Driving into the northernmost region of France, one sees strange, conical hills dotting the landscape. As tall as 480 feet, these are slag heaps, built up over more than two centuries of coal mining. Even more common are the quiet, green expanses of World War I cemeteries that dot the region—more than 600 of them. The two are related—German troops came to the region to secure those coal resources, and they fought the French and their allies for four years there. This is also France’s historic brewing region, home to fields of barley, wheat, and hops, and to a once-booming industry centered on Lille. No doubt the thirsty coal miners played a role in that, too.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais region—now called Hauts-de-France, after merging with Picardy in 2014—is also where the revival of French artisanal brewing restarted in the 1970s. That revival orbited around an unusual range of beers—typically strong, smooth, and malty—known collectively as bières de garde. While the name may be familiar, the beers are among the most misunderstood. Routinely described as “farmhouse ales” and lumped together with Belgian saison, they can surprise drinkers with some decidedly un-Belgian flavors. In both characteristics and process, modern bière de garde often has more in common with German bock than with anything Belgian. Yet the association isn’t entirely wrong—it’s just outdated.
Much as it’s impossible to separate the slag heaps and cemeteries from the history of the region, it’s equally hard to ignore the history that transformed its native beers.
Brewing in Flanders
The region that included Lille, Ghent, Bruges, and Ieper were all part of the County of Flanders going back to the ninth century. Belgium wasn’t born until 1830, and the drawing of a border that kept Lille in France didn’t especially interfere with its function as a brewing city. For centuries, beer had a been a hyper-local product; if you were to travel west from Maastricht to Lille any time before the 20th century, you’d find towns specializing in dark spelt beer, aged barley beer, light-colored wheat ales, and kettle-darkened brown ales. Lille may have wound up in wine-obsessed France, but the people of French Flanders never lost their thirst for ale. Its brewing industry chugged along.
In fact, when Georges Lacambre—a French-born engineer best known for his writings on Belgian brewing—visited Lille around 1840, he declared the city to be the king of French brewing. Breweries there were famous for a pair of styles he compared to the amber uytzets from near Ghent. Dark beers boiled for 10 hours, they came in double and ordinary strength. “This beer,” he wrote of the double, “though strong, is quite mild and very pleasant in appearance, is undoubtedly one of the best [amber] beers being manufactured in France.” Though brewers pitched yeast, they didn’t pitch much, and this allowed wild microbes to play a role. The table version of the beer needed to be served fresh, before it developed too much acid. The stronger beer brewers put into casks for six to eight months, where it grew “mild” with time.
Lacambre’s description of these beers makes them sound very much like the ales made across the Belgian border—particularly the long boils, the resultant amber color, and the barrel aging. In this way they were less like saisons and more like oud bruin. Yet they were rustic by modern standards, in that they were kissed by acid and funk.
World War I completely destroyed the industry. Before that happened, lagers started gaining their foothold in the region. British brewing scientist R. E. Evans visited France in 1905 and reported back to the Institute of Brewing: “Five years ago, about 50 percent of the beer consumed was of this nature [traditional ales], but now it probably does not exceed 20 percent.”
Still, Lille was a center for those traditional styles. They might have survived had the war not come and destroyed not just local breweries but a large part of the local male drinking population. By the end of World War II, 90 percent of the French brewing industry was gone. In a familiar story, lagers replaced local ales in post-war France, while the number of local breweries dwindled to a couple dozen.
An Unlikely Renaissance
France was an odd country for a local ale revival, much less one of the world’s first. Yet in the late 1970s, that’s exactly what happened when Brasserie Duyck suddenly found favor with college students in Lille, 40 miles northwest of the brewery. A traditional ale brewery founded after the devastation of World War I, Duyck in the 1950s started making a strong specialty beer (Jenlain) packaged in a wine bottle with a caged cork. It didn’t attract much attention until the students discovered it, transforming the brewery into a regional success. That beer became the prototype for a reborn bière de garde—one that had roots in two traditions. It served as an inspiration for other breweries in the region.
In some ways, Jenlain recalls the double beers described by Lacambre. The original Jenlain was an amber, or ambrée, like the older beers. It was strong, at 7.5 percent ABV. Most importantly it was “kept,” or aged—to which the idiomatic phrase de garde refers.
In other ways, it was quite different. Few brewers boil their wort for half a day anymore—they darken it with specialty malts. In Jenlain’s case, the grist looked something like a bock grist, with a base of pilsner malt and Munich for color. In terms of taste, the biggest change was yeast. Modern bières de garde typically use neutral ale or lager yeasts. Unlike with modern saison, the fermentation characteristics tend to play more subtle roles. Brewers don’t age the beer to let the wild microbes produce a harmonious vinous flavor, but rather to develop lager-like smoothness.
Lager’s influence is obvious in these new revivals, as acknowledged by Alain Dhaussy, owner and brewer of La Choulette, 30 miles south of Lille in Hordain: “Using locally available resources—yeast, specialty malts, hops—small breweries in the Nord have made beers that represent a transition between top-fermented beers of the past and new classic lager beers.”
Brewers in the region prize their history, and long conditioning their beer is considered an article of cultural heritage. Shortening the aging time—typically a month to six weeks—would be unthinkable to many of them. When I asked Saint-Germain’s Stéphane Bogaert about why he conditioned his Page 24 ales, the question mystified him. To a brewer of the Nord, that was self-evident.
The essence of the style is a velvety refinement that comes from soft, full malts. Hauts-de-France is one of the few regions of the world where all the necessary ingredients are grown locally, and there are local malthouses, too. Yet it is process more than ingredients that seems to make these beers what they are.
Visiting the Castelain and Saint-Germain breweries—makers of the Ch’ti and Page 24 brands, respectively—some years back, I was struck by how similar to lagers their beers were. Both employ step mashes to create a fermentable wort. Hop schedules are typical and don’t usually feature much in the way of bitterness—though Saint-Germain highlights its all-local hops by boosting the IBUs a bit. After cool ferments (Castelain uses a lager strain), they head to conditioning.
One way these beers deviate from lagers is in bottle conditioning, a technique more often associated with Belgian ales. It’s an important element of these styles because it produces robust carbonation. That’s key to their profile: Their effervescence and their strength help to balance the rich sweetness of the malts. It adds some panache, too, heightening the sense of elegance. It’s common for ale breweries in the region to make a range that includes blonde, amber (ambrée), and brown (brune), though the latter is getting rarer.
For a world magnetized by hops and intensity, bière de garde is out of step with the times. The style accentuates malt, not hops or yeast, and subtlety rather than drama. If people knew to expect these characteristics, rather than hoping for something saison-like, they would likely appreciate them more. Bière de garde is one of the most historically rich styles and a true expression of its place, while its easy approachability—so appreciated by those students in the 1970s—makes it a lovely counterpoint to most American styles.