I’ve never met a landlady like Beatrice Maerten. Along with her husband, she runs a guesthouse in the French Flemish village of Boeschepe, on the edge of the hop-growing area that stretches north from Steenvoorde over the Belgian border to Poperinge.
This is a house of beer. Each room is named after a Trappist or Abbey classic, while if you call ahead you might even be offered a beer dinner. I stayed for one night and had St-Sylvestre Biére Nouvelle as an aperitif, while Annoeullin’s exquisite L’Angelus accompanied a ham and cheese crepe, followed by a beery carbonade. Post-dessert contemplation came with a bottle of St-Sylvestre’s stately strong-armed ale Gavroche. There were more surprises. ‘I thought you would like this,’ she said next morning, handing over a bottle of Westvleteren 12. Beats a Blackpool guesthouse any day.
As most CAMRA members will know, beer rather than wine is king in Northern France. Here, biére de garde has long been the name to drop, even though the term is more of an umbrella for the varieties of beers produced by small and large breweries in the region (of which there are approximately 30), than any specific style.
Garding is unique to the area. It means to lay down a beer for a specific period of time, almost similar to German lagering. It stems from the time when brewing was a seasonal activity and beers had to last throughout the hot summer months. These days, anything up to four weeks post-fermentation garding seems to be the norm. Another USP of these beers was the use of warm-fermenting yeasts that gave the beers a fruity, ale-like warmth.
In this strip of land that runs from the coast towards the southern edge of the Ardennes, breweries look to Belgium, as well as their own history, for inspiration. There are spritzy, fruity blancs, rich and deep ambreés, honey-hued blondes and spicy, mind-blowing Christmas ales, the latter unveiled with all the razzamatazz of Beaujolais Nouvelle.
Yet, try finding some of these beers in bars whose exteriors are festooned with signs for the multi-national babble of Amstel, Stella and Jupiler. I asked one small brewer if he sold his beer in the bar across the road from him. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘sometimes’.
Over at Brasserie Duyck, whose Jenlain heralded the biére de garde revival in the 1970s, Raymond Duyck seemed a bit downbeat. There used to be a Jenlain café in Lille, but that is now closed, though the Paris one still remains. He would like to open more of this sort, he said, then told me of the difficulties caused by InBev hoovering up the distribution right to French cafés. ‘This means that there are only about 30% of cafes we can sell to.’
Yet, despite these concerns about outlets, in a journey round a selection of brewers in the north of France, I found a still thriving brewing culture, that was going against the grain of multi-national, rice-based, cold-fermented, quick-brewed ersatz lagers.
|Daniel Thiriez at the Brasseire Thiriez bar|
For a start when I visit Brasserie Thiriez in the small village of Esquelbecq, which can be found outside Wormout, owner Daniel Thiriez tells me about his plans to expand, such is the demand for his excellent beers.
Formerly a human resources manager for one of the big supermarkets, he started brewing in 1996. He had long nurtured visions of brewing, but was also in search of the good life. ‘I wanted to be independent and live in the countryside,’ he tells me over a glass of the superbly hoppy Etoile du Nord, a fruity blonde with bitter highlights. This is his bestseller, alongside La Blonde de Esquelbecq.
‘This building used to be a brewery until about 60 years ago, but when I bought it there was nothing left, though some of the older people in the town remembered it.’ Now it is home to a gleaming stainless steel kit. The beer, which is mainly in bottle, is garded for a minimum of two weeks, though Thiriez is a bit unsure about the whole tradition.
‘For me it is difficult to say what is biére de garde. I cool my beer and leave it for a couple of weeks, which is when the quality improves. I did do experiments with four weeks but didn’t notice any difference.’ Make a trip here if you want to buy these excellent beers.
Biére de garde historically had its background in the farming community and this tradition is maintained at Brasserie Ferme-Beck, near the town of Ballieul. As the farm is approached, hop poles are a fairly obvious clue as to what the Beck family farm. They also grow their own barley, raise livestock and have gites where those with a rural bent can muck in with farm activities if they so desire. They have been brewing since 1994.
One beer is produced, the stunningly hoppy 7% top-fermented Hommelpap. When I visit I am taken around by Dennis Bergkamp lookalike Dany Beck. This is a small operation, but the beer has a bigtime earthy hoppiness with a burly resiny character. It’s dry and spritzy on the palate with a hint of refreshing lemony citrus fruit. It’s very moreish and can be had on draught at the bar that is open at weekends (check during winter months). Bottles can also be bought. Dany recommends that the bottles be drunk within a month or so of purchase.
A murky misty morning saw me in the village of St-Sylvestre, a strip of houses, shops and bars along the main road between Cassel and the A25 southwards towards Lille. The brewery straddles a side road in the centre of the village, opposite the church. I am met by Francois Ricour, whose grandfather took over an already existing brewery in 1920. This is the home of Trois Monts, which along with Jenlain is seen as one of the great biéres de garde. It is a blonde beast of a beer, weighing in at 8.5%, with a rich, smooth, ripe fruit palate and a warming, fruity finish.
The brewery itself is a mixture of new and featureless storerooms and a bottling line (every brewery of a certain size in northern France is proud of its bottling line), alongside the old brew room with its copper mash tuns, lauter tun and tiled floor and walls. Other beers produced include the aforementioned Gavroche, Biere Nouvelle and a Noël, while Lux du Moulin and Hoppeland Bier are brewed solely for the local market.
After a lunch-stop in Lille at the Omnia brewpub, which used to be a porno theatre but now attracts a hipster crowd who gorge on local dishes such as potjevlesch (a terrine of rabbit, pork, chicken and veal), washed down with the house specialities such as a marvellously refreshing blanc or the rich ambrée, it’s over to Douai.
By a railway bridge on the outskirts of this town, several massive cylindrical vessels mark out the site of Gayant, local dialect for giant. And giant this brewery certainly is. It brews a lot of beers of varying character, but the bestselling beer of France’s second largest independent brewery is the wonderful Goudale. Weighing in at 7.2%, it is often described as a wheat beer, though with an aromatic and perfumy nose and a bready, caramel, spicy, bittersweet palate it is closer to a Saison or even an Abbey beer.
As mentioned, Jenlain is the beer that springs most to mind when discussing biére de garde. Brasserie Duyck can be found in the middle of the small village of Jenlain and the whole range of beers sampled at a café in the centre of town. Ambrée is the classic, with deep herbal aromas and a big mouthful of hops and spice before the dry and bittersweet finish. The brewery’s Biére de Noël is a souped up Ambrée with an orange, Cointreau-like palate, while the Blonde is one of the brewery’s most complex beers with fresh citrus fruit, crunchy breakfast cereal, peppery hop and a hint of toffee making its presence felt.
Brasserie Bailleux is one of the smallest breweries in the area, but has been enticing lovers of local beer since its inception in 1989. Hidden away in the verdant Avesnois area, at the small hamlet of Gussignies-Bavay, it is attached to a restaurant, set up in the 1970s by Roger Bailleux. ‘My grandfather had brewed for several different breweries so it felt right to do this,’ he says.
The 7% Cuvee des Jonquilles is the brewery’s signature beer, a luscious blonde with an assertive bitter finish, with plenty of nods and winks to the tripels of neighbouring Belgium. There is also a beer influenced by the Saisons of Wallonia and the inevitable Noël. Fermentation is for one week, followed by a fortnight in the cool room, before bottling takes place with more yeast to form a secondary fermentation. Then another week passes before it is ready to go out to the public. In this hidden away haven of good beer, the time-honoured tradition of garding is maintained — and for that we should give thanks.