France's Road Less Traveled

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 31, Issue 1
March 22, 2010 By

Everyone remembers that one bottle of beer that awakened their thirst for beer knowledge. Mine was Sans Culottes from La Choulette. At the time I had no idea what a bière de garde was, but with my high school French I knew that the beer’s name literally meant “without underwear” and it bought back memories of a playground song from my childhood: “In the land of France where the ladies wear no pants, but the men don’t care ‘cuz they wear no underwear.” However, after examining and translating the label, it became clear that this was more than a bottle of beer, or a reference to a silly rhyme; it was a piece of France’s history.

I’ll never forget that bottle of beer, but during a trip to Belgium, while embracing the charms of its rustic saison breweries, I was reminded of that beer epiphany. Dany Prignon, the eccentric brewer at Fantôme, insisted one would not truly understand the farmhouse ale culture without a visit over the border to France.

No Respect

The Belgian side of the Flanders region has a rich and well-documented brewing history, but many forget that Flanders straddles both sides of the French/Belgian border and the French also have a rich farmhouse ale tradition. Strangely, these bières de garde are largely unknown, even within their place of origin, the French region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and the locals remain largely ignorant of their own indigenous beers. Sadly, at most bars, Eurotrash lagers and mainstream Belgian ales dominate the draft lines. This seems odder still, given that the French take such great pride in their wines, cheeses and other gastronomic fare, but history and the ubiquity of wine in the greater French culture have conspired to keep bière de garde down.

The French Flanders region was devastated in the first half of the 20th century. During the two World Wars, the majority of original breweries were destroyed and their equipment melted down to make bombs. To add insult to injury, the competing brewing region of Alsace, viewed as being “German” by the occupiers, thrived over this period. The bière de garde region has spent the second half of the last century clawing its way back to beer respect.

Most of the breweries here brew less than your local brewpub in a year. There is a joke amongst French brewers: “What is the difference between a French and American microbrewery? About 19,000 hectoliters!” What many of the historic or rebuilt breweries lack in size they make up for with French flair—with most brewing in copper, wood and iron systems that would have been scrapped long ago in the United States.

Defining Moment

In the quest to find the real difference between the two sister farmhouse styles, the brewers were asked the following question, “What are the main differences between bières de garde and saisons?” There was a surprising lack of consensus in the responses. One major point of agreement centered on the beer’s namesake, garde, which refers to the long “guarding” or lagering of the beer. The other commonality was agreement that bières de garde are fermented at high temperatures. It would be safe to say that the prototypical bière de garde has a moderately hopped amber grain bill, and a dusty yeast character. Things then get confusing, as the name also refers to the now-fashionable blonde and brune versions.

A great introduction to the original style is Theillier’s La Bavaisienne. The Theillier facility in Bavay, is a stunning brewery that has been running continuously in this location since the 1850s, making it France’s oldest farmhouse brewery. Michel Theillier, a seventh generation family brewer,  runs the show at this very tiny location, which produces about 1,000 hectoliters per year.

Theillier has had some upgrades since 1850. They are on their second set of kettles as the original kettles were stolen during the Franco-Prussian War, roughly 25 years after the brewery opened. Fortunately, the upgrades have been slow—this brewery still has its original iron mash tun and a 150-year-old pump that Michel services himself (apparently the warranty has expired). Part of the magic of this extraordinary brewery is that its water source comes from a spring a mere hundred yards away in the back yard.

In complete contrast to Theillier, Brasserie Duyck, in the town of Jenlain, is the most industrial and largest of all the breweries in the region. However, were it not for this brewery, bière de garde would likely have been forgotten. In the 1970s an effort to cut costs led Duyck to package their most famous beer, Jenlain Amber, in cheap recycled 750 ml Champagne bottles with a wire-fastened cork. They were one of the first breweries in the north of France to do this; something we see commonly today. This innovation made Jenlain Amber all the rage in the nearby university town of Lille, particularly with the students. Today Duyck is the largest of the bière de garde breweries at 100,000 hectoliters. Of all the bières de garde, this beer has the strongest presence and is the most widely available globally. It has become the benchmark.

