Farmhouse Sisters, Part Two: A Letter From France

Feature by | Mar 2010 | Issue #38

Although the region of Flanders straddles both sides of the French and Belgian border, beer is an intrinsic part of Belgian culture; not so in France, where wine is king and beer is not even considered part of the royal family. Last month, we mentioned France once had a great beer tradition, but a number of historic events stomped out most of France’s beer culture.

Thousands of breweries were lost during both world wars, and while some of the remaining breweries managed to keep brewing behind allied lines during the second World War, this did nothing to further beer culture in France. Due to serious shortages of materials, the beers brewed were very low in alcohol, often less than 1 percent. The locals called these fizzy bitter waters “pisse d’ane”—donkey piss for us English folks. To add insult to injury, French soldiers were given daily wine rations during both world wars and picked up the vin rouge drinking habit. Given these three strikes against beer, it’s a wonder there is any beer culture left in France.

Geography and history explain why the Farmhouse Ale tradition has stayed alive in Nord-Pas-de-Calais or northern France. Also known as the Bière de Garde region, this area is nestled right against the Belgian border. This border was not always in the same place; centuries ago, this area of France would have been part of Belgium’s Flanders or Flandre region. Strong Flemish roots remain in the area. The Flemish language, which is a dialect of Dutch, was taught in local schools until 1950, when the French government prohibited the practice. Many of the towns and brewery names have Dutch-rooted names, so although now French, the people of Flandre have beer in their blood.

Through a combination of the global beer renaissance and a revived French interest in their Bières de Garde, the indigenous style is experiencing a rebirth. In last month’s Saison piece, you saw traditionalists and revivalists brewing the same way and in the same equipment they had for hundreds of years. In France, we saw this same fierce passion to brew historically with all the same rustic brewhouse charms we saw at Dupont and Vapeur.

Both these daughters of Flanders have some sibling similarities—they are fermented at very high temperatures that would scare most brewers, both share a backbone of barnyard funk and both have some apple and pear notes to them. Where they differ is the amber body of the Bières de Garde, which also embrace more caramel and dust in their flavor profile.

Brasserie Duyck (Jenlain): Dupont is ground zero for Saisons, and the same parallel could be drawn with Bières de Garde and Duyck. The style came close to extinction, but experienced resurrection in the 1970s, almost by accident. In an effort to cut costs, Duyck packaged their most famous beer, Jenlain Ambrée, in cheap, recycled, 750-milliliter champagne bottles with a wire-fastened cork (something we see commonly today). This innovation with Jenlain Ambrée had a Pabst Blue Ribbon effect in the nearby university town of Lille. This groundswell in popularity has made it the most popular Bière de Garde in France and the best known throughout the world. Many consider Jenlain Ambrée the benchmark of the style, and I am not going to disagree. Duyck grew out of a farmhouse brewery and despite being the largest Biere de Garde brewery, there are many reminders of its original farmhouse authenticity, like its beautiful old copper kettles.

Photo by Boriana Vitanov

Photo by Boriana Vitanov

Theillier (Bavay): This 1850s brewery is France’s oldest farmhouse brewery. Lacking a lab, this brewery uses Jenlain’s yeast with very different results. Michel Theillier is a seventh-generation family brewer and the fourth-generation Theillier to run the show at this historic brewery. Our rare tour of this stunning brewery included 1870s-era direct fire kettles that are still used and a stunning iron mash tun, the likes of which I haven’t seen elsewhere in my travels. Theillier has a 150-year-old pump that is still the brewery’s main pump. Most brewers tell me they can’t get a pump to last more than a couple years; it must be the magic water in Theillier’s beers that have helped this system outlast all others. The water source comes from an ancient spring that is a mere hundred yards from the brewery.

La Choulette (Hordain): As Pierre Celis is to Wits and Frank Boon is to Lambics, Alain Dhaussy is a revivalist and historian who is partly responsible for the resurgence of Bières de Garde. The family lost their brewery at the start of the World War II when his grandfather closed their family operation and they fled the region so they would not have to endure the hardships they did through World War I. The current brewery is a true labor of love, as most of the money this family makes is from their wine and liquor business. With brewing in his blood, Alain Dhaussy purchased this 1885 farmhouse brewery in 1977 and started brewing this great regional style from his grandfather’s recipes. This stunning copper and wooden brewhouse turns out some amazing Bières de Garde.

Alain Dhaussy provided much of the brewing and regional history of northern France for Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales and Arthur Taylor’s out-of-print Good Beer Guide to Northern France, two excellent sources of information on all things Bière de Garde. For those with more of an interest, Arthur Taylor’s book is well worth searching out—it’s the most in-depth book I have read on this region. I bought my copy used for one euro plus shipping from a rare-books website.

Photo by Boriana Vitanov

Photo by Boriana Vitanov

Bailleux (Gussignies): France’s oldest brewpub is almost steps from the Belgian border. Maybe it’s the proximity to the border, or the fact that the brewer is Flemish and a second-generation Saison brewer, but great examples of both Farmhouse styles are brewed here. Situated at the bottom of a valley, with a babbling brook running below its large deck, this is a one of a kind brewpub. One of the brewery’s beers is called Cuvée des Jonquilles (meaning “cuvée of the daffodils”). This beer is not brewed with daffodils, but alludes to the flowers that blanket the valley in the spring. We caught this brewpub in early fall, when there was just enough grass on the hills, and it was the prettiest place I’ve ever had a beer. I can only imagine what a spring pint would be like.

Thiriez (Esquelbecq): Daniel Thiriez, like Alain Dhaussy at La Choulette, is a revivalist, and, like Bailleux, also brews both Saison and Bière de Garde. This brewery pushes the envelope on both styles with the hoppiest beer brewed in France, Thiriez Frères de la Bière (Xxtra), and with hops growing on the outside of this tiny brewery, Thiriez plans to do a wet-hop beer each fall. For those planning a visit, Thiriez speaks excellent English and is married to a French Canadian. To make a trip to this brewery even more attractive, Thiriez is just across the border from Westvleteren and the brewer’s corner of Belgium.

Beer Reviews

La Choulette Sans Culottes | 7% ABV
This brewery has a larger global reputation that dwarfs its annual beer production. This beer, just like all the beer from this brewery, is effervescent and wonderful.

The Lost Abbey Avant Garde Ale | 7% ABV
I had this days after getting back from France. This beer has a light fruitiness, and all the caramel and dust I love in the style. Almost made me forget I wasn’t still in France.