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Bière safari in France's border country

Part 2 of Michael Jackson's winding journey through France

The traveller who emerges from the Channel Tunnel at Lille rail station is confronted, across the street, by an establishment called Les Brasseurs.

It looks from the outside like a typical pavement café, but inside it has a small brewhouse.

The brewhouse was originally fitted by Britain's eminence grise in such matters, Peter Austin, in 1986. At that time, Les Brasseurs was tricked out to be trendy and slick.

Since then, it has been toned down. Like the exterior, the interior is now traditional in style.

I called in during my recent wanderings in France, and roamed beyond the main bar, past the steaming brew-kettle, to a back room where it was possible to do some quiet tasting.

At the time, Les Brasseurs was offering a cloudy, pale beer in the general style of a Belgian white, though it contained no wheat, nor spices. This product is called La Blanche, and I found it soft and rounded in the beginning, with a very refreshing, fruity, acidic finish.

I was told that some thought was being given to adding a proportion of wheat.

There was also a golden ale, called La Blonde, with a smooth, fruity, palate; an Ambrée, with an appropriately fuller colour and a clean, dry, malty palate (not unlike some Belgian ales); and a Speciale Brune that is actually almost black in colour, very creamy, with notes reminiscent of cherries and coffee.

The latter is loosely intended to resemble an Irish stout, and there is sometimes also a beer called L'Extra in broadly the same Belgian abbey style.

The malts used are all Belgian, and I think that shows in the aromatic character of the beers. I can also recommend the small black puddings (boudins noir), the livery-tasting andouillettes (tripe sausages) and the coq la biere.

Les Brasseurs is owned by Patrick Bonduel, with his brother Jacques. The Bonduel family were formerly among the owners of the sizable Pelican brewery, also in Lille.

While Patrick Bonduel concentrates on Les Brasseurs, with plans for similar establishments in Paris, Strasbourg and other cities, frère Jacques runs the regional brewery Semeuse, in Hellesmes, part of the industrial sprawl of greater Lille.

The whole area is still quite a brewing centre, and Lille is a handsome city from which to explore the beers of the North.

The most interesting products from Semeuse are the aromatic, flowery L'épi de Facon, which has the style of a wheat beer, though it contains only 20 per cent of the grain; and the clean, malty, lightly sweet Reserve du Brasseur (1060; 6.5), a bottom-fermenting interpretation of a bière de garde.

My explorations in the region were oriented toward bières de garde, some of which I reviewed last month; there are more to which I would like to draw your attention.

Another from a regional brewery is Septante Cinq, made at the Grande Brasserie Moderne, at Roubaix, also in the Lille agglomeration. Septante Cinq ("75") is a bière de garde of 7.5 per cent, from an original gravity of 1080.

Like several of its contemporaries, the brewery takes a lot of care over its specifications for malt, buying from three growing regions (all French, including that part of Flanders), using a pre-ordained blend of spring and winter crop, malted in four different ways. A dark crystal is very influential in the palate, and there are several varieties of hop, from both French Flanders and Germany.

Despite an intentionally vague reference to haute tradition in the marketing, the beer is made with bottom-fermenting yeast. It has two to three months' cold maturation, and some cellar notes are in my view a part of its house character. It is filtered and flash-pasteurised.

The brewery is a co-operative, and much of its business is home-delivery. Its more conventional products, including a malty Brune, carry the brand-name Terken.

Flemish-sounding names like Terken abound in the region. Perhaps the best-known such name is Duyck. This is the surname of the family who own the brewery in the village of Jenlain, south of Lille. The Duyck brewery's bière de garde is called simply Jenlain, and it is perhaps the best-known example of the style.

Duyck is still very much the farmhouse brewery in its pantiled buildings, though it has expanded considerably. When I first wrote about the brewery, 15 or 16 years ago, it was making 20,000 hectolitres a year; it now produces 90,000.

