Bière De Garde Considered the only widely acknowledged French contribution to specialty brewing, Bière de Garde claims heritage to farmhouse breweries that were once ubiquitous within French Flanders, an area now encompassing the French departments du Nord and Pas-de-Calais and the Belgian province Hainaut.
The name “Bière de Garde” roughly translates to “beer for keeping,” a reference to the old practice of brewing a stronger beer to store as provision for the warmer months of the year, when conditions were not as hospitable for brewing. Before mechanical refrigeration, brewers made beer during the cooler months to be served within a few weeks of brewing. These brews made early in the season were intended for immediate consumption and tended to be lower in alcohol content, typically 3%–4% by volume. Toward the end of the brewing season it was not uncommon for the last brews of the season to be made stronger to allow them to be stored during the rest of the year. The higher alcohol content would have helped retard spoilage during months of storage. A similar practice applied to Saison, a Belgian specialty ale which also originated on farmhouse breweries in the French Flanders region. French Bière de Garde and Belgian Saison form the style family known as Farmhouse Ales.
The farmhouse heritage of Bière de Garde is well-established but written historical documentation is scarce. In an 1880 work entitled L’industrie de la Brasserie by L. Figuier, the author describes “Bière de Garde de Lille” as “a highly special brew that was aged in large, wooden barrels for six to eight months before serving.” It is described as having a “very vinous flavor, which was highly regarded by the customers.” A 1905 paper titled The Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France by British brewing scientist R.E. Evans describes Bière de Garde as popular in Lille and other large towns, as a beer “purposely allowed to become sour and at the same time acquiring a vinous flavor.”
Whatever flavor characteristics Bière de Garde may have exhibited in the past have certainly evolved to a different profile in modern interpretations. Improvements in process control and ingredient quality and a much deeper understanding of brewing science have combined to make Bière de Garde adapt to modern times. A no less powerful influence is the nearly universal consumer preference for the crisp, clean taste of lager beer. All of these factors have influenced the evolution of not only Bière de Garde but also that of virtually all recognized beer styles (with perhaps the notable exception of lambics). Today, the rapid rise of interest in craft-brewed beer and the slow decline in the popularity of industrial lagers have provided an environment for further growth of the style.
Credited with pioneering the style as we know it today is Brasserie Duyck’s Jenlain Bière de Garde, an obscure brand, first bottled in the 1940s, that grew to prominence as a cult beer in the late 1970s among French college students.
Spurred on by the success of Jenlain Bière de Garde and by growing interest in French specialty beers at home and abroad, other small brewers began producing their own interpretations of Bière de Garde. Of those that survive today (undoubtedly more regional breweries have closed than have survived) Brasserie La Choulette, Brasserie Thellier, Brasserie Castelain, and Brasserie St. Sylvestre were regional brewers who participated in the revival of French specialty brewing in the 1970s and 1980s. Each of these breweries had a long history of producing low-alcohol “table” beers or mainstream lager beers before reinventing themselves as specialty beer producers in the 1980s. Exploiting the niche of being a specialty producer gave these breweries a chance at survival—a better alternative to the futile effort of trying to compete directly with large national brands.
Modern Bière de Garde can vary considerably among the various interpretations on the market today. This is a result in part of the French tendency to distinguish products by location, rather than by adhering to predetermined style parameters. However, the widespread use of a proven style name, such as Bière de Garde, has been embraced by many in an effort to ensure success. This has led to confusion and even consternation among beer aficionados and casual consumers alike.
Generally speaking, “classic” Bière de Garde is amber in color and exhibits a dominant malty flavor without being cloying on the palate. Hop character is generally in the background but certain varieties lend a subtle, spicy note. Fermentation character is generally minimal as some producers have continued to employ the lager yeasts and lager brewing techniques used in their previous incarnations as regional producers of mainstream beers. Other brewers do use genetic “ale” yeasts but at generally cooler temperatures in an effort to minimize esters and other fermentation by-products. Some examples exhibit a “cork” note (not to be confused with the less pleasant character of “corked” wine) that adds a decidedly rustic nuance. A well-made Bière de Garde is subtle in its complexity and requires “revisiting” time and again to fully reveal its charms.
Brasserie La Choulette. http://www.lachoulette.com/ (accessed March 14, 2011). Jenlain—La Brasserie. http://www.jenlain.fr/ (accessed March 14, 2011).
Brasserie La Choulette. http://www.lachoulette.com/ (accessed March 14, 2011).
Jenlain—La Brasserie. http://www.jenlain.fr/ (accessed March 14, 2011).