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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Next Mass Market Beer: Saison?

It has been a long time since the word "slatepitch" entered our vocabulary, and the practice is now common.  For those who do not follow the minutiae of media trends, a slatepitch describes a story that takes a contrarian or counter-intuitive perspective, like "Why Sarah Palin is a closet liberal."  Slate Magazine remains the king and foremost practitioner of this tactic--thus the name--and so it's not so surprising to find this perfectly slatepitchy premise in today's edition:
Belgian beer has already provided the beer industry with one of its few legitimate breakout hits of the last 20 years: Blue Moon from Coors, inspired by the Belgian witbier style. The tart saison is a more obscure style of Belgian beer, and it could become a go-to lower-alcohol beverage for wine and champagne drinkers looking for a lighter quaff on warm summer days. A classic tart saison (or its sister style, the grisette) can be produced in about the same amount of time as a lager and deliver a crisp mouthfeel with a lightly sour and white wine–like flavor. It’s refreshing and complex, yet can deliver as little as 4 percent alcohol by volume, roughly equal to a Bud Light.  So what’s stopping craft breweries from putting out tart saisons by the truckfull?

Not actually that rare.  Source: Beer Obsessed
My first reaction was something in the contempt continuum, abetted in part by writer Pete Mortensen's many faulty assumptions and troubles with fact.  I don't know what he knows about beer, but his slugline bio reads, "Pete Mortensen is a project director and design strategist at Antedote, an innovation and insight agency based in San Francisco."

He says things like "because of the flavor problems these wild microbes can cause in conventional beers, few American craft brewers make tart saisons, and those that do, like Hill Farmstead in Vermont, tend to release them only at the brewery in limited supply at high price points."  (Craft breweries pretty much don't fear wild yeasts, and if they release beers infrequently it's because they're responding to market demand, not because they can't make more.)  And, "big brewers ... have access to the sanitation equipment required to defend barrels against wild yeast."  (All breweries have access to sanitation equipment.)  And, "Pale ales—especially India pale ales—are typically hoppy, which often translates to a strong bitterness that is off-putting to all but the most dedicated craft bros."  (No idea.)  

But here's the thing: he may very well have a point. 

Saisons are one of the styles that might appeal to a broad audience, particularly saisons with relatively subdued esters and phenols.  He's right in comparing the sensory terrain to witbier, the other style that has found a mass audience.  (The notion that mass market saisons should be made with brett and/or lactobacillus is another misfire--you can easily get "tart" from saison yeast itself.  In no possible universe does AB InBev start making a mass-market brett saison.)  A light saison with just a hint of yeast character, some nice raw graininess in the mouth, and a rich, creamy head--I could envision that selling like gangbusters.  You could even stretch the line a lot easier than you could with witbier, adding stronger saisons, hoppy saisons, and spiced saisons.  Blue Moon, by contrast, has had a hard time extending its brand past the original witbier formulation.

I have no idea whether this will or could ever come to pass.  (Mortensen's other two suggestions, that the bigs start making mass-produced barrel-aged beers and "New Zealand pale ales," I have a better idea about: nyet.  Absolutely nyet.  I can expand in comments if anyone cares.)  But it's exactly the kind of weird future we might find ourselves in.  The success of craft beer will definitely have some unexpected progeny.  Mass market witbier was the first case.  Mass market saison could become the second. 


  1. The other reason you won't get a mass produced brettt saison is that brett takes time to develop - more time than a macro brewer would want to spend on it. Could a low ester/phenol saison succeed with the public at large? Maybe, but it won't they also might cannibalize the sales of mass produced wit. You won't get craft people to buy it, you likely won't get many macro lager folks to drink it. You might capture some people from low end wines and possibly cider, but "tart" doesn't seem to be a big seller in the mass market. I'm unconvinced you can switch people from Blue Moon, Shock Top, or macro cider and other alco-pops to anything tart. But I also don't think I have a ton of insight into what the mass market drinks...

  2. Kevin Scaldeferri1:25 PM, July 09, 2014

    I actually do think that Goose Island has significantly ramped up production of BCBS since the InBev acquisition, although still not enough to keep up with the increase in demand (and still at minuscule levels compared to typical macro production). I could imagine them making it a year-round beer at some point, though.

    On that one, I think the flaw is not so much in the idea that with more capital, a macro could produce a lot more barrel-aged beer than is currently produced but in the idea that those beers will have mass appeal. I'll tell you this for sure: bourbon aficionados do not generally clammer for BBA stouts except to the extent that some beer geeks have recently also gotten into the high-end bourbon scene, primarily via the marketing of "Pappy-aged" beers.

  3. Bill, could very well be. AB InBev certainly knows about saisons, they've probably brewed them in their test brewery, an they've very likely considered them for production. Like craft breweries, they actually do think about this stuff--never mind what a San Francisco marketing whiz may believe.

    But I do think the style could have mass appeal. You wouldn't have to call it a saison (I can't think of anything more deadly to sales), but a 5% example with an anodyne name and a pretty label? Yeah, I could see it. The whole tart thing is another matter. In exactly zero cases have I ever seen a soured beer become anything more than a very, very niche product. Even in countries where they still exist, they're near commercial death. If by "tart" he means "crisp" (because he calls witbiers tart, too), then yeah, that makes sense. Crisp, light beers are popular.

  4. Kevin, totally agree. And there's no way for large breweries to streamline barrel-aging so that it becomes appreciably cheaper. Indeed, it's one of the few styles macros don't have a big advantage vis a vis economies of scale.

  5. This is why I always brew a Saison when someone asks me to make something for a wedding.