Saison-Focused Breweries in Chicago Helping Grow the Style
They can be dry, spicy, floral, citrusy, herbal, barrel-aged, smoky, and that’s not even the limit. They are a style that most craft beer drinkers know about but many probably couldn’t tell you the last time they had one. They are Saisons.
A favorite style amongst those in the craft beer industry because of their versatility, low ABV, and flavor potential, the Chicagoland area is home to three breweries dedicated to Saisons.
“Saison is my favorite style because it is so versatile,” Keeping Together Founder and Beermaker Averie Swanson said. “You can have spices, fruit, yeast fermentation, mixed-culture – from a flavor perspective it offers everything that you like in a beer. They are fun and lively and all-around a fantastic drinking experience.”
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As the craft beer industry grows, breweries focusing on one specific style will be more common as its a way to stand out in an ever growing market.
“I think it’s inevitable to consider that breweries have to focus on one thing that they really love, are good at, or passionate about and the market here (Chicago) seems to be able to handle that differentiation and niche focus,” Swanson said.
Of the three breweries, only Afterthought has a taproom in Lombard, a suburb just outside the city, while Keeping Together is currently brewing out of Half Acre’s Lincoln Ave location and is/was brews out of Begyle.
With Afterthought’s taproom, which just opened in late May, Owner/Brewer Mike Thorpe is able to increase the style’s presence by getting to connect with beer drinkers and educate around the style as well as pair people with a Saison they’ll enjoy.
“I’ll typically ask what they like to drink and start from there,” Thorpe said. “From different beer styles to wine to cocktails – we can figure it out. Usually people fall into the camp of liking things that are floral, fruity, citrus, or tropical. We have beers that fall into all of those camps and we can usually get them something they like.”
Thorpe said that, with the taproom, they’ve been able to describe the flavors to more people which has made the style more approachable. When the bottles sit on the shelves, there’s not a lot of interaction that the brewery can have with the customer. Saisons are known for having deeper stories about their creation and why certain ingredients were used – more so than other styles. It’s a style that greatly benefits from that personal touch, a reason all three breweries said is why they aren’t as popular as other styles of beer.
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“We (brewers) all come at it from a very personal point,” is/was Co-founder and Brewer Mike Schallau said. “They’re personal beers. Each one of us are telling their story to reach an audience and it’s great because the stories aren’t the same.”
The strength of Saisons can also be their weakness – the versatility. Because there are such light parameters, Saisons can feature so many different flavor profiles. This potentially can hurt the growth and adoption of the style by drinkers because they might not know exactly what they’re getting when they order a Saison.
Swanson, a Master Cicerone and former brewer at Jester King in Austin, Texas, said that the openness of Saisons allows brewers to be creative within the style.
“The style parameters (for Saison) as the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) laid out are pretty broad,” she said. “At Jester King I made a bunch of different styles but I used mixed-culture for just about everything. I do call everything a Saison and everything is inline with the category. I consider myself to be making Saisons even if the beer isn’t a stereotypical Saison.”
With the Hazy IPA, consumers know what they’ll be getting. While they might all use a different combinations of hops, drinkers know generally what to expect when they order one. It’s that consistency and familiarity that you don’t necessarily get with Saisons and part of the reason there could be hesitation when seeing one on a menu.
“A huge strength for hazy IPA is that people understand the style,” Schallau said. “They know what they’re getting when they order one.”
While there’s no argument that the Hazy IPA is still very popular around the country, it might give Saisons an opportunity to offer a change of scenery for drinkers.
“People will tell us that they’re sick of IPAs and just need a little break,” Thorpe said. “They’re looking for something a little bit different. For the style to grow, more breweries need to make them and make them well.”
Once people try a Saison, Schallau said it opens the door to the style for them and they’ll be more interested in trying other versions. But the challenge is getting people to try that initial one.
“I find them to be very approachable beer most of the time,” Schallau said. “When you put them in front of people they tend to really enjoy them. We need to figure out a way to bridge that gap between perception and reality. It’s up to us (brewers) to figure out how to make it bigger if we want, it’s not on the consumer.”
Will Saisons ever be the hyped-up beer style like Hazy IPAs, Pastry Stouts, or Barrel-Aged Stouts? Probably not and Swanson said that’s not surprising.
Because Saisons are so focused on that individual flavor and sensory nuances, it’s hard for them to compete with the big flavor profiles the more hyped up styles have. Consumers are seeking out what’s big, new, and are looking for things that make a lot of noise in the industry. Untappd and social media also play a role in style popularity.
In the case of Saisons, it’s not so much social media bringing them down, it’s the attention the other styles get. If you go onto Untappd and look at the highest rated beers, you won’t even find a Saison, no matter how far you scroll. IPAs, Stouts, Meads, and Barleywines dominate the app. The first Saison you’ll find is Tête de Cuvée from Side Project Brewing. It comes in at a 4.6 rating and requires a special filtered search on Untappd to even find it.
“People are interested in tasting new things and I don’t fault them for that,” Swanson said. “There’s something about seeking out a novel experience and Saison isn’t necessarily the sexiest style. When you have a flavor experience that leaves a mark on you, it most likely is going to leave an extreme mark on you and that’s why Hazy IPA or Pasty Stouts do so well. The things that speak the loudest or have the most extreme flavor get the most attention.”
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So how do Saisons get more popular?
“It’s about the introduction and getting more places doing them,” Thorpe said. “People think if more are doing it then it’s more competition but I don’t see it that way. It’s good for a style to get popular, think about the Hazy IPA. Everyone is doing them and people are loving them. I’d love for people to try ours, then try is/was and then try Keeping Together.”
And while brewers want to see the style grow, they don’t want to see the style lose what makes it so special just to appeal to the masses.
Schallau said that it’s important to not sacrifice what makes the Saison special and hopes that as craft beer continues to get more popular, other styles will eventually bring people to trying Saisons.
“A lot of people who care about Saisons don’t want them to be a huge thing,” he said. “We don’t want to sacrifice the principles that make this the best quality product in order to make it a more broadly available product. I hope that as other styles bring people into craft beer, those people will stay and they’ll eventually come to understand and drink Saison.”
At Beermiscuous, a Chicago craft beer bottle shop and bar, they try to keep Saisons in a regular rotation.
“We try to rotate Saisons in with Witbiers and other lighter Belgian styles, as an example of the country’s brewing traditions,” Beermiscuous Co-Owner Austin Harvey said. (Off Color’s) Apex Predator probably moves the best for us.”
Owner of The Beer Temple, Chris Quinn noted that with Shelton Brothers, one of the primary importers of Belgian and European beers, shutting down in late 2020, it severely hurt access to Saisons and similar styles. At The Beer Temple the two he sells the most are Saison de Lis and Casa Humilde’s Campesino.
While Saisons might not get big in the immediate future, with its versatility and trends being very cyclical, it’s a style that could very well become more popular in the future.
With the passion Swanson, Thorpe, and, Schallau have for the style, Chicago has three breweries that are giving consumers a great opportunity to ease their way into Saisons and then hopefully explore the style even deeper.
“It’s a style that can really appeal to a lot of different people,” Swanson said. “It has a lot of potential for makers and consumers.”