‘What the Hell is a Saison?” asked the niche beer publisher American Craft Beer just six summers ago. It’s hard to remember a time in which saisons weren’t a mainstay in the American craft beer marketplace, but only a decade ago, the beer style was relatively unknown in the U.S. Those who were familiar knew them only as Belgian beers. “How can you not love a country known for its love of waffles, chocolate, French fries, and beer?” asked Serious Eats in its primer of the beer style in 2014.
Saisons, sometimes called “farmhouse ales,” originated in the French-speaking region of northern Belgium, where farmers would make beer from leftover grains, let it age over the winter, and eventually enjoy it while working through the summer heat. The category was eventually refined and (loosely) defined, and for centuries, saisons were made the Belgian way: with whatever grains were abundant at the time along with various Belgian yeasts. The result was a brew that was a low-ABV, refreshing, and just a tad funky.
Saisons didn’t find its American audience immediately. The New York Times noted in 2013, while touting the style as the perfect summer beer, saisons had yet to catch on with the “general, IPA-swigging public.” But by then, the groundwork for a game-changing, all-American saison had already been laid. In 2009, with a Belgian brewer at the helm, Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Co. created Tank 7 — the perfect Belgian-style saison for the American palate.
Paulina Olivares, the Beer Manager at Total Wine in Sacramento, California remembers Boulevard Brewing Co.’s saison as part of her introduction to Belgian-style beers. “Tank 7 was around before saisons were cool,” she says.
Flashforward more a decade since American Craft Beer posed the question, and a decade since Tank 7’s release: The perception of saisons has come a long way. You’ll just as easily find an American-made saison on the shelf at your craft beer store as you will a true Belgian saison. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find an American craft brewery that hasn’t made a saison, or at least considered it. Some might even argue it was Tank 7 that made saisons cool in the first place — at least in the US.
Boulevard has been recognized as a pioneer in the craft beer world since founder John McDonald made his first keg of Pale Ale in 1989, inspired by the Belgian beers he’d tasted on a trip through Europe. When he brought on Belgian brewmaster Steven Pauwels a decade later, the brewery began putting out award-winning Belgian-style beers. Before long, they made a true Belgian-style saison. It was good, and even took home an award from Montreal’s Mondial de la bière. But sales didn’t follow so the brewers got to work on a second version. This time it had a stronger base and a meticulously-balanced variety of Belgian yeasts (though none were official saison yeasts). It was then dry hopped with citrusy Amarillo hops and finally, bottle conditioned with the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces.
While waiting on the Brettanomyces to arrive for a run of the new saison (Saison Brett), the base beer was transferred to fermentation tank number 7 — the brewers’ least favorite tank back then. At some point, somebody poured a taste, likely for quality control. The rest, they say, is history.
Tank 7, as it came to be called, was an instant hit. An easy-drinking, effervescent ale that’s citrusy but not too citrusy, hoppy but not too hoppy, and dry but not too dry, it quickly earned favor among beer drinkers as well as chefs who loved pairing it with their dishes. It caught the attention of another group, too: craft beer brewers. “I think Tank 7 was always well-respected by brewers, which in my book, is pretty much the best thing you can say of any beer,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, author of The Brewmaster’s Table, and editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer.
Soon, Tank 7 was racking up awards from around the world in the “Saison” and “American-Belgo” categories, and even placed in European Beer Star’s “New Style Saison.” In 2017, Chicago Tribune beer writer Josh Noel named it one of “The 25 Most Important Craft Beers Ever.” The only issue was categorizing it. For starters, there was the ABV; Tank 7’s was 8.5 percent while most saisons hovered around 5 percent. And as Pauwels says, “It was too hoppy to fit the Belgian style, but the Belgian yeast and drinkability made it a really typical saison.”
Whatever you called it — a Belgian-style saison, a Belgo-American saison, or a farmhouse ale — it was making waves and, in turn, setting the bar for an entirely new category: the American Saison. Before long, breweries all over the country were putting out saison-style beers. “When you make a beer it’s never the intention to create a style or make it the gold standard,” says Pawuels. But that’s exactly what Boulevard did with Tank 7. In fact, of the eight saisons the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) lists as commercial examples in its most recent Style Guidelines, Tank 7 remains the only one made in America.
“Many Belgian-influenced breweries [now] offer great American Saisons, but they’re often over-priced or harder to come by,” says Olivares, who’s witnessed the influx of saisons over the years. “Many smaller production, limited release saisons tend to be fruited or more on the funky side — which I also love — but sometimes you need a little more balance.” It’s one of the many reasons she still loves recommending Tank 7 to customers, she says. “It’s a year-round, readily available, reasonably priced, high-quality American saison.”
That approachability and accessibility are a big part of what makes Tank 7 so magical, and why it will always stand out in the category it helped define. It’s a special occasion beer you can drink every day.