Another long established brewery, Brasserie St-Sylvestre, is found in the town of St-Sylvestre-Cappel, just down the road from the town’s imposing church. This third-generation, family-run brewery has a beautiful old copper brewhouse. When asked how long he had worked in the brewery, the current CEO, François Ricour, replied that he was born in the brewery.

One of the joys of these old breweries is their quirkiness—St-Sylvestre’s cork has  a “V” cut into it with a single giant staple to hold the cork in place. These seem daunting to remove, but just pop the staple with a knife and use a corkscrew. This brewery is a good example of why the bière de garde style is hard to pin down, as one of their fine beers, the 3 Monts, tilts heavily into the saison camp.

Looking Ahead

France’s first brewpub, Au Baron, or Bailleux, in Gussignies, doesn’t just straddle the border of saison and bière de garde, but completely obliterates the style divide. The Cuvée des Jonquilles embraces all the funk and junk of a great saison and the amber beer (ironically named Saison Saint Médard) has all of the caramel, dust and barnyard tastes of a great bière du garde. You can walk to the border in three directions within 10 minutes, as this area of France juts into neighboring Belgium. The brewer is a second-generation saison brewer, and maybe because of his Flemish heritage he doesn’t think there is any difference between bière de garde and saison.

This picturesque brewpub is situated in the bottom of a valley with a babbling brook running by their expansive deck, where in the spring the Cuvée’s namesake daffodils blanket the surrounding hills. The beers complement this restaurant’s delectable menu, which includes a grilled meat platter bigger than anything Wilma Flintstone ever served Fred.

With this area’s strong brewing history, it is interesting to see the rebirth and progression of the style. One of the new school French breweries, Brasserie Thiriez, is less than 10 kilometers from the brewing and hop-growing region of Belgium in the tiny town of Esquelbecq. It is named for its brewer and owner, Daniel Thiriez, who started as a homebrewer before homebrewing existed in France; he had to source equipment and information from other countries. Daniel took his formal education at the brewing college in Leuven, Belgium. His inspiration was a homebrew book written by Jean-Louis Dits, the brewer at the saison brewery Brasserie à Vapeur, one of the last steam-run breweries in the world. Thiriez makes a number of great beers, including the American-influenced Thiriez Frères de la Bière (EXTRA), the hoppiest beer brewed in France,

Brasserie du Pays Flamand, which is spitting distance from Thiriez in Blaringhem, is settling into its farmhouse digs. These young upstarts have been brewing in this rural village for only one year and are already exceeding their production goals with exports to Canada and the United States. French ale is safe in the hands of these guys and the farmhouse ale culture is surviving and even growing as a new generation of brewers is modernizing this old garde. Olivier Duthoit and Mathieu Lesenne are working hard, along with other regional breweries, to get an appellation for bières de garde similar to Champagne, lambic or Kölsch. This brewery is looking ahead, but with an eye to the past.

Full Circle

This brings us back where it all started, at the brewery without underwear, La Choulette, in Hordain. This brewery is tiny at 4,500 hectoliters but has a larger global reputation than its annual production would suggest. Its third-generation bière de garde brewer, Alain Dhaussy, told us that at the onset of the Second World War, his grandfather lost his brewery when the family fled the region so they would not have to endure the hardships of war.

Faithful to the family values of brewing great beer, Alain Dhaussy purchased this 1885 farmhouse brewery in 1977 and changed its name. This copper and wood brewhouse turns out some amazing bières de garde. The brewery’s name, La Choulette, references a historic golf-like game played with a wooden club that has a metal pick on the end. Not surprisingly, the brewery is involved in the sponsorship of the World Choulette Championships each year.

And the name of the flagship beer, Sans Culottes, is actually a historic reference not to underclothes, but to those “without pantaloons”: the French Revolutionary soldiers who didn’t wear the knee pants and stockings combo worn by the king’s army.

Dhaussy is a walking encyclopedia of local beer history and provided a good chunk of the historical information included in Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales, a must-read for those with more than a passing interest in the sister styles.

As for my quest to find a difference in styles? They grow from the same tradition, share the same attitude and display the same passion. They are both daughters of Flanders; but they are sisters, not twins.