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San Francisco Brewers and Their Saison Styles

The late Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter, not the pop music icon) once dismayed that Saison style beers were becoming scarce to the point of vanishing altogether. He would be heartened to learn that this classic beer style has not only been revived, but is thriving in ways he could hardly imagine–particularly in San Francisco.

"Saison" is French for “season,” and was originally brewed in farmhouses located in the predominantly French speaking region of Belgium. Farmers brewed these beers during the winter months to be consumed over the summer by workers who needed refreshment. Saisons had to have enough alcohol to protect them from spoiling but not so much as to render a drinker unable to work the harvest.

Traditionally, saisons were brewed using whichever grains happened to be available and flavored with a combination of hops and whatever herbs or spices the brewer preferred. Modern craft brewers use the style as a beery canvas on which to experiment with different grain and spice combinations. Saison recipes still share some common ground with their previous incarnations and each other: A Belgian style yeast and a relatively warm fermentation temperature both of which give the style its distinctive clove and banana flavors.

Many of our local brewers have a saison available at least part of the year. We recently heard from five of them about their experiences with the style:

21st Amendment Brewery – Co-owner and brewmaster, Shaun O'Sullivan explained their recently brewed saison, “We don't have a final name for it just yet. We brewed it as part of our Big Can Series, draft only. We are going to can this beer as part of our next late winter seasonal release early next year, just as Bitter American was before it became a year round offering. It's brewed with a French Saison yeast and a touch of cardamom.”

Beach Chalet Brewery – Brewmaster, Aron Deorsey, “We recently ran out of our saison, which we will be entering in the Great American Beer Fest. However, we do have a similar style Biere de Garde that was fermented with same Saison yeast.”

Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery – Brewmaster and Owner, Dave McLean, “Saison de Lily is currently our one and only saison which we tend to brew it 2-3 times a year, and since we don't have one in a tank right now, we are probably close to brewing it again. I first brewed it when coming back to work after my daughter, Lily, was born, so it is named for her. If you've been in when it is on tap, you may have noticed that we usually have her write the beer name on the chalkboard (she's eight so it has gotten much more legible since we first had her try it!).”

“While saisons are, almost by definition, a bit of a wide open style, I feel that Saison de Lily is reasonably close to a classic saison. It's got a characteristic earthiness and fruitiness from a saison yeast strain that we use. Another characteristic aspect that Saison de Lily exhibits is its dryness from a robust fermentation (which leaves little sugar behind). Most of its sweetness comes from the yeast-derived fermentation flavors rather than residual malt sugar. In the saison tradition, we add a few spices but in limited quantities so they add complexity without dominating the flavor profile.”

Thirsty Bear Brewing Company - Brewmaster and Brewery Manager, Brenden Dobel reported that while they don’t have any saisons currently on tap they expect to brew their Ryeison (saison with rye malt) in a few months.

Almanac Beer Company – Co-Founder, Jesse Friedman, “We have two in the works, although both are Northern California influenced interpretations of the style. Our Honey Saison is the more classic brew. Ours is brewed with local barley, wheat, fresh ginger, honey from Marshall's Farm Honey and aged in French oak. At 4.8% this session beer is packed with flavor, without knocking you over. Its sister beer, our Extra Pale Ale, is brewed with the same Saison yeast. But we're layering lots of aroma hops, Cascade and Columbus, on top of the yeast flavors for a more hop-forward brew. Finally, it's finished with mandarins from Blossom Bluff Farms and aged in American oak.”

“I think we're going to see many more variations on the style here in California. For us, a Saison is a starting point of rustic yeast character that can take on and pair with a huge range of flavors. I expect we'll see even more creative takes on the beer – such as Pac Brew Labs Nautilus Saison, which complements their base beer with pink-hued hibiscus, or Dog Fish Head's Saison Du Buff, which complements its base with a range of spices from their farm.”

What are you favorite saisons?