Tasting Miscellany

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Some beers tasted in the last couple of weeks:

Yuengling Porter

Quite light, I remember it as better than this even five years ago. Good nostalgia factor though given it is the oldest brewery in North America next to Molson.

Wells Young Courage Imperial Russian Stout (2012)

Showing evident maturation after four years, like Father Henriques, the lively (American) wine and spirits writer of the 1970s said, “drink up”.

La Trappe Tripel

Touch of damp paper oxidation, marked Belgian yeast note (that chalky taste some Champagne has). Good, not my favourite.

Stone City IPA

A kind gift of reader Gary H, as were the first two above. Freshly brought in from Kingston, ON in growler. Super-fresh, state of the art American hops. Very good fizzy and iced. As it descends in the jug and loses carbonation, it stands very well though for an American cask ale.

Krombacher Dark (draft at Biermarkt, Don Mills Shops branch).

A super bier, rich full clean flavours, perfect balance of mineral, coffee, malt, and hop. The Germans are so good at this style. HB’s dunkel on draft at Biermarkt when available is as good but a different taste. DAB Dark in cans, same thing. It happened to be very fresh and this always helps a lot too, with a lightly-pasteurized, fresh beer like this you don’t get the tired-old-can effect and the true taste comes through.

Creemore Kolsch 

Austere, like a northern German pils IMO, I don’t really get the kolsch moniker (German top-fermented style from Cologne). Not really what I want in beer, but well-made.

BraufactuM Roog (Smoked Unfiltered Wheat Beer) (draft)

This is really good, pro-made all the way. From Radeberger I believe. Very good taste notes on the menu at Beer Bistro downtown in Toronto, so I needn’t say anything further, go down there and have one.

Grimbergen Dubbel (draft at Biermarkt)

Since I wrote so much recently about double bière/dubbel I had to try one, eh? Biermarkt has numerous Trappist and abbey beers, but I can’t recall having had Grimbergen on draft and I think only once in bottle, so I went for it. Superb beer! Lots of interesting flavors, “Belgian” without that heady raisin/fig taste I find objectionable. There was an evident fresh orange note to it, probably coriander.  Kind of like a pink Champagne mimosa with a good beer in it. A fine example of dubbel, made by Carlsberg in France for the export market.

After I had it I saw on the menu Biermarkt has Westmalle Dubbel on draft – yes on draft. Must get back there to try this, and party like it’s 1856. A one-beer party, but that’s cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trappist Dubbel’s Unique Origins

 

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TRAPPIST DUBBEL AND 1800s BELGIAN BIERE DOUBLE

Belgian sources from the 1800s show that bière double, or double beerwas a known expression, as in French brewing. Here is an example (pg. 225) from 1856, from well-known brewing writer Georges Le Cambre. He refers there to bière double de Diest, or the double beer of Diest. He used “double beer”, as did other Belgian writers, to mean strong beer. Sometimes they used the literal French term for that, bière forte.

Usage of the double beer term was erratic and inconsistent. Double beer – dubbel in Flemishwas not a thing in 1800s Belgium when abbey brewing was being revived after Napoleon and the French Revolution. In a word, it was not a style of brewing. It simply meant the strong version of any particular type of beer. So, you might find a bière double de Malines, for example, being strong brown beer from Malines, or Mechelen in Flemish.

Compare this to Paris in the same period. Bière double de Paris was the proper name of a beer made in Paris that was top-fermented, brown, and reasonably strong (although sources are somewhat contradictory on that). It wasn’t a world-beater, but it had a modest identity within the modest world of French brewing. In Belgium, perhaps due to the famous diversity and regional character of its brewing scene, double beer was just a strong beer. It was made like the weaker beer in the brewer’s range, but with more malt to yield more alcohol.

I’m not going to claim strict distinctions here. In Lille, a bière double de Lille was known. I would consider this a Flemish specialty really considering the Flemish regional character of Lille and environs. I think it’s fair to say though, by virtue of its mention in numerous texts, including some English sources, that the double bière de Paris had more identity and recognition than the others, perhaps due to the large conurbation Paris always was.