Jenlain (the beer, not the village) has a gravity of 1064-8 (6.5), and again owes some of its character (spicy notes, reminiscent of liquorice and vanilla) to its malt grist. The hops are from Flanders, Alsace, Germany and Slovenia.

On my recent visit, the brewery was using a bottom-fermenting yeast but at warm temperatures. I did, though, taste an experimental batch made with a top culture, which seemed to have a deeper fruitiness -- less apple, more orange-peel.

Jenlain is filtered, but not pasteurised. In its local market, the brewery also has a full, golden Bière de Printemps in spring (February, March, April), at 5.5-6.0, and a darker, stronger (6.8-7.0) Christmas beer.

In this stretch of countryside to the south of Lille, the most truly rustic brewery is La Choulette, at Hordain, near Bouchain. This brewery is in farm-style buildings set round a courtyard. It has quite clearly not seen a great deal of investment in recent years.

La Choulette takes its name from a French game, an antecedent of lacrosse. The brewery dates from 1885, and became available for sale in 1977. It was at the time trying to compete in the market for popular-style lagers. The owners sold it to a friend, Alain Dhaussy.

Grandfather Dhaussy was a brewer, his son a beer wholesaler, but Alain had studied pharmacy. Since returning to the family tradition, he has -- with the help and support of his wife -- made a game effort at keeping the brewery alive.

He has done so by turning to the regional tradition of bières de garde. He uses one bottom-fermenting yeast that works at warm temperatures, plus a true top culture, and mixes the two. With one exception, his beers are only roughly filtered, so that some yeast remains in the bottle. They are presented as being bières sur lie (on sediment).

In both the choice of yeasts and the filtration, he is still experimenting. "Evolution is constant...I am always searching," he told me. To my palate, the beers have a special delicacy and complexity.

The golden Bière des Sans Culottes (1069; 6.5) has an outstanding bouquet, with a distinct yeast note; a soft, pear-like fruitiness, balanced with maltiness; and a warming, slightly alcoholic, finish.

The amber La Choulette (1072; 7.0-7.5) has subtle and attractive colour; an even softer fruit character and a notably clean maltiness. The yet-stronger Brassin Robespierre (1076-1080; 7.5-8.0) reverts to gold, with a smooth, soothing, palate.

There is also a Framboise, the only one of the products to be filtered bright. This is a 1064 brew, with natural extract of raspberry added during maturation. It is not a Lambic, of course -- nor is it made with the whole fruit -- but it has beautiful balance and a teasing acidity in the finish. A wonderfully elegant apertif beer.

I had, however, to head eastward for the most unusual brewery and bière de garde. In the Roman town of Bavay, in a 1670 house, the Thellier family have been brewing for as long as anyone can remember.

Amand Thellier is the brewer now, helped by his wife. They brew three times a month and there are no staff. The Thellier's home and brewery are in the same building, and the cellars appear to have been left by the Romans.

Monsieur Thellier claims that he uses no dark malts, but the beer has a tawny colour to go with its fresh, malty aroma and its rich sweetness. He declines to elaborate upon his method.

If he really does not use dark malts, then perhaps he colours and thickens the beer by having such a vigorous boil that he caramelises and condenses the wort. If he does, a great deal goes up in steam. His product is hard to find, of course, but if you see La Bavaisienne (1068-70), buy a bottle immediately.

My last bière de garde was also in this easterly direction, at the Franco-Flemish sounding village of Monceau St Waast.

With the help of the local authority, a former homebrewer has restored an 1890s brewhouse there. He makes several beers, and all have the same sweet-and-sour character more readily associated with Belgian Flanders. His entrant in the category under review is wittily called Olde Garde, and its sourness is balanced by a fair bash of malt.

I finished my travels right on the Belgian border, at the brewpub Au Baron, in Gussignies, near Quievrain.

Head there via Bavay. Being a real man, or woman, you probably won't eat quiche, but you will love the heartier Flamiche au Maroilles. If you are lucky, they may also have rabbit cooked in St Médard.


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

Brew Travel

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