Around the Dial with bière de garde

Are you listening?
Are you listening to me?
Can you hear me?
Can you hear me clearly?
Around the dial.

I’ve been around the dial so many times,
But you’re not there….
Somebody tells me that you’ve been taken off the air.

– From “Around the Dial”, Raymond Douglas Davies, 1981.

In 1905, a brewery expert named R.E. Evans visited French top-fermentation breweries and his report was published in a brewing journal after presentation to colleagues in Birmingham.

The report is clearly written, and good data can be drawn from it. In six northern departments, Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Somme, Aisne, Ardenne, Oise, there were 2,300 breweries, mostly top-fermenting.

In the remainder of the country, 400 breweries operated, all bottom-fermenting. The latter produced about one-third of the beer in the country; the northern group, the rest.

In time this picture would be reversed and then some, in that almost all beer in the country by the 1960s was bottom-fermentation, whether in the north or elsewhere.

But 1905 is still a time when top-fermentation was important.

This article is one of the earliest I know* to refer to the French bière de garde, a style that was revived in the 1960s first by Brasserie Duyck at Jenlain, later by Castelain (Jade, Ch’ti), St. Sylvestre (Les Trois Monts), and La Choulette, established late-1970s by the Dhaussy family but on the roots of an earlier brewery.

It is made clear that this beer type was generalized in Lille, by which one can infer the environs extending along the frontier with Belgium.

The beer was meant to acquire an acid and vinous note with keeping, see page 235. This links it to Flemish red ale and some other Belgian ales that typically have a sourish edge.

There is also an analogy to long-stored porter, and like porter, an emulation of the garde was sometimes made by blending new beer with “returns” – new beer gone sour and returned to the brewery for credit.

When bière de garde came back in the 1960s, the sourness was left out. Indeed, much of the revival ended as bottom-fermented. I recall when visiting Jenlain in 1992 with Michael Jackson that Jenlain was bottom-fermented. We were given a taste of an experimental top-fermented version, and its pleasant fruity nose and extra quality seemed to mark it off from the production beer.

(When we divided up the beers gifted by the breweries from the Volvo’s trunk at the end of the trip, Jackson took that one! I’d have been disappointed with anything less).

Still, Jenlain is a satisfying beer as I confirmed the other day trying the draft at the old-school Au Trappiste in Paris. (A planned excursion to Lille fell through, unfortunately). The other gardes mentioned, both from past and more recent sampling, are also very good. They make a welcome change from the lager uniformity of most French bars.

The Jenlain had a clean, lightly caramelized malt sweetness, a touch of fruit, and a chalky yeast background. The taste was not heavy-handed as much Belgian saison can exhibit, and had good drinkability.

I am not sure if the beer is all-malt, but the taste was good in any event. It is no surprise Jenlain has done so well in this specialist category.

The restored garde tradition is reflected partly by the bottling style, often using a Champagne-style container, by top-fermentation or bottle-conditioning in some cases (e.g., La Choulette), or by using malts or hops sourced in northern France.

Frequently too a garde is darker in hue than standard lager. In the heyday of French ales the colour varied but very dark brown and black versions seem a modern touch. They follow on bières brune and local porters in turn inspired by well-liked scotch ales and barley wines imported from Britain in the interwar period.

I saw gardes from a number of long-established breweries on shelves in Paris, but cannot recall even one from a craft brewery.

The gardes seem minor today in the artisan scene, eclipsed by the plethora of “international” craft products produced by 1000+ craft breweries in France. Of course too the old regionals often produce their version of IPA, wheat beer, Kolsch, etc.

It is always so, a new wave comes along, the old wave, potent in its day, recedes.

At a Frog Revolution in Paris – the newer generation of bar established by the English-style Frog group founded in the 1990s – I suggested the house produce a garde. The enthusiastic barman listened with interest, and perhaps a garde will issue one day from the group’s brewery on Paris’ outskirts.

Given how sour beers are back in style, it is a perfect opportunity to revive bière de garde as it was c. 1900.

But, apart a few pathbreaking revivalists in the north, do they remember in France what the garde really was…?

And of those who remember, are any gardes issued as described by R.E. Evans, with the storage qualities noted and using the Lille thick-mashing method?

For that matter, any Canadian or other brewer reading can easily make his or her own. Débrouillez-vous avec ça!

Note re first image: the first image above was sourced from the La Choulette brewery website, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*I.e., in English brewing literature.

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