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Be on your guard for fine French beers

Part 1 of Michael Jackson's winding journey through France

Some Britishers look across the Channel and see winegrowers. That is an unsophisticated view. We beer lovers scan the horizon and see splendidly rustic breweries.

We barely need to cross the water and we are among them. The port of Boulogne itself has one brewery, and there are about 20 in this northwestern corner of France.

Many of them make bières de garde, a spicy-tasting, ale-like style, much more interesting than the lagers of Alsace.

Perhaps because they are so near, I seem to be asked about bières de garde more than any other style. Now is a good time to consider them; they were originally produced in February and March to be laid down as provision for the summer, when the warm weather and airborne yeasts made brewing impossible: "beer to keep."

In those days, the beers were filled into the customers' own bottles, with the addition of primings. Wine bottles, and sometimes gin crocks or brandy flasks would be used.

This area regards itself as being part of the Low Countries, albeit definitely French, and its regional traditions include not only the brewing of beer but also the distilling of genièvre (gin).

The culture is especially strong in the sub-region that regards itself as Flemish France. In this area, many of the place names are clearly Flemish.

After the war, when breweries began to modernize, bière de garde almost vanished, but the odd brewery kept it alive, doing its own filling, often into Champagne bottles. In recent years, several breweries have reintroduced bières de garde.

The grist for these beers usually includes some very aromatic malts, sometimes made from local barleys. Typically, their gravities are in the range of 1060-76 degrees, producing an alcohol content of 6.5 to 8.5 percent.

Some of the brewers boil their wort very intensely, with a view to achieving a degree of caramelization and concentrating it by evaporation.

In aroma and flavor, the emphasis tends to be on malt rather than hops, though they are also a local element. The Belgian hop-growing region of Poperinge is just across the border, and cultivation spreads into France as far as Hazebrouck (about half way between Calais and Lille).

This is a very old hop-growing area, probably dating back to the early use of the plant in brewing.

Several varieties are grown, especially Brewer's Gold and Northern Brewer, and new ones are being introduced in an effort to slow the decline of the region.

A beer that contains more than 51 percent local hops is permitted to carry the regional appellation Nord-Pas de Calais.

Some of the breweries use top-fermenting yeasts, while others employ warm temperatures with lager strains. Several use different yeasts for products in broadly the same style.

Some of these beers have a maturation of several weeks, or a month or two in tank, usually at cool temperatures, and one or two have a suggestion of "cellar character."

Some people regard this as a defect, suggesting mustiness; others, myself included, feel that it sometimes adds complexity and charm.

I enjoyed seeing the hop gardens that fringe the Trois Monts brewery, at the hamlet of Saint Sylvestre Cappel, near Steenvoorde, just north of Hazebrouck.

It has been variously claimed that there was first a brewery on the site in the early 1500s, or from the French Revolution, but its documented history seems to begin in the 1860s, and some of the buildings probably date from that period.

It is one of the most rustic breweries I saw with the added quirk that its laboratory is in the former Parish Hall, which is decorated with a statue of St Philomene.

The present brewhouse dates at least from the 1920s and the steam boiler is coalfired. The brewery is run by Pierre Ricour, who is in his sixties, with his wife and their two sons.

Local malts and hops are used in significant proportions, but I have never met a brewer with such a strong interest in the influence of yeast on the character of his beers. He uses three strains, all top-fermenting, each for a different beer.

The principal product, a bière de garde called simply Trois Monts (the name comes from three small hills in the area), is made exclusively with pilsener-type malt, and some sugar adjunct, to a gravity of 1076 degrees. It is filtered, but not pasteurized.

Trois Monts has a full, gold, color; a slightly sour aroma (some cellar character?); a very dry palate, with some yeast-bite; a rounded wineyness; and a hint of alcohol.

The brewery also has an unfiltered "abbey type" Bière des Templiers, again with a gravity of 1076 degrees. This is an all-malt beer, and it is superb.

Monsieur Ricour claims it is made entirely with Pilsener malts, in which case it must have a great deal of caramelization and evaporation. It has a rich, barley-sugar color, and is very complex.

In the old coalfield area, I visited the Castelain Brewery at Bénifontaine, near Wingles, just north of Lens. This, too, is a family business, its utilitarian building bearing the legend Yves Castelain, Artisan Brasseur, Depuis 1926.

Through a window, the gleaming mash tun and two copper kettles are visible. Part of the building has been turned into a shop (13 rue Pasteur, Bénifontaine).

Although there is nothing elaborate about this brewery, there is plenty of evidence of recent investment to keep it in good shape. The present Monsieur Castelain told me that he had gradually abandoned more conventional brews in favor of variations on the Bière de Garde style.

This direction began 12 years ago, when he launched Ch'ti, the name of which is local patois for a Northerner. This beer now appears in blonde (1060 degrees), amber (1056 degrees) and brown (1060 degrees) versions.

All are chaptalised with glucose, and bottom fermented. In general, these are sweetish, fruity beers.

The Blonde also has some biscuity maltiness. The Ambrée has more complexity (five malts are used), and a depth of flavors. (This is available in Britain as Sainsbury's Bières de Garde). The Brune is beautifully balanced, with some port-like notes.

The brewery also has an extremely pale speciality made with organic malt, called Jade (1048 degrees), which is delicately hoppy, clean and refreshing. All of these beers are filtered.

A newer, more interesting, speciality is St Arnoldus. This is a 1072 degree golden beer that is filtered then primed and re-yeasted for bottle-conditioning. It is very fruity, with some syrupy notes, and a firm, dry finish. The brewery also has March and Christmas beers.

Between Lens and Lille is the village and brewery of Annoeullin. This tiny, rustic brewery, established in 1905, is run by a very keen young couple, Yolande and Bertrand Lepers.

The family Lepers trace a history of hop-growing and brewing through five generations, back to 1880; Bertrand and his wife took over this brewery in the 1970s.

Annoeullin's Bière de Garde, which is bottom-fermented, is a spicy-tasting, well-rounded, product called Pator Ale (1060 degrees), made entirely with pale malt. I had always found this name rather confusing until I was given the suddenly obvious explanation: it is a pastoral brew.

Nothing to do with pastors, or ales. "C'est une symphonie," says the slogan.

Annoeullin also has a spicy-fruity, very faintly syrupy golden, wheat beer called L'Angelus. This is made with 30 per cent wheat, unmalted, and has a gravity of 1072 degrees. Both of these beers are filtered but not pasteurized.

One or two breweries in the north have begun to make wheat, or white, beers. In so doing, they are reviving a tradition.

The handsome Flemish-French town of Cambrai was once famous for the style. Plus Ťa change...?

Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: FEB 1, 1992
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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