The Paradoxes of Saison

As we were recording the most recent episode of the podcast, words came out of my mouth that surprised me--and I've been thinking about whether they were true. We were discussing saisons, and so of course we began with Dupont's. In the 1970s, it was one of just two extant examples that I can document, and the one Michael Jackson loved. His affection for the beer ultimately attracted the attention of importer Don Feinberg (Vanberg and DeWulf), who started bringing it to the United States in the 1980s. At the time, it constituted just 2% of Brasserie Dupont's output. Now, of course, it is a thriving style--which takes us back to that comment.

This beer, although it almost went extinct, is one of the most important beers in the world. It has single-handedly inspired more imitators than any other beer in the world.

I actually have some data on this. BeerAdvocate serves as an incredible repository for beers brewed in the world, and since it's divided up by styles, you can quickly gauge the relative popularity of different beer styles in terms of how often breweries make them. For example, there are 12,854 pale ales listed. By contrast, there are 72 eisbocks on record. (Poor eisbock.) Nearly every style has fewer than 3,000, and I had to work to find any with over 5,000--all typical American styles (it is an American database, after all). There are only 3,054 German pilsners listed--and you can't even get to 5k if you throw in Czech pilsners. Imperial stouts barely exceed 2,000, despite their love among beer geeks. There are 3,024 witbiers. Saisons? A whopping 9,179--third most among all styles listed.

Not all of those beers were directly inspired by Saison Dupont. The fact that there are so many of them demonstrate that the style has been abundantly revived, and the myriad permutations--low alcohol grisettes, wild-inoculated and barrel-aged ales, black saisons, spiced saisons--are testment to its evolution. And yet it's also likely that none of them would now exist were it not for Saison Dupont. That beer created a living lifeline to an entire approach to brewing, one that has been inspiring modern brewers for going on three decades now. I've also yet to find a brewer making saisons who is not familiar with Dupont, whether it was the direct inspiration or not.

There's another wrinkle to the story of saisons: why is it that a style so manifestly popular with brewers has never found a mass audience among drinkers? To the extent there's a "national" brand, it would have to be specialty beers like Ommegang Hennepin, Boulevard Tank 7, or Goose Island Sofie--beers that are just niches within their breweries' full line. Brewers have told me that the name is part of the issue--both "saison" and the word "farmhouse" are marketing blind alleys. But "India pale ale" is at least as problematic, and that didn't stop it from taking over the world. (There are 24,264 of them in the BeerAdvocate database.)

And while we're exploring paradoxes, consider this last one. This broad category of beer is romanticized for its "rustic" character and origins (though of course almost none are made anywhere near a farm today), and yet the way that rusticity expresses itself in the beer is through sophistication. This is the reason brewers love saisons and consumers are so often confused by it.

If you love the style like I do, join us for the podcast. We discuss the history, approach to the style, and classic examples (which we taste, of course). And Patrick has an answer to the question of why they aren't more popular that I hadn't considered. Make sure you give it a listen--