Beer-loving Northern France was home to three-quarters of the country’s 2,300 breweries at the turn of the 20th century. By then, though, brewers had been introduced to mechanization, scientific brewing and, most of all, refrigeration. Commercialization meant that brewing moved from provision to leisure. Even so, plenty of those 2,300 breweries were small and still making traditional beers. Bière de garde of that era was described as fairly strong, well-aged, often served as a blend of young and old beer, and casked, characteristics common to beer in Europe on the whole and proof that it had developed at least some sort of “style.” Gradually, the number of breweries dwindled, a result of wars, the onslaught of pale industrial lager and a general uninterest in things rustic and “natural.” But, as always, some brewers stubbornly held out, brewing in the manner and philosophy that they always had, keeping loyal customers happy and sustaining a vital tradition. The Brasserie Duyck was one such brewery. Its flagship Duyck Bière was rather pedestrian, whereas the Jenlain Bière de Garde was far more quirky and old-fashioned. It began promoting the Jenlain in corked bottles in the 1950s. The resulting cultish following allowed Duyck and a handful of others to survive by capitalizing on their classic homespun and agrarian image. By the late 1970s, a broader reawakening took shape and other breweries followed suit, most notably St. Sylvestre, La Choulette and Castelain. All of them are thriving, and today other French brewers are garnering broad interest as the artisan movement continues to flourish.
The breadth of stylistic interpretation is the essence of bières de garde. They are a distinctive set of beers, bound to their French foundation, but with a bit of German influence. They are primarily brewed in the Northern French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais. The German nod comes from several angles. Top-fermenting yeasts from the Rhineland, home to Kölsch and Altbier, or bottom-fermenting lagerbier strains may be used. The hop-growing region of Alsace in Eastern France shares a border with Germany. Finally, the prodigious barley growing and malting industries of Champagne and Nord-Pas de Calais produce malt mostly in the image of German varieties. Pilsner, Vienna and Munich malts are all made by French maltsters. Bière de garde brewers use these base malts in proprietary ratios to give the range of color, deep gold (blonde), amber (ambrèe) and brown (brune), to their specialty. The clean and subtle maltiness is a signature of the style. Brewers also make use of aromatic, caramel and Caramunich malts, and the odd dash of chocolate or roast, to add complexity and color. Malted wheat, adjunct grains and even simple sugars can also be included. The wort is mashed for fermentability, leaving a medium to light mouthfeel and crisp finish. The aggressive yeast also adds to this attenuation, leaving a rich yet refreshing footprint.
Bière de garde is a malt-forward brew, no matter the color, with IBUs typically in the mid-20s. Alsatian Strisselspalt hops are preferred by many French brewers, providing a tangible connect to terroir when combined with their own malt. Others that are favored are noble cultivars, such as German Hallertauer, Tettnanger and Spalter, and Czech Saaz, as well as those from the Belgian hop nexus of Poperinge, located just across the border from the Nord-Pas de Calais region. All of these are mellow and spicy, complementing perfectly the soft must and smooth lager-like character of bière de garde. A lighter version, called bière de mars (March) or bière de printemps (spring) is also brewed in winter, designed to drink young and fresh in early spring.
Bière de garde is fermented with either a lager yeast at the upper end of its comfortable temperature range or a “hybrid” yeast strain that is content in relatively cool conditions (60 to 70 degrees F). After fermentation, it is cold-conditioned for two or more weeks, the “garde” period, and then bottled. Bière de Garde may or may not be bottle-conditioned (on lees), and will state as much on the label if it is. Be on the lookout for an increasing number of these French specialties.