The question has become insipid. A brewer is asked about the favorite beer they make. They answer that their beers are like children, that they simply cannot pick among them.
Jeremy Danner doesn’t bother with such pretense. As the ambassador brewer for Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, Missouri, he wouldn’t even wait for the question. Saison Brett “is the best beer we make,” he’d say. “That’s not an opinion.”
[Editor’s note: In the process of reporting this story Jeremy Danner left Boulevard Brewing Company. He now works for 4 Hands Brewing.]
The story of Saison Brett is not about dazzling numbers. The beer accounts for about two-tenths of 1% of Boulevard’s annual production during the years when it is released. The brewery will not package a 2019 vintage, but Saison Brett is expected to return in 2020. It has earned a cult following, and inspired scores of other breweries to make their own Saisons using Brettanomyces. It found a niche at a time when Boulevard was pivoting, when it was becoming a 21st-century brewery. It was central to that evolution.
Boulevard’s brewmaster Steven Pauwels grew up and learned to brew beer in Belgium, but Saison Brett was not born from a recipe he brought with him to Kansas City. It was an act of modern imagination.
Pauwels had tasted the beer in his mind before he started envisioning a recipe. He wasn’t working from aromatics he had previously encountered in beer, but from elusive memories of his childhood on the edge of Eeklo in East Flanders, north of Ghent and east of Bruges. “We would help farmers during hay harvest,” he says. “The dusty smell of hay when we were loading it on the field and the barn smell when we were unloading it are completely different, but very unique.”
“The beer doesn’t smell like these memories,” he continues, “but I tried to get the fresh hay smell through dry hopping, and the barn smell with Brettanomyces. When the beer is three-to nine-months-old, you can pick up a blend of fruitiness from the yeast, hay and citrus from dry hopping, and mild funk from Brett.”
The aroma may have been inspired by halcyon days in the Belgian countryside, but it is also thoroughly modern. Saison Brett is today flavored with Cascade, Amarillo, Calypso, and Citra hops (Boulevard shares the recipe online), exotic varieties born in America, some of which did not exist when Pauwels first conceived of the beer in 2006.
Pauwels knew he wanted to brew since childhood. He had once planned to serve as the brewmaster at Brouwerij Krüger in his hometown. His father worked at the brewery, and during high school, Pauwels took on various odd jobs to help out. By the time he settled in the brewery’s lab, he’d decided to get serious about his education. He earned a degree in biochemical engineering at KaHo Sint-Lieven, and completed a five-year brewing program with a year of business studies.
In the meantime, the local brewery had been sold to Jupiler. Interbrew soon bought Jupiler, and Interbrew closed Krüger about the time Pauwels completed his postgraduate studies in 1992. (Later, Ambev merged with Interbrew, creating InBev, the company that merged with Anheuser-Busch in 2008.)
Eventually, Pauwels landed a job at Brouwerij Domus in Leuven, the first Belgian brewpub of the modern era, and later worked at Brouwerij Riva in Dentergem. After learning that Boulevard was in search of a brewmaster, he applied for the job and relocated to Kansas City in 1999. “I saw this movement [in America] and thought, ‘I like this.’ It was grassroots,” he says. “There was nobody stopping these breweries from doing something new.”
Before commissioning a new and larger brewhouse in 2006, Boulevard went almost 10 years without releasing a new, year-round beer. The first seasonal Pauwels developed, Zon Belgian-Style Witbier, won a bronze medal at the 2003 Great American Beer Festival. He and his staff were otherwise busy squeezing all they could out of a 35-barrel system. By 2005, they were producing 105,000 barrels of beer annually. When there was a rare window in the brewing schedule, Pauwels could experiment. “The first one we made was a Tripel. No, I think Saison,” he says. That was in 2004, and was for “in-house use” only.
Recent scrutiny about the origins of Saison would have been of no interest back when Pauwels was learning about beer. “Saisons in the ’90s were almost gone,” he says. “For us [in Flanders] it was a strange beer.”
Joris Pattyn, a founding member of Zythos, Belgium’s leading beer consumer group, has given serious thought to Belgian beer’s regionality. Though many Belgian beers—like Trappist ales—are considered part of the same stylistic family, they were influenced as much by neighboring breweries as they were monastic brothers, he says. Like others brewing with the soft water in and around Antwerp, Westmalle makes a strong, pale beer. Chimay and Rochefort, on the other hand, brew stronger version of the dark beers that are typical for the eastern regions of Wallonia.
According to Pattyn, Orval is the most interesting case. “We are speaking of [an] original, stronger version of Saison,” he says. “Today’s Saisons are strong, spicy, and rather sweet, but historically, that was not true. Saison was of mixed fermentation. So is Orval.”
The regional and cultural divide in Belgium is about more than just language—Flemish, or Belgian Dutch, is spoken in the north (Flanders), and French in the south (Wallonia). Almost 60% of Flemish speakers also speak French, while only one in five members of the francophone population speaks Flemish. That divide explains why few people Pauwels knew ventured south of Brussels—and why Saison was little-known in his region.
Pauwels remembers tasting a few Saisons when he visited a friend in Wallonia in the 1990s. “It triggered my interest,” he says.
