.

  5. Regarding the "Grisette double" label. The label says "Produit Hygienique". I translate that to "hygienic product". Is this commonly found on labels from that time? Are the brewery referring to the techniques used to produce the beer?

    1. Hi Olof, thanks for the question. It is not uncommon for labels of the time to have a couple words mentioning the purity of the beer or other good qualities like this, but I wouldn't say that Produit Hygienique specifically shows up that much from what I've seen. I don't have any specifics as to what this means, but my guess is that it is generally referring to the beer being good/wholesome and pure. Similar to how one might see words like natural or healthy on labels and how sometimes these words are used in meaningless ways (at least in the US).

      That specific brewery closed in 1923 so I suspect it does not refer to fermentation (I think they were not using a pure culture for fermentation). Maybe they thought they were, but I've seen notes from British brewing scientists from 1918 where one of the group mentions that he doesn't think it is possible for an ale brewery to have a pure culture.

    2. Yeah fair enough. Great posts about Grisettes by the way!

  6. Beautiful write up! It really got me thinking about what I might brew as a "grisette". Noting that these beers were cleaner due to a faster turn over, it leaves reason to believe would become quite funky with time. I'm thinking that I might try to use the De Dolle isolate in conjunction with 3711 for primary & then spike the batch with a mixture of Brett & Lacto at packaging. Hypothetically if the beer finished at 1.002 and I primed for 2 volumes I would eventually end up with 3 volumes of some funky brew. (Kind of like what Orval does)

    My main concern here is whether or not the beer would become tart with age as the hop profile diminished & if this practice would produce any negative results. Do you know of anybody intentionally adding lacto before packaging, or of any other experiments like this?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks Kyle, good question! Yeah, I agree that historically a grisette would show expression of a mixed culture if it were aged for a while. This was generally not the case in historical grisette (it wouldn't usually be aged enough for this to show) but in general all top fermentation beers of this time would have been mixed culture, so if they were aged then this would show up. This is discussed a bit in this thread from the Saison group:, where I quote the article discussed (for other reasons) in this blog post: Garrett also quotes a cool passage from Farmhouse Ales that pulls from an article from 1920 in Le Petit Journal du Brasseur. Anyway, the mixed culture thing is more an attribute of early 1900 (and before) ales than it is grisette specifically.

      Yeah, if the beer went from 1.002 to 1.000 then you'd get that extra volume of CO2. That isn't necessarily guaranteed, just as it isn't guaranteed that it wouldn't go further than that. But there is more margin for error if you are already at 1.002.

      That plan sounds good for an interesting beer overall. Probably not that much different from a mixed primary in a hoppy beer. I don't have any specific info on dosing lacto pre-bottling. But there are beers bottled before the lacto has made much impact but which can develop a bit of acidity with time. I've done homebrews this way, and I think the best commercial examples are some of what Jester King is doing. Their mixed culture saisons that are released fairly young (like Petit Prince) are great and are different beers when aged. I think if this is your goal I would just do a mixed primary and bottle young-ish, but that's just what would do. There is definitely the possibility that it wouldn't express a lot of acidity so choose the a more aggressive/hop tolerant lacto if this is what you are going for.

      Overall with something along the lines of a historic grisette I generally wouldn't expect a forward acidity within 6 months (if at all) so if you're looking for sour then this might not be the beer. But if you're looking to see what mixed culture will do when given time in a wort with moderate hopping and higher attenuation then this sounds like a nice trial that you have planned.

      -Edit (and why the above were deleted): Weird, it seems that I can't put links in that work. So here are the simplified links for copying and pasting:

      -Saison group (scroll down to Malcolm's comment):

      -Other blog article:

  7. Thanks for the information. I've been scouring the web for quite sometime with little to no results. Lol. Definitely not looking for sour... More along the lines of ”bright". It would be awesome to have the noble hops slowly fade into a tart, Brett forward ale.

    1. Cool, in that case I think many historic beers would fit this sort of description and I think you can get what you want with the right strains/dregs by either co-pitching in primary or dosing at bottling.

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