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The ancestor of Westmalle dubbel of today was first made by the fathers in 1856. It was stronger than an earlier, golden beer the fathers made for their use. How strong is not known, perhaps 6% abv. It seems dubbel as a slogan wasn’t used until after 1926, when the beer was reformulated to be yet stronger (now 7% abv). Indeed dubbel as a descriptive term in the market was not in general use until after WW II. Chimay didn’t call its beers dubbel even in the early years of the craft and small brewery revival. But now its Red and Blue labels are regarded as full members of the dubbel family, and properly so having regard to their characteristics.

In this 1890 Flemish-language glossary published in Brussels, see the upper right of the page linked. It is stated in French that the town of Menin had beers called by various names including keute and double bière, but since the 17th century they are called simply brown beer, white beer, small brown beer, and small white beer. The old term double beer, whatever its distant origin, had fallen away in Belgium. The term was still used here or there, but probably had no significant public recognition.

The same thing happened in England. By the 1700s, you don’t read much if anything about double beer, this is a term of the Tudor and William Shakespeare’s time. Even in Georgian England it had a period ring, akin to quaint terms such as huff-cap and hugamatee – and three threads and other multiples, I might add.

Still, in Paris, the term as a name for a defined beer – bière double de Paris – had currency until about 1850. After that you don’t read much about it, no doubt because the new bottom-fermented beers helped push it out. The Paris double beer, like most top-fermented beers of the time, suffered from instability, it tended to go sour. What is admired by some today, tart beer, was disdained by brewing technologists who said the people drank them because they had no choice.

What this suggests is, when monks in Belgium created their new brown beers in the restored or new abbeys of the 1800s, they weren’t taking inspiration from a contemporary Belgian style. Most Belgian beer then was sourish, and fairly weak. Modern Trappist brown beer is neither and likely never was.

No, those monks were looking to monastic tradition for guidance. Monastic brewing had a venerable history in some Christian orders. It was well-developed amongst the Benedictines, in particular. Monks didn’t need to call on Caesar to learn about brewing and good beer. And latterly to inspire them in their own tradition was the notably successful Dieulouard brewery of Saint-Laurent Abbey in Lorraine. What had the Dieulouard brewers made? Brown, strong, well-conditioned beer they called double beer, or bière double, as historian Gustave Clanché confirmed in 1933. The Belgian monks called their new, similar beers the same thing, initially within their own precincts, but finally to the public.

This is underpinned by the fact that the Trappist beer signature, dubbel, has a distinct identity. Adam Lindgreen and Michael Beverland, in their 2009 article Hush, It’s a Secret: How Trappist Breweries Create and Maintain Images of Authenticity Using Customer Experiences, called the unifying elements of Trappist brewing a “tone”. This has changed a bit with the expansion of the number of Trappist breweries, but I am speaking of the Belgian group essentially, the old guard. They share the dubbel style and the tripel style, for the most part. (Orval deviates from the pattern). And most have a father’s beer, pale or brown, of modest gravity. So two main styles, and a weaker pater or father’s beer if one wants to view that as a third style.

The various dubbels of the Trappists don’t taste identical but in their strength bands they are quite alike in many ways, with a similar estery yeast background and a colour and taste that partly depends on brewing sugars. All are bottled unfiltered and are top-fermented. None feature a big American pine-and-grapefruit aroma, certainly. There are no porters or stouts. No lagers. No “sours”, wild beers, or fruit beers despite their pre-eminence of Belgian terroir.

Dubbel is a thing, again, but why? Because while it emerged within Belgium, it is a product of the insular yet brewing-aware, trans-national character of the Trappist order. Just as Trappist cheese assumed a common identity in Trappist monasteries regardless of country based on the Port Salut model, so has beer.

Tripel, the extra-strong aromatic blonde beer devised by Westmalle in 1934, was the last big innovation. The older dubbel style, common to most of the original Trappist group, stretched back to Dieulouard Abbey’s double beer, which in turn issued from the heyday of English monastic brewing before 1600.

