French-style bière de garde doesn’t have its own category at the Great American Beer Festival. Instead, it’s a subcategory of Belgian- and French-style ales, alongside Belgian-style blondes and pale ales. The guidelines describe a profile that permits toasted malt character, some fruity esters and earthiness, Noble hops, and possibly some oomph—strength can range from 4.4 to 8 percent ABV.
However, as a subcategory, bière de garde doesn’t always go home with a medal; last year’s winners in that category were a grisette, a Belgian-style pale ale, and a blonde ale. But in 2018, 5 Branches bière de garde from Munkle Brewing in Charleston, South Carolina, won the gold medal. In 2019, Echo Brewing out of Erie, Colorado, won gold for Junebug, its French-influenced farmhouse ale.
Both recent winners are relatively strong at 7.5 to 7.7 percent ABV—not unlike some classic examples from France, such as Jenlain Ambrée. In fact, either of the beers might have been labeled “ambrée,” had they been brewed over there.
Munkle’s 5 Branches is a dark ruby-amber while Junebug is a red-gold color. In terms of bitterness, 5 Branches is slightly softer at 20 IBUs. Junebug is only slightly more bitter, at 25 IBUs with additions of Saaz, Strisselspalt, and Styrian Goldings.
About 5 Branches
The name is a nod to Munkle owner Palmer Quimby’s late maternal grandfather, J. Douglas Donehue, who served in five branches of the U.S. military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and the Coast Guard. Munkle describes the beer’s aroma as “golden raisin, apple blossom, and hints of marzipan,” and its flavor as malty with notes of cherry cola and light coffee, with a clean and dry finish.
For Munkle head brewer Joe Bowden, an ideal bière de garde is “light bodied, dry, complex,” with malt aroma and flavor “complemented by a fruity and spicy fermentation profile. Higher carbonation is also important.” He suggests at least 2.8 volumes of CO2 for the effervescence and presentation.
Bowden says 5 Branches wasn’t directly inspired by any French originals. “I have had a handful of European imports,” he says, “but they have all suffered significantly from the journey.” Instead, he followed his instincts for a beer that fit the profile while tasting great, with plenty of character, but also being easy to drink for its strength.
Despite being strong and malt-forward, 5 Branches isn’t a sweet beer. “Whenever I’m trying to develop malt complexity without being too sweet from specialty malts, I really like to blend base malts,” Bowden says. “Base malts can be incredibly diverse while still being highly attenuative. For this beer, we blend an American pale malt with a German pilsner malt. We amp up the nutty-toasty aspects with aromatic malt.” It also gets some light adjuncts for a rustic touch. “I like to add unmalted grains to farmhouse-style beers,” Bowden says. “In this case, we use flaked oats for a ‘rustic’ flavor and head retention. Lastly, we add Belgian crystal malt and chocolate malt for color. Finally, we add cane sugar to the boil to increase attenuation and keep the body light.”
Some of the better-known French breweries use clean-fermenting yeast strains for bière de garde, while others—such as Au Baron in Gussignies, France—have a drier and somewhat spicier fermentation profile nearer to Wallonian saison. Munkle’s 5 Branches may be more in the latter school. “We use the classic Saison Dupont strain,” Bowden says. “I really love the profile of that yeast—citrus, earthy, spicy, anise, and ripe Red Delicious apple.”
The yeast is notoriously prone to stalling, so he and his team take time and precautions. “Oxygenation is important to get the yeast happy and push its ester production, as well as to help with fully attenuating the beer,” Bowden says. They start the fermentation at about 66°F (19°C) and gradually increase it to 76°F (24°C) over about seven days. “Fermentation is slow,” he says. “[It] takes about 21 to 25 days.” After that, it’s still not done. As one would with a true “keeping beer,” Munkle keeps 5 Branches around for a while. They lager it for 60 days in the brite tank then, after kegging, keep it in the walk-in for another 30 days.
The GABF guidelines say that some Brettanomyces character is allowed but not required. Munkle doesn’t employ mixed fermentation for 5 Branches, but it does brew a related beer called Brett de Branches. The wort is the same, but the primary fermentation is in white-wine barrels inoculated with Munkle’s house Brett culture and aged on lees (sur lies) for six to nine months.
At Echo, cofounder and brewer Shannon Dukes was attracted to the idea of a beer brewed to enjoy on the farm at harvest time. “Growing up in Boonville, Missouri, fall was my favorite time of year,” he says. “The hot, humid air of summer gave way to the cooler, crisp air of autumn. The trees in town and along the Missouri River turned bright red, yellow, and orange, creating a canopy of color. … I chose to brew a non-barrel-aged, amber version of the bière de garde for our Echo lineup, to capture the fall season.”
That color is evocative for Dukes, so a dash of specialty malts atop a pilsner-malt base gets that red-orange color and mild sweetness. “Mash temperature is on the lower side to get the dry finish,” he says. He uses Magnum hops for bittering and lower-alpha varieties “to round out the flavor.” Meanwhile, “the higher alcohol content provides a touch of warmth for those cooler fall temperatures.”
To ferment Junebug, he turns to BSI S-25, the bière de garde strain from the Brewing Science Institute. Its esters and spicy phenols are restrained compared to some saison strains, but it can tolerate relatively high temperatures and ABV. “I don’t do anything special with the yeast,” Dukes says. “[I] just add to the fermentor and let it go to work.”