There is no escaping the agrarian history of beer. This relationship was nearly lost a couple of centuries ago, as the Industrial Revolution seized control of brewing, but recently, beer-drinkers have demanded that beer revisit its soul, born of terroir.
Reformulated quite recently by a few savvy French brewers, bière de garde is truly a product of artisanal whim.
Today, two loose beer styles are considered “farmhouse ales”: bière de garde (beer to store or keep) of France and saison (season) of Belgium. They are historic siblings that have separated themselves in profile, but not in philosophy. Saisons are quite well-known, but the focus of this column, bière de garde, is gaining interest from consumers and brewers alike. Reformulated quite recently by a few savvy French brewers, bière de garde is truly a product of artisanal whim. Paradoxically rich, but sinewy; clean, but musty; muscular, but refreshing: bière de garde is a complex brew that clings to its rural past.
France’s rural landscape was once extensively dotted with tiny breweries that served to refresh and restore its workers. These were simple farmhouse brewers, who brewed for themselves and a few others. Their farmhouse ales, brewed and consumed as dictated by the season, were things of sustenance. They were made during the cool months, usually late fall and winter, when conditions were perfect for a slow, steady fermentation. This ensured that the brew would have a soft, clean character, and also that the nefarious microscopic organisms notorious for spoiling beer would be inactive or absent.
Brewing beer at that time of year also meant that the hops and malt used were freshly harvested. The combination of fresh medium and deliberate, cool fermentation resulted in a clean and stable product that would mature wonderfully. That is the literal essence of bière de garde, for it was meant to keep until brewing was impossible due to unfriendly temperatures and rogue microbes.
Though historical bière de garde brewers laid the foundation for what would be a passionate, if not extensive, brewing legacy in France, modern interpretations differ often from their forbears. Records show that more than one variety was often brewed. One version, of lower strength, was designed primarily to consume during the hot summer months. Another more formidable brew, was made to garde even longer, to be savored the following harvest season.
This romantic notion of farmhouse brewing would succumb to modernity. Refrigeration was largely the culprit. Seasonal brewing became unnecessary, cities and breweries grew, industry replaced farming and beer drinkers came to favor the new light lager beers. France followed suit by brewing lower-alcohol, lighter beers for the masses. But thanks to the foresight and stubbornness of a few French brewers, the craft brewing scene in France was about change. It was a both a step toward the future and an eye to the past that resurrected a stale craft in France.
The family-run Brasserie Duyck in Jenlain, France has been in business since 1922. They were known for their somewhat pedestrian Duyck Bière rather than the quirky, anachronistic Jenlain Bière de Garde. It was steadfastly promoted in the 1950s and finally caught on as a hipster brew in the 1970s, its elegant presentation in corked bottles and full flavor a welcome respite from the contemporary bland beer offerings.
This coincided with a seemingly ubiquitous movement towards rustic, local and flavorful specialties. That it happened elsewhere at about the same time may be a mere coincidence, but the more romantic view would be that people were fed up with their limited choices. Jenlain, as the popular prototype, would be the impetus needed for other brewers in France to formulate recipes that paid tribute to tradition, followed the “local is better” mantra and ultimately allowed them to stay vital. Today, there are many artisanal brewers producing bières de garde in its homeland and, with a “keeping” quality to them, they are excellent as exports.
When searching for a “typical” bière de garde, look to Jenlain, with its burnished amber hue, spicy, toasted malt and crisp finish. But, bière de gardes are bound more by philosophy rather than a narrow set of perceptible parameters. Some are blond, others, brown. Either ale or lager yeast may be used. Adjunct or sugar is added to some, others are all-malt. Hops can be from France, Germany, the Czech Republic, or even Belgium. What they all share, regardless of color, is a soft maltiness, crisp finish, subdued hop profile, spicy background and a hint of mustiness. Essentially, bière de garde may be a style full of idiosyncratic sub-styles to the point of being absolutely individualistic. Maddening for stylistic evaluation, but artistic to the end.
Of course, the soul of any beer is the malt. In bières de garde, the use of continental malt is the norm, usually a Pilsner type. Much of it is grown in the Champagne and Nord regions and possesses a slightly rougher character than the round, soft varieties of Germany and Bohemia. This may in fact contribute to some of the signature spiciness of bière de garde. Darker interpretations would include the Vienna or Munich malt, to add some body, maltiness and depth. Wheat, caramel and aromatic malts may also find their way into the grist.
Bière de garde brewers have no reservations about using adjuncts. Flaked maize or grits are used by some to add a little more fermentability, while others may “chaptalize” the kettle wort with a dose of sugar. A long boil could be employed to aid in caramelization for additional flavor and color. The grist is mashed to get high fermentability or attenuation. The combination of high-quality malt and full attenuation gives a full-flavored, malty brew, with a snappy finish. Most finish in the 6 to 8% range.
Hop rates are rather subdued, showcasing the nuances of the malt. Locally, there are hop farms in the Alsace region near Strasbourg, across the border from the famous Hallertau hop region of Germany. The French variety is named Strisselspalt. The French may eschew the local hops and opt for other European noble hops grown. Hop aroma is virtually non-existent.
Yeast selection is still another personalized ingredient. Some use lager yeast and ferment well above the temperature range that is optimal. Most use ale yeast and ferment at the lower end of its temperature range, a condition that would eliminate any strong fruity character because of the slow, extended fermentation.
A cold-conditioning period, originally in bottle, now in tanks, follows the fermentation and is shorter than would be employed for a regular lagerbier. Usually several weeks is sufficient to smooth out the brew. Bière de garde is then bottled and corked.
It can be cellared for some time, and develops some earthy character because of the cork, hops and maturation period. Part of this unusual profile may be the utilization of unfamiliar combinations of ingredients or by using them outside of their standard comfort level. Either way, there is no denying that the bière de garde brewers of France have a way with their medium, and as such contribute uniquely to beerdom with their art.
Bières de garde may be one of the most underappreciated genres of beer. Though overshadowed by their Belgian counterparts, they are as complex and finely-crafted. If you can’t make it to France and have to settle for imports, they should be easy to find. Though rare, there are some North American versions about. Let down your garde.