Dieulouard’s beer was brown, strong, well-conditioned, and traveled well – it did not go sour. Trappist dubbel is brown, strong, well-conditioned, and not sour.

Those who might think this an over-estimation of the importance of a long-disappeared abbey brewery in France might ponder this statement of T. Leo Almond in 1895 in the Downside Review, Volume 14. He was a member of Ampleforth Abbey, successor in England to Dieulouard:

Not only were the community the foremost brewers of Lorraine, with a monopoly for the supply of the ducal court, but they were actually the introducers of the hop into Lorraine, thus founding one of its principal industries. This strikes us as a unique episode in monastic history, far more important than the invention of a liqueur [no doubt Benedictine liqueur is meant here], which seems by some fatality to be a monastic privilege … I really think we have established a claim to some monumental recognition by France of the services of our Congregation.

In light of this high regard shown for the achievements of the Dieulouard brewery, it is impossible that monks in Belgium, a mere generation or so after Dieulouard was suppressed by the French Revolution, would not have been aware of its status as a monastic brewing star and sought to emulate its very special double beer.

Note re image above: the first image shown, of old Diest, was sourced from the auction and vending site www.delacampe.net, here. The second, of a secular brewery in Mechelen, was sourced here. Both are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

Double Beer in France and Its Origins

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A follow-up to my last post: Citations for “bière double/double bière” appear regularly in French sources going back to the 1500s at least. A beer at Paris was known by such names according to some writers on French beer in the 1800s. The beer was, typically, brown and reasonably strong, and one gravity table from a French science dictionary, 1823, suggests Paris double beer was equal to English “ale”: thus 6-7% abv, sometimes higher but probably not often. Some reports put the range much lower though, as this one (1856). It is always hard to tell, but in general I believe these beers to have been reasonably strong.

As I said in my last post, it is not unusual that the old English term, double beer, had analogues elsewhere, even in France. There are two issues here: what is the proximate origin of the emerging Belgian dubbels of the 1800s, an era when the beers of the people were often sour and half the strength of Chimay (7.2%) in 1877? And what was the ultimate origin of the term double beer/bière double?  It’s two separate questions. For the first one, unquestionably in my view, the monastic double beer of Dieulouard abbey, 1608-1789, had to influence what Westmalle and Chimay brewed in the 1800s. The geographic, temporal, and cultural factors (Benedictine link, departure of French monks for greener pastures in Belgium after 1789), all coincide.

The fact of strong brown beer having apparently had currency in Paris, called by the same name, may have been a contributing factor. My sense is monastic communities by their very nature tend to rely on their own resources and history, not those of a commercial market, but anyway that is possible.

One interesting source, a 1580 book called “L’Agriculture et La Maison Rustique” by the French physicians and writers on agriculture, Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault, described bière double as of English and Flemish origin – thus not French. (The first letter of “bière” in the link is obscured due to the scan but numerous other editions clearly state “double bière”).

They bracket this term, or double beer in English, with the French terms “alle” and “gutalle“. These were colloquial terms, indeed alternate spellings, meaning ale and good ale. To me, all this suggests an ultimate English origin for double beer and the equivalent French word. But in light of the authors’ suggestion of a possible Flemish connection, I acknowledge that dubbel bier in Flemish, and maybe bière double in Francophone Belgium, may have come first. After all, the Flemings brought hopped beer to England.

I’ll set aside whether Dieulouard’s beer, or Westmalle’s and Chimay’s, was ale or beer in English terms. The distinction was losing significance in England anyway let alone France and Belgium where the history and terminology were different. I will also not discuss, here at any rate, doppelbock beer, although I believe it is likely a monastic version of Trappist dubbel and Dieulouard abbey’s  earlier double beer.

