We, as beer lovers, are constantly being introduced to the next great infatuation, permutation or trend as the brewing industry rapidly rambles on.
In reality, though, every apparent “innovation” is decades or centuries old. Barreling, wild imprinting and outrageous hop rates all were once status quo, often in combination. Modern brewing is indelibly rooted in quaint, artisanal breweries, beers dictated by season and brewmaster whimsy. The anachronistic farmhouse beers of Belgium and France are among the most familiar standard bearers in this vein. The very popular Belgian version is known as saison (season), the more obscure French rendition as bière de garde (beer to keep/store), spinoffs of which are fairly rare outside their archetypal stomping grounds. Bière de garde and saison share a seasonal, provisional kinship, born and brewed on the farms and homesteads when conditions were amiable, raw materials fresh and plentiful, and national borders tenuous. They were nourishment and reward to thirsty farmhands. The two eventually diverged. Bière de garde as a “style” is especially individualistic, the only commonality a malt-accented character, tempered fermentation and cellar, musty undertones, a bit of brasserie terroir. Bières de garde hail from beer-centric Northern France—full of homegrown ethos and ingredients—with a formative wink from Germany.
The story of bière de garde begins like many other beers whose roots are anchored in rural Europe. Beer was brewed as a means to nourish, liquid sustenance that made use of products at hand among farmers to preserve the bounty of the agrarian lifestyle. Both shared and homegrown local ingredients would have resulted in personalized homebrews (still evident in the many interpretations of bière de garde today). Since there was little consistency, and just as little documentation, those farmhouse recipes are lost to history. That said, we can guess that both historical bière de garde and saison were simply different names for the collective farmhouse brews made across Northern France and Belgium.
In this region, the brewing season was short for several reasons: Farmers were unable to brew regularly, ingredients were best used harvest-fresh, and temperatures were ideal during a small window. This convergence of circumstances meant that beer could be made optimally in early winter. Subdued fermentation kept invading bugs at bay, and subsequent conditioning into the spring made a stable beer, one that could be consumed fresh or kept for months. These seasonal farmers/brewers were quite different from the more empirical, attentive monastic ones, making rustic brews with multi-strain influence, quite unlike those of the monks.
Farmhouse brews for daily, workday consumption were relatively weak, as the intent was to make invigorating, quenching brews rather than sedating ones. Beers for longer keeping, perhaps into the next harvest season, were made more stable by either increasing hop rates or gravity. Those two approaches may have been the impetus to historically segregate the two farmhouse styles during the late 19th century. Belgian brewers preferred the drier, more hoppy version, while the French liked theirs stronger and sweeter. Saison and bière de garde today follow this general template. Over time, the Belgians opted for warm-temperature strains that produced spicy notes and favored well-hopped wort. The French looked to the Germans for their strains, choosing either top-fermenting Kölsch and Altbier yeast, or a true bottom fermenter. These strains flattered the maltier bières de garde, but also helped shape the style by its method, that of restrained fermentation followed by cold conditioning and prolonged aging. French barley was plentiful, cultivated and malted in the style of German varieties. Homegrown hops were also bountiful, either from nearby Poperinge in neighboring Belgium, Alsace in France to the south, or points beyond in Germany and Bohemia. Those cultivars are still used in bière de garde.