Style Profile Goes Rustic
By Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint
The border between France and Belgium is also a beverage border of sorts. It marks the point where the wine culture of southern Europe gives way to the beer culture of the north. While France is rightfully lauded for its fine wines, as one edges toward that boundary, good beer gains a greater presence in the drinking landscape. In the French departments of du Nord and Pas-de-Calais, bière de garde is the local drink of choice.
Bière de garde is one of the beers, along with its Belgian cousin saison, that is lumped in the category of “farmhouse ales.” The roots of the style lie in the days when brewing beer was a farmstead activity. Beer was brewed from the ingredients at hand for family or local consumption. The name translates roughly to “beer for keeping.” It refers to the practice before the days of artificial refrigeration of brewing stronger beers in March for storage and consumption through the hot summer months. The higher level of alcohol helped retard spoilage as the beer conditioned.
The bière de garde of olden days was likely very different from the modern style. An account from an 1880 work called L’industrie de la Brasserie describes “a highly special brew that was aged in large, wooden barrels for six to eight months before serving.” It was said to have “a very vinous flavor that was highly regarded by the customers.” A paper from 1905 titled The Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France noted that bière de garde was “purposely allowed to become sour,” and again described it as “vinous.”
The origination of the modern, malt-forward bière de garde style is credited to the Brasserie Duyck in Jenlain, France, that first bottled its now-iconic Jenlain Bière de Garde in the 1940s. Jenlain was originally an obscure, draft-only, session beer with 3% – 4% alcohol. During the 1970s it became a cult favorite of French college students. Responding to the demands of that particular market segment the brewery boosted the alcohol to the current 6% – 8% level and switched the packaging to cork-and-cage finished champagne bottles.
Modern bière de garde lean heavily on malt. They come in three variations – blond, amber, and brown – with the malt character increasing as the color darkens. The Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines describe the style as having “medium to high malt flavor often with a toasty, toffee-like or caramel sweetness.” In my own experience the malt character in the blond versions is distinctly honey-like. Bitterness is generally low, just enough to provide some support to the malt. Blond beers may be a touch more bitter, but never so much as to upset the malt balance. Some commercial examples are described as having a “cellar-like” character brought on by indigenous yeasts and molds. This flavor is rare, but when present I describe it as earthy or mushroomy.
Bière de garde loves herbs. It pairs superbly with foods seasoned with rosemary, thyme, parsley, marjoram, and the like. A French provincial beer, bière de garde is perfect with French provincial cuisine. Try it with cassoulet, herbed lamb, or a sautéed chicken with rosemary, mushrooms and garlic. It’s great with a simple roasted chicken. If you are looking for the best beer to pair with the whole Thanksgiving holiday meal, turkey and all the trimmings, you can’t do much better than an amber bière de garde.
Domestic examples of bière de garde are hard to come by in Minnesota. Domaine duPage from Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, Illinois is a malty-rich and toasty amber version. Flat Earth’s seasonal Ovni Ale bends toward the brown. It adds nutty notes to the caramel and toasty malt sweetness. The brewery hasn’t released Ovni Ale in the last couple of years, but plans are to run it again in the spring.
But don’t fret, there are plenty of imported bière de garde available locally, including the original Jenlain Ambrée. One of my favorites is Castelain Blond Bière de Garde. It features sweet, honey-tinged malt with hints of spicy hops and undertones of earth and mushroom. Others worth checking out are St. Amand, Ch’Ti Brun and Blond, and the blond, amber and brown version of La Choulette. The availability of these beers comes and goes, but I have seen all of them in the Twin Cities at one time or another.