I doubt it will be possible to sort the second question out given the very distant eras being referred to. If dubbel bier/double beer/bière double was originally Flemish, its memory may have lingered on in the Belgian lands. Of course, Rochefort abbey for its part has been brewing since the 1500s with a lapsus of about 100 years after the French Revolution. It now issues beers to the public of this description, since 1952.

But again: the signal success of the Dieulouard brewery to sustain the Saint-Laurent Benedictines there was unique to my knowledge. They used the term double beer, this is known as a fact as I explained earlier.  We cannot ignore the likelihood that this successful application of St. Benedict’s Rule was impressed upon Westmalle, Chimay, Achel and Rochefort when they started brewing in the 1800s.

Note re image: the image is of the Chateau in Dieulouard, Lorraine, France, before WW I. It is in the public domain and was sourced here. 

 

Belgian “Dubbel” (Double Beer): First English, Then French, Then Belgian

Eduard_von_Grützner_MönchInternational Brewing Culture Isn’t New

I have argued that the dubbel style of beer, associated today with Belgian beer and in particular Trappist brewing, derived from the Elizabethan and Tudor eras when double beer was a standard designation for beer in England.  It is almost trite to say double beer is an old English term. Many standard beer and brewing histories, e.g., by S. Corran, H.A. Monckton, confirm its existence. The term appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II: “a pot of good Double-Beer”.

There is some uncertainly how strong it was. It is difficult to know since even when credible recipes are followed, it is unclear what starch content barley and other grain had at the time. Some brewer-historians have estimated the kernels had half the usable starch of today’s malting barleys, which if true means one must halve the amount of grain in a recipe. Not doing so would affect the strength by almost doubling it. People have made beers, or deduced their strength from records, at from 3.8% to over 8% abv using standard recipes of the mid-to-later 1500s. Recipes, that is, for beer which was neither small beer (very weak) or extraordinarily strong.

In terms of monastic brewing, it seems from medieval times monasteries typically made three kinds of beer: the strongest for sale to the public or special occasions; a mid-grade for their own use (think Chimay Gold of today); and a weak beer to give to the poor.

The beer that made Dieulouard Abbey famous from the early 1600s to the French Revolution was probably at the strong end of this range. I’d estimate it was 7% abv, as Chimay abbey’s beer was known to be in 1877. It was very likely dark as well. Beer from the same brewery in Dieulouard in 1885 (then not owned by ecclesiastics) was described by an English observer as “dark”, and also “heavy”, which meant at the time strong. Given the strength of English beer in the 1880s, strong probably meant 7%, perhaps a little less. The double beer recipe brought to Dieulouard by English Benedictines would have been the same, as I doubt the brewery even 100 years later would have changed the formulation. The beer’s religious history, which had to be a marketing advantage for the brewery, would have militated against this.

At all events I doubt Dieulouard abbey’s beer was under 6% abv, as the beer was said also to travel well and to support dilution with water: both require beer to be reasonably strong.

Numerous press accounts for the release of Ampleforth Abbey’s “double” beer in 2012 refer to “double-fermented”, as I believe the Abbey has itself in some statements. On the label itself, the nomenclature is “double” and the Flemish translation, dubbel, also appears.  This usage of double, not qualified that is, is entirely correct.

In a 50-page book on the history of the Dieulouard brewery written in 1933 by a long-lived curé called Gustave Clanché (1869-1957), the monks’ beer is called “double bière“. Not even bière double, which seems more correct grammatically. I have not been able to source the book itself, called “Histoire de la Bière des Benedictins anglais de Dieulouard” (History of the Beer of the English Benedictines of Dieulouard), but extracts appear on this historical webpage, in which it is stated:

Cette histoire de « la bière des Bénédictins anglais de Dieulouard » – et de leur abbaye – a été reprise, en 1933, avec de très intéressants détails, de nombreuses illustrations et un plan du monastère, en une brochure in-8 °, de 50 pages, par M. l’abbé CLANCHÉ, curé de Dieulouard (1).
« A l’époque actuelle, où la bière de Lorraine est reine partout et où l’on en boit tant, écrit l’Auteur, dès les premières lignes, il ne sera pas sans intérêt de rappeler que c’est ici même (à Dieulouard) une réapparition. Durant deux siècles, en effet, au XVIIe et au XVIIIe, la « double bière de Dieulouard » a eu, sur toutes les autres, la priorité, la célébrité, non seulement dans la province, mais aussi dans les contrées avoisinantes.

