2005, it’s the fag-end of autumn and I’m racing about the Franco-Belgian border aiming to visit as many bière de garde breweries as I can in two days. Brasseries Gayant, Duyck, Thiriez and St Sylvestre are among my haul but what I also take back is the realisation that the whole idea of bière de garde is very ambiguous. As I wrote at the time: ‘trying to pin down the meaning of bière de garde is like having to sculpt Rodin’s Thinker with blancmange. The definition is wobbly. The beers of Northern France, because of their proximity to Belgium, have their fair share of spicy blancs (known as witbiers over the border), citrusy tripel look-alikes and even fruit beers (La Choulette’s Framboise is a splendid example). There are also big and beefy ambrées with spicy, earthy hoppy notes, as well as pale ales.’ I thought about this the other night when studying a couple of bottles of Northern French beers, one of them an old favourite and the other a total newcomer.
Brasserie D’Annoeullin’s L’Angelus is an old friend, a beautiful soft beer that I always want to hug and draw close to me whenever I meet it. It has a moodiness about its gold colour in the glass, while I am always delighted with the fine Moussec-like character it delivers on the palate; it’s both full and silky with a delicate thread of juicy tangerine stitching its way along the seams of the palate, but is stopped from being too over fruity with a well-applied bitter balance and a long dry finish. There is a fragrant feel to this beer, a soft gentle caressing of the palate. This is a bière de garde that seems to hover halfway between a wheat beer and a light bodied triple.
And then there was Vivat Blonde from — take a deep breath — La Brasserie Historique de l’Abbaye du Cateau. This is a peppery, dry, bitter blonde with a cracker like firmness on the palate and not an easy crowd-pleasing beer, which is why I like it. Sometimes you need beers that make you work on them in the same way as certain pieces of music do (Benjamin Britten or Schoenberg for instance) and when they do work they are all the better for it; there is also a growing sense of bitterness in the finish plus a pleasing just-on-the-edge-of-the-horizon sourness on the palate that balances well with the bitterness and the barley sweetness. The Triple is rather succulent as well. So can we still talk of bière de garde these days or in the manner of Trappist are we just talking appellations? My debit card is on the latter.