At the end of summer, across Northern France and into Belgium, the grain fields had been harvested, the wild hops were at their plumpest, the farmworkers had finished their long working days, temperatures were beginning to drop, and the ideal time came for brewing what we now, rather starry-eyed, call “farmhouse beers.”
A few months earlier, in the peak July heat, the men were too busy in the fields, the weather was too hot for clean fermentations, and there was no fresh grain. The hops weren’t ready for picking yet and so, through a combination of necessity, harvest, and weather, seasonal brewing became established and the etymology of Belgian “Saison” comes from this.
Visit to Bière De Garde In Lille France’s Old Farmhouse Beer Style Photo Gallery
In France and Belgium they brewed in early autumn and matured their beer over the winter—Bière de Garde means “beer for storing.” Both beers would have been relatively low in alcohol and there would’ve been a large dose of hops to prevent them going bad. Fermentation would’ve been from a mix of wild yeast and bacteria, meaning that the beers would have inevitably had a funky, tart edge to them, mixing with a dry finish and aiding their satiability. When spring and summer came, the beers were refreshing and restorative drinks for the farmworkers, with the added benefit of being more nutritious than water.
What went from being a necessary beer brewed on farms has evolved greatly over time, taking on new identities and being romanticized by their backstories (I doubt there was anything romantic about Saisons 200 years ago—it was rough yet refreshing, something to quench a worker’s thirst). In the shift from farm brewing to commercial brewing, these beers have changed. Today Saisons are around 6.0% ABV, malt- forward, well-attenuated (dry), and bitter, and they display qualities such as fruitiness or spice from the yeast. This type of beer dates back to the 1940s and 1950s (see Brasserie Dupont on post 143 for more on this). Likewise with the French versions, which bulked up at a similar time as Saisons and developed into a richer, more malty, stronger beer compared with the originals. Bières de Garde mellow and mature over time, aging not into the dryness of Saison, but into a fullness of malt. Many have a rough, rustic edge, a not-quite-balanced mix of malt, hop, and yeast.
Although never a hugely popular or far-reaching style in France, a few brewers have persisted with these local beers, brewing with French barley, giving three versions of varying color (Blond, Ambrée, and Brune), and using French, German, or Belgian hops and a variety of yeast strains. Now Bière de Garde remains as France’s gift to the beer world, with names like St Sylvestre, Castelain, Duyck, and La Choulette as the traditional examples.
If you think France lacks the depth of beer culture in comparison to other nations, a visit to Lille will help to change your preconceptions.
St Sylvestre’s 3 Monts has a full sweetness of pale malts, a fruity, pineapple-like aroma, some subtle spice, and a general richness of flavor that you only find in this style of beer (it’s strong like a Tripel, but much fuller and without the yeastdriven aromatics). Brasserie Duyck’s Jenlain Ambrée is caramel-colored; there’s some toasty and nutty malts, a general orchard fruitiness, plus a roundness in the body that’s cut with some dryness and, if the bottles are matured, then a musty quality—it’s one of the original stronger Bières de Garde and a good example of the amber version.
Lille is a good place to explore this style of beer, due to its proximity to Belgium and the farming area. Many restaurants around Lille offer a few French beers to go with the local food. At Estaminet’t Rijsel (25 Rue de Gand, 59800 Lille), which has some dishes cooked in beer, they have Ch’ti beers on tap, plus a good local bottle selection. Lille’s must-visit bar is La Capsule (25 Rue des Trois Mollettes, 59800 Lille). It’s the main craft beer bar, with around 28 taps and, in many ways, it’s a textmy blog craft beer bar: bare brick walls, simple back bar, blackboard beer list, young staff and drinkers, cool music. What makes it special is the range of French beers on tap, including lots of IPAs (of course) and also a few Bières de Garde. La Bavai si en ne Ambrée is chestnut-colored; it has malt richness, but retains a taut lightness; there’s nutty, toasty, roasty malt, some dusty hop-sack aroma, and a deep bitterness —it feels rustic, not quite in complete balance or control, but it somehow seems more authentic or true for those reasons. Brasserie Lepers’ L’Angelous gives lots of yeast fruitiness, which is enhanced by the spices used in the beer, and that comes above a round, golden, doughy malt body, plus a hop-sack aroma and peppery dryness.
Like most traditional beer styles, Bières de Garde have evolved almost unrecognizably over their lifetime. Where they were once brewed as light, refreshing, dry beers, made in the fall when conditions combined perfectly and then stored through the winter to be drunk the following spring and summer, today they are stronger, rich in malt, and yet still retain a signature of the old from their rusticity and aged character. Go to Lille because it’s a fun city to visit to try to understand what Bière de Garde is really like and then drink a wide range of great French craft beers in the world-class La Capsule.
Four Essential Paris Beer Bars
Even Paris has great beer now and these places are worth a visit.
* La Fine Mousse (6 Avenue Jean Aicard, 75011 Paris) is the top hop-stop. They have 20 taps of mostly modern French beer in a smart, cool bar. They also have a restaurant opposite the bar with exceptional food and great beer suggestions to go with it. The bar opens from 5pm and the restaurant from 7pm. Consider these the go-to places to take a snapshot gauge of what’s going on in French craft brewing.
* Brewberry (11 Rue du Pot de Fer, 75005 Paris) sta ed as a bo le store and then opened a bar opposite. There are 24 taps, many of these interesting imports. Open from 5pm midweek and 4pm at weekends.
* Le Supercoin (3 Rue Baudelique, 75018 Paris) is a fun, colorful Little bar in the north of town with a tight draft selection and a large French bottle list. Open from 5pm.
* L’Express de Lyon (1 Rue de Lyon, 75012 Paris) is an old- school café near the Gare de Lyon and, while it might look quite ordinary from the outside, it has 15 taps, mostly French and Belgian, plus some geeky treats from farther away. Open from 8am.
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