Per Father Clanché: (my translation):

At the present time, when beer made in Lorraine is so popular everywhere [i.e., in France] and so much of it is drunk, it may be of interest to point out that here in Dieulouard, it’s merely a second phase. For two centuries, the 17th and 18th ones, the ‘double beer of Dieulouard’ had, over all others, first standing and fame, not just in its own region but in neighbouring territories.

If anyone knew how to research Dieulouard’s beer, Curé Clanché did: he lived and served in the town, and was a historian who published many books on regional church and other history. He would have known the brewery as a young man, which was still operating in 1885 at least. If he called it double beer – not double-fermented beer, not dubbel beer (suggesting a non-English origin), he had a reason. Of course, this is subject to anything to the contrary in the full text, but given who started brewing at Dieulouard Abbey (founded 1608), I doubt a meaning connected to fermentation is mentioned or anything other than what double beer meant in England in the 1500s: strong beer. Certainly the definition in French dictionaries, 1700s-1800s for bière double accords: strong beer.

To be sure, the idea of double-fermented has a certain appeal, and there is good evidence Dieulouard beer was well-conditioned, meaning it underwent a secondary fermentation. I don’t doubt the term may well appear in some of Ampleforth’s old records. But I don’t think that’s the real origin of “double beer” as used to describe la bière anglaise of Dieulouard.

It is entirely possible, in fact I don’t doubt, that in other French brewing districts and before Dieulouard was founded, the term bière double was in use. But if it was, it came from England, I believe, just as the French colloquial terms “goudale” and “godaille” did (good ale). Beer was never as highly specialized and important a business in France as in England. English beer always had special repute in France (and Belgium), and its terminology was influential. Thus, the term bière double of Paris, of there are numerous citations to early in the 1800s, and which was a brown beer, was I apprehend English originally – certainly the term and probably the beer too.

Anyway within the confines of monastic brewing, the fame of Dieulouard’s avowedly English-origin double beer had to influence brewing by fellow monastics in Belgium after 1789. It doesn’t matter that Saint-Laurent Abbey at Dieulouard, as for its successor at Ampleforth, was not Trappist or even Cistercian. The fellowship of Benedictines, sharing as they did, and do, St. Benedict’s Rule, went much further than that. Modern proof is available by the close cooperation Trappist breweries gave Ampleforth when the latter’s beer was being formulated.

English Benedictines were also at Paris and Douai before the Revolution. Whether they brewed there I can’t say, but post-Napoleon restoration of monastic brewing would have taken succour from all earlier examples of English religious brewing in France given the pre-eminence of the Dieulouard brewery. Monks fleeing to Belgium, as they did amongst other places of refuge, would have known of this background. On top of this, English brewing had a presence at Melleray Abbey in Brittany from 1817, so more current information was available to monks setting up brewing in Belgium on English beer and its history and nomenclature.

In a word, the Belgian dubbel was preceded by the French double of Lorraine which was preceded by Elizabethan and Tudor double beer.

Note re image above: it is a genre painting by the German painter Eduard von Grützner and was sourced from Wikipedia, here. It is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use.  All feedback welcomed.

English Brewing Expertise Powers Trappist Beer

f78de4_07849f64242c4fb1a054ecc1e674fd1bEnglish Monks, Stars of Abbey Brewing in France, 1600s-1789

Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine retreat in North Yorkshire housing the Abbey Church of St. Lawrence, is one of the largest Benedictine communities in the EU. In 2012, it announced the release of its “1802” Abbey Beer, a brown, strong (7%) ale. The story got some press at the time, Roger Protz wrote this piece for the Guardian.