“My idea of a Saison is a very drinkable beer, thirst-quenching during hot summer days, earthy and maybe a little bit musty,” he continues. “We did get some of the characteristics in the original beer but were still missing the earthy, musty complexity.”
That first Saison Boulevard packaged became part of its Smokestack Series, a collection of high-alcohol, bold, and complex beers that the brewery released beginning in 2007. For his part, Pauwels was still at work on the beer that would become Saison Brett, and still struggling to capture his desired aromas. He mentioned his frustration to Chris Bauweraerts at Brasserie d'Achouffe, located in Belgian’s southern Ardennes region. “He said, ‘Why don’t you just put some dirt in there?’” says Pauwels. He chose to add Brettanomyces instead. “We got it right from the first test. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is it.’”
Boulevard served the beer at events in 2006 and 2007 before packaging it in 2008, calling it George Brett when it debuted at Brewery Ommegang’s Belgium Comes to Cooperstown festival in 2006. (Brett is a former third baseman for the Kansas City Royals, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1999.) As Pauwels remembers it, the brewery heard from one of Brett’s representatives not long after.
“We knew [using Brett’s name] was a mistake,” he says. “JB [John Bryan] said we didn’t want to go there.” Bryan was director of the brewery’s artisanal division, and worked at Boulevard from 1993 until 2010, when he left to join Firestone Walker Brewing. He passed away in 2017.
Bryan oversaw the rollout of the first Smokestack Series beers in November of 2007. These included Saison, The Sixth Glass Quadrupel, Double-Wide IPA, and Long Strange Tripel. In the final six weeks of the year, the brewery sold 2,306 cases of 750ml bottles; for an entire year, it led the Missouri market with a 26% market share of large bottles. In 2008, Boulevard shipped 9,309 cases of its Smokestack Series beers, and claimed 42% of the market. Meanwhile the category nearly doubled, from 10,889 to 20,902 case equivalents in a single year. Those beers commanded a premium price.
“The really interesting thing isn’t that we dominated with big bottles, but most other similar-package brands rode the coattails of the interest we brought to the category,” Bryan said in 2008. “Almost every supplier is up in the high double digits. The Regular Joe is checking out these beers, the drinker who would have normally bought a six of mainstream craft or import. I believe that this consumer is also buying 750ml as an additional package, perhaps as an impulse buy. They are not giving up the six-pack purchase, but buying both.”
By 2014 the brewery was selling 30,000 barrels in 750ml bottles. Boulevard has since shifted its focus to 12oz bottles in four- and six-packs, and sells one-sixth the number of 750s as it did 2014.
Bryan pointed to benefits beyond increased sales. “Smokestack is good money, but its greatest value is in the image boost we get from showing what we can do from the artisan brewer’s standpoint. The respect we gain then carries over to our regular craft line,” he said. “The beer geek who viewed Boulevard as a Midwestern wheat beer brewery making ‘easy’ beers may see us in a different light now. It brings those people back into the fold when they do choose a session beer.”
Plenty has evolved since then, most prominently that Boulevard founder John McDonald sold his brewery to Duvel Moortgat in 2013. “If you’d have told me in college that I would end up working for them I probably would have kissed you,” Pauwels says.
Only The Sixth Glass Quadrupel remains from the original Smokestack Series, and each year Boulevard sells dozens of beers that were created after Saison Brett. The brewery shipped 995 cases of what was first called Saison-Brett in 2008, and sold 3,532 of Saison Brett in 2018. (The dash in the name disappeared at some point during those 10 years.)
“Even though we thought brewing something new was hard, it was so much easier than today,” Pauwels says. “Being innovative is really difficult. There are so many new breweries out there creating new things.”
Unfiltered Wheat remains Boulevard’s best-selling beer, but now accounts for 34% of its volume, compared to 65% in 2010. “There are a lot of markets where you can’t buy Unfiltered,” says Danner. Tank 7, a Belgian-style Farmhouse Ale that also resulted from Pauwels’ aromatic remembrances, is now the second-best-selling Boulevard beer. It came to market in 2009, and is the base for Brett. Its name comes from the fact that, in the aughts, it resided in fermentation tank no. 7 at the brewery before being transported to an offsite warehouse to be inoculated with Brettanomyces and bottled.
Danner went to work at Boulevard in 2008, and was a shift brewer before he eased into his ambassador role. Saison Brett was one of the first batches he brewed on the old 35-barrel system without somebody looking over his shoulder. He’s never been shy about showing his affection for the beer. For instance, in January of 2012, he tweeted, “Brewing my favorite beer, Saison-Brett, is pretty freaking cool.”
He would take Saison Brett to share when he visits other breweries. “The love people show for that beer is really exciting,” he says. If he spots a bottle in a liquor store, he’ll usually buy it.
When the Kansas City Royals, another of his loves, won the World Series in 2015, he characteristically celebrated with Saison Brett. He drinks it each opening day in the Kauffman Stadium parking lot, and still talks about the time it was on tap in the ballpark.
“That was the coolest thing ever, having Saison Brett at the ballgame,” he says.
If only George Brett agreed. Back in 2013, Danner tweeted, “I heard a rumor that @georgehbrett tried Saison-Brett this weekend and didn't like it. Ah well.”