Ramble On

Monday, October 10, 2016

Brewing Traditions: Biere de Garde

While all the preparation for opening Hawksbill Brewing Company is rolling along – we’ve had to push our opening back to March due to a few hitches while we await our licenses – I’ve been exploring beer styles to broaden my appreciation for the craft side of what we’re planning to do.  I also picked up a book recently, FarmhouseAles:  Culture and Craftsmanship in theBelgian Tradition, but Phil Markowski, which digs into the beer styles of Belgium and Northern France.

I should say that my study of this topic has been fortified by the discovery of Schlafly’s Biere de Garde offering, which I found at my local, Bethesda Market.  In addition to the excellent deli, they take care to stock an extensive collection of beers.  They’ve contributed in no small part to my beer education – thanks Jay and Sonoo! 

Also contributing to my interest in the style is the creative farmhouse approach that our neighbors at Pen Druid Brewing are taking with their beers.  I’m overdue for a visit (they visited the hop yard last year, and I went to the soft opening), but it’s clear from their social media posts that their exposure to these beers, stemming from years of touring in Europe, led to some aspirations – as Markowski says, “Brewers of this region consider themselves artists, first and foremost, and the vast range of beers reflect this approach.”

The history of Northern France and Belgium is complex and especially tragic due to its central location during the two World Wars.  Someday I’d like to visit and absorb that part of the story in person, but today my plan is to have a look specifically at Northern France’s Biere de Garde; in a future post I’ll circle back for a quick study of the Belgian Saison style. 

Markowski sets up the discussion of biere de garde, to which he dedicates about 20 percent of the book, with the following: “The French have a little-known tradition of beer appreciation.  While they don’t begin to rival the Belgians in the sheer range of flavors and styles, they have a rich beer culture, particularly in the regions of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, and Alsace.”  He goes on to note that in 1905 a British brewer found that there were 1,800 breweries in this region, typically producing less than 3,000 barrels per year, but industrialization of the industry there led to the kind of homogenization that we have experienced in the United States during the 20th Century.

Right there on the label of the Schlafly version is their tribute to the beers of this region.  The modern style is roughly defined by a deep copper color, balanced hop character, and a higher alcohol content of between six and eight percent by volume.  The term “de garde” refers to provisioning beer for later consumption, which was done by either increasing the hops or alcohol content – my sense of it is that the Belgians went in the direction of more hops, while the French went in the direction of more alcohol, but neither went so far as to compromise the character of their local ingredients.

The book goes briefly into the farmhouse tradition in the region.  These beers were created for sustenance, which is why they have such a robust malt bill; but they also were likely produced with a lower alcohol by volume most of the time, since they were meant to provide refreshment for all of the farm laborers.  Stronger beers were brewed later in the spring brewing season, with the intention of storing them for consumption later.

Thinking about Pen Druid’s commitment to the style, obviously based on their travels, I don’t recall much exposure to biere de garde during my own nearly five years in Europe.  I was in Amsterdam a couple of times, but these country ale styles weren’t prevalent there; also a few weeks at various times in Paris – again, it’s not likely I experienced these beers and we were drinking a lot of French red wine, anyway; and also a weekend in Brussels on the way back from Moscow in the 1990’s.  I probably encountered these beers somewhere in the course of all of that, but simply can’t remember, and thus, I can’t attribute liking them so well to memories.

At this point in the development of Hawksbill Brewing, the goal of research like this is to determine whether it’s feasible to have a go at brewing these beers in Luray.  Markowski says they need four weeks of secondary fermentation and conditioning at temperatures in the 32 – 35-degree range.  Committing one of our four fermenters to this process doesn’t seem economically prudent at this point, but perhaps we can have a go at keg conditioning a batch to see if our customers appreciate the beers.

As an alternative, there is the concept of a biere de Noel (note the page is in French) which adds specialty grains to the process.  It’s fermented more quickly, on a pace that is more typical of the beers we’ll have on standard rotation.  As a fall back, at least we can do something like that seasonally with the style, as we build on our experience and skills. 

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