The beer is not a Trappist ale as such since a brewery in West Yorkshire makes the beer for the fathers. Also, Ampleforth Abbey is not a Trappist (Strict Observance Cistercian) monastery. But the abbey supervises the brewing and stated the beer results from researches in its early records and the help of a Dutch brewer it engaged to work on the formulation. A couple of Trappist breweries in Belgium were consulted, as well.

Some in the beer world, used to romantic tales about a beer’s origin, might be forgiven for thinking the abbey’s story was a touch gilded. In fact, it’s not. If anything, with due monastic understatement, the Abbey only hinted at the rich history behind this beer. It is a credible emulation of a beer made at the abbey in France of which Ampleforth, founded in 1802, was the successor.

Monks in France, displaced by the French Revolution, arrived after various peregrinations at their new home of Ampleforth in 1802. And they brought with them the lore and knowledge of brewing from their former abbey in France. But yet more fascinating, these monks had a distant British past which ultimately reached back to Westminster Abbey. Similarly, their beer had strictly English origins.

Thus, in 1802 the English Benedictine spirit and an English-inspired brewing tradition, both of which nourished and sustained a French abbey outpost for 200 years, had come home.

Ampleforth Abbey did not itself take up brewing until a few years ago, but the earlier history is real and rich with detail. Not only that, it shows a significant influence of English brewing on French Trappist brewing and, in my opinion, suggests that strong English ale (c. 7%) is at the origin of the signature of Trappist beer, the dubbel.

Because of the repression of Catholicism following King Henry VIII and the Reformation, Catholic teaching was severely restricted in England. Monks had little future, and many left to seek more welcoming contemplative and pastoral grounds. France became a refuge. Father Augustine Bradshaw supervised the raising of the necessary funds via his connections in Spain and elsewhere. Under his direction, a group of Benedictines left England in 1608, and some accounts state were joined by Irish, Scots or Spanish colleagues. They found haven in the Duchy of Lorraine, France, along the Moselle river.

A disused collegiate church, the Eglise St-Laurent, in De Dieulouard, Lorraine was given over to them by the Duke. They founded there the Abbaye de Saint Laurent, or St. Lawrence Abbey, whose name continues as part of the Ampleforth establishment. The fathers’ enterprise, with help from back home, assisted to buy adjoining lands on which to raise crops and livestock.

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The monks promptly set up a brewery and instituted hop culture using cuttings from England. It was noted that they made la bière anglaise. A 1966 French scholarly piece on Lorraine’s brewing history (E. Urion, “La Brasserie et la Lorraine”) states one can even find isolated hop fields in Lorraine. We infer that growth is the English variety the monks brought with them in 1608.

In the particular part of Meurthe-and-Moselle where the monks established, brewing had not been well-known. Viticulture was known, and indeed the English settlers tended to vines too. But being mostly English (or British), they liked beer and decided to brew it, not just for themselves, but as a way to support their community. This accorded with the Rule of St. Benedict which permits monks to produce beer, wine, and food to provide for themselves and thus not rely on public donations.

The brewing project was wildly successful.* Their beer was called la bière anglaise and was a “double beer” in recipe. It enjoyed a high reputation through the 1600s and 1700s until the French Revolution. The abbey was favoured with patronage from the ducal court, aristocrats’ manors, and the people. The beer is mentioned, often with discussions of its characteristics and quality, in numerous French and English histories. One account says it was the best beer in Lorraine, the second one being the beer made by a Sieur Hoffman in Nancy who had a monopoly there (1700s).

Various accounts also state that the beer was strong, brown, retained a high sparkle, and travelled well. And specifically, that it approached English ale in taste and strength. (Henri Lepage, N. Grosjean, Annuaire de Merthe-et-Moselle, 1885). Maybe Dom Perignon, or other French wine advisors, helped the monks to get the sparkle, although I think this is doubtful – possibly the influence went the other way.

Double beer was a Tudor standby, so it makes sense English monk-brewers at Dieulouard brought good old strong English beer to their new home. By the way double in Flemish is … dubbel.

