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.
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.