How One Style Penetrated Two Cultures
While France lacks the deep brewing tradition of its neighbors Belgium and Germany, its native bière de garde style sprang from a way of life that has evolved over generations on its family farms. Across the Atlantic, Bayou Teche Brewing in Louisiana’s Cajun country honors that French farmhouse brewing tradition, preserving the French historical influence and the Cajun lifestyle on the bayou.
“We don’t consider ourselves just a craft brewery; we consider ourselves a cultural brewery,” Bayou Teche Brewing founder Karlos Knott says. The beers that Bayou Teche makes are designed to complement the spicy and down-home cuisine of Louisiana, especially the seafood and shellfish found in the region’s waters. The intentionally food-friendly beer creates endless opportunities to partner with local restaurants for beer dinners, which are often accompanied by the joyful Cajun music that inspires the brewers.
The farmhouse tradition
Like Bayou Teche’s philosophy of incorporating local ingredients and cultural elements into the beer, the term “farmhouse ales” refers to a beer heavily influenced by the brewer’s lifestyle. The two most well-known styles of farmhouse ales are the French bière de garde and the Belgian saison. The saison is a lighter, hoppier, spicier beer that is intended to provide refreshment, while the bière de garde is maltier and earthier, intended to provide nourishment.
Bière de garde is translated as “beer for keeping” or “beer for guarding” and was brewed in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, which borders Belgium. The name came from the agrarian lifestyle of the families who not only brewed beer, but also farmed the land. Brewing bière de garde took advantage of the spare time after harvest to brew a beer meant for keeping until the planting and growing cycle began again. Those beers would have a higher alcohol content so that they would keep until the spring.
Once refrigeration became common, the need to brew and keep the stronger ales faded, and lighter, lower-alcohol beers became the norm for much of the 20th century. The bière de garde style dimmed.
In the late 1970s, French brewers realized that they needed a different style of beer to compete with the light lagers and pilsners brewed by industrial breweries. They circled back to bière de garde. Brasserie Duyck was the first brewery to usher in the return of the hearty style with its Jenlain, which the brewery packaged in a champagne-style bottle with a cork and cage. Jenlain became the first well-known and widely distributed bière de garde, but other breweries in the region—like Brasserie Theillier, Brasserie Castelain and Brasserie St. Sylvestre, among others—followed and put their own twist on the style with great success.
Now, the bière de garde, or as it’s alternatively called, “French country ale,” is brewed all over France and Belgium, and in many American breweries,including Two Brothers Brewery in Illinois, Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin and The Lost Abbey in California. Acadie, Bayou Teche’s year-round bière de garde offering, and Courir de Mardi Gras, its spring seasonal bière de mars (March beer), are homages to the French farmhouse tradition, but the brewery incorporates French malt and hops in many of their other beers as well.
A pocket of France in Louisiana
Karlos Knott founded Bayou Teche Brewing in March 2009 with his brothers Dorsey and Byron. “Three couillon [fools] with a dream,” Knott says with a laugh. They began brewing on a one-barrel pilot system in a converted old rail car on their family’s farmland. In 2013, they moved into their full-production brewery with a 15-barrel brewhouse, five 30-barrel fermenters and four 15-barrel fermenters. In the first quarter of 2014, the brewery added three 60-barrel fermenters.
Much more important than the specs of the brewery, according to Knott, is its mission to celebrate Cajun culture, which is strongly influenced by French traditions and language that the Cajun community considers part of its heritage. The Acadians moved from France to Nova Scotia in the 1600s, where they lived until the British took over control of Canada. When the Acadians refused to sign an unconditional oath of allegiance to the British government, the Great Expulsion in the mid-18th century forced thousands of Acadians to leave their homes and settle throughout the colonies and France. Many Acadians found their home in Louisiana, which at that time was controlled by Spain.
The Cajuns created a way of life that was unique to the United States, once Louisiana achieved statehood in 1812. However, in the early 20th century their ethnic identity was threatened by homogenization, specifically by American teachers in Louisiana schools, who punished Cajun children for speaking their language. Bayou Teche sales director Derek Domingue says, “My grandfather was kicked out of school because he couldn’t speak enough English. The rule was that if you spoke French three times, you were kicked out indefinitely. The school wasn’t going to help him out, so he went and worked straight for the railroads. He didn’t start speaking English until the grandkids were born.”
The primarily farm-focused Acadian region was not only home to the descendants of those who arrived in the wake of the Great Expulsion; immigrants from Germany, England, Spain and Italy also settled in the area. The resulting intermixed population became the Cajuns. The Cajun dialect of French became the common language, and the fruits of the settlers’ farming labor and the natural resources of the fertile bayou ecosystem were the basis of their pork- and seafood-heavy cuisine. Growing, gathering and preparing food was a central part of work and celebration with family, friends and the entire community.
The Knotts’ deep pride in their French Cajun heritage manifests in the brewery on many levels, from the owners’ support to preserving the French language in the area, to the ingredients like local honey, wood for smoking malt and fruit used in its beer, to the specific beer styles they brew and release. “We have an eye toward France and the French in everything we do,” Knott says proudly, including beer styles, such as the annual spring release Courir de Mardi Gras. This bière de mars style is similar to the German Märzen, in that it’s a beer brewed in winter when the weather is cooler to drink in the spring, right around March. Since that time frame coincides with Carnival season and Mardi Gras, Bayou Teche connects this centuries-old European beer style to Louisiana’s traditional and current celebration. The Knotts also incorporate French culture in other ways, like barrel aging their recent Miel Sauvage honey beer for exactly 100 days, to honor Napoleon’s final period of French rule after his exile to the Tuscan island of Elba.
When asked why Bayou Teche immediately began brewing French- and Belgian-influenced beers as opposed to more mainstream American styles, Knott references the Cajun’s historic clashes with the British who kicked them out of their home in Canada and the Americans who attempted to suppress their indigenous culture. “The truth is, my grandfather and all my ancestors only spoke French,” Knott says. “They had a natural distrust for anything American or English. So when we started the brewery, we thought if we did an American-style IPA, our grandfather would rise out of the grave and beat us to a pulp, because they hated anything to do with those guys.”
Bayou Teche started using French hops like Strisselspalt, Aramis, Triskel and Bouclier, which, because of their herbal, citrus and spice notes, are a great complement to Belgian yeast stains. The brewery also uses specialty malts from France and Belgium to add a specific cereal quality to the mash that is associated with the farmhouse brewing tradition. “The grains actually taste like granola; that’s the best way to describe it,” says Knott. Praising the techniques of the French and Belgian malsters, he adds, “We find that those malts go best with our cuisine.”
“Every time we test the beer, it’s designed around the food we eat, or ate growing up,” says Knott. “We always have a story around the beer. Whether it’s the Boucanèe [smoked wheat beer] with the smoked meats that we all ate, or the Passionné—we all ate the passion fruit growing up. We try to keep an eye toward that, keeping that tradition alive, our heritage.”
Nora D. McGunnigle
Nora D. McGunnigle writes about beer and lives in New Orleans. Check out her work at nolabeerblog.com and follow her on Twitter @noradeirdre.