An article in The Downside Review, Vol. IV, entitled “St. Laurence’s at Dieulouard” (1885), states as follows:

Hand in hand with the admirable religious spirit which prevailed within its walls, the material prosperity of the country daily increased. … Their enterprise (and English tastes perhaps), led them to establish the first brewery which had been seen in those parts.  To this day their memory is in grateful benediction for having introduced in Lorraine the cultivation of the hop … This will explain their possession of a monopoly for the sale of all the beer required for the use of the court. To the time of the suppression, the brewery of Dieulouard maintained its reputation, and brought in no small gain to its possessors, and even when church and cloisters were leveled with the ground, the brewery was spared, and to this day it continues to fulfill its useful functions to the satisfaction of a thirsty generation.

And so in 1885 when this was written, the brewery was still in operation.** When it closed I cannot say. Dieulouard’s early brewing history is recounted with respectful attention in Bières de Meuses et de Lorraine by Phillipe Voluer (1991), but there is no mention of a post-Revolution existence, even in the Moselle chapter. No doubt the brewery was very small, and either didn’t survive the onset of German-style lager after the 1870 war or the catastrophe of WW I. Voluer, a French brewing historian, stated the beer was likely brown in colour, well-saturated with gas, well-hopped, and enjoyed high renown in the Duchy. This accords with numerous other accounts. He said the brewery’s founders had a “maitrise du produit” which clearly accounted for the success of the brewery. He noted the interesting fact as well that the monks insisted on spring water for the brewing, not well water.

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From its founding to its demise in 1789, the Saint-Laurent Abbey of Dieulouard retained a strong English character. With other English Benedictine presence in France including at Douai, exiled priests helped from afar to keep the spirit of Catholicism alive in Britain. It may be recalled that Britain didn’t relax the last restrictions on RCs until the early 1800s. The martyr Alban Roe had spent some time in Dieulouard, for example. The French monastic havens were not just a new home, but a way to keep Catholicism living in England.

When the Dieulouard monks who weren’t incarcerated by French revolutionaries left for England, it took them a while to re-establish. Not until 1802 was land provided to them in Yorkshire, by Lady Anne Fairfax, to restore their community and mission. But they did finally succeed, and it must have been with some satisfaction to do so in their ancestral land, the one where their faith originated but also the original home of the product which allowed the French abbey to flourish for so long.

Even though brewing did not resume in England, the lore and special reputation of the brewing history were never forgotten. Finally Ampleforth decide to issue a beer to reflect this weighty tradition.

When the Dieulouard abbey was destroyed or re-purposed as part of the suppression of the monasteries, the brewery, pictured in the woodcut above on the left, was not destroyed. It continued making beer under secular management well into the 1800s at least. The account in The Downside Review states that the contemporary beer of Dieulouard (1885) was dark and “heavy” (strong). It sounds like Chimay’s beer of today and no doubt of 1877 (see my previous posting regarding Chimay beer strength in 1877). It sounds too like Ampleforth’s restored beer judging by reviews on the online rating services Beer Advocate and Ratebeer. Ampleforth’s beer  is very much in the Trappist style and is said to resemble Rochefort abbey’s beer.

The grain bill for Dieulouard abbey’s beer is thought to have been barley malt and one or more mixed grains such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye. This blend was called “bled” in early abbey records. Ampleforth’s recreation uses barley malt and wheat, which is eminently consistent with known brewing procedures when Dieulouard abbey was active. True, the yeast in the recreation is a current Belgian ale type, but no yeast used by a Trappist brewery today will likely be the same as from hundreds of years ago.

(While we believe yeast is relatively unimportant in the total brewing picture, had we advised Ampleforth on the recreation we would have suggested an English ale yeast, as it appears the emigrating monks brought their English yeast to Dieulouard in jugs in 1608. But that is neither here nor there really).

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What all this shows in our view is a significant impact of English brewing, not just on the brewing culture of northern France, but on Trappist brewing specifically. The renown of the Dieulouard beer would have been understood in nearby francophone Belgium, where three Trappist breweries currently function. And it was probably known in Trappist and other monastic communities in France and elsewhere. The Trappists formed a self-contained, international community which famously shared training and expertise in agriculture, construction, devotions, and much else. They would had cooperation from other Benedictines, as well. Brewing had to be included.

Consider that monastic, English-style brewing was taking place, as I discussed earlier, on the other side of France in Brittany. I would think other breweries under exilic English management existed in France. But even those two and especially Dieulouard had to be particularly influential on monasteries in Belgium.

The fact that the key type of Trappist beer today is strong and brown, quite unlike the indigenous beers of Belgium and France when the abbeys were being restored after the Revolution, attests to the influence Dieulouard had to have on 1800s monastic brewing. This meant, as I have long felt and other indices show (see my recent posts), that English brewing skill is at the bottom of what is today the brown dubbel, the predominant Trappist style.

In the wake of the Reformation, British monks spent long periods in Brittany, Douai, Paris, and Lorraine among numerous other places in Europe. Their appreciation of beer, deriving from their heritage, and evident knowledge of how expertly to make it, fed into the type of beer we call Trappist today. Modern Trappist brewing doesn’t just reflect the popularity of British beer in France and Belgium between the two world wars. It doesn’t just reflect the prohibitory law of Belgium viz. distilled spirits enacted at the end of WW I which favoured (indirectly) the production of newly strong beer.

The influence goes much deeper than that.

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* After preparing the above,  The History of Ampleforth Abbey (1903) by Dom Cuthbert Almond came to my attention including its chapter 18 on Dieulouard’s brewing. While acknowledging the high quality of the beer and its patronage by ducal court and local seigneurs, the author is less robust on the topic of brewery profits. He estimates that in the 1600s the brewery did not make much money. One presumes he had access to the relevant records to check. Nonetheless, he states that the brewery made a good return for the abbey in the 1700s due, he said, to the French king having granted right of sale for the beer on his domains early in the century. It may therefore be, until any further information can be known, that my “wildly successful” term should be restricted to the 18th century. Still, the main points in my discussion are borne out by this chapter. Incidentally, Dom Almond states that the beer was regarded as (I translate) “well-conditioned”. This meant the beer was permitted to stand long enough to develop a suitable carbonation and also clear itself of residual yeast and not be overly turbid. To this day, good conditioning is regarded as necessary for any beer albeit this is ensured typically in ways not foreseen in the 1600s-1700s. The point is though, the abbey’s product was clearly superior and its competition probably too often came to the table flat and muddy-looking.

Also, I have made clear now in the text something not evident to me at the outset, Ampleforth is Benedictine but not Trappist or indeed Cistercian.

** In fact, the brewery noticed in 1885 may have been a different brewery. A reader sent me by e-mail an extract from the book La Bière En Lorraine which has a page on Dieulouard, he did not state the author’s name but I believe it is Jean-Claude Colin, who also wrote a history of Alsace brewing (1980s-era from memory). I have the Alsace volume but not the Lorraine one. M. Colin states that in the 1830s, a brewery called Brasserie Parentin was established in Dieulouard which ended in 1918, on rue du Chateâu. There was at least one other brewery in Dieuloard in the 1800s. One of these may have been the brewery which made the beer commented on in the text as a post-revolutionary version of the fathers’ beer. Nonetheless we believe any brewer who followed in the fathers’ footsteps likely would have made a beer similar to theirs.

Note re images: the first image above is taken the website for Ampleforth Abbey`s shop, here. The second image is from a French historical and genealogical website, here(It is also reproduced in the The Downside Review issue mentioned above). The third image, from a postcard of the Dieulouard brewery in (apparently) the late 1800s, is from the French auction website, www.delacampe.com, here. The fourth image is from Ampleforth Abbey`s main webpage, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

 

How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?

Let’s Party Like It Was 1877

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This 1877 Belgian Journal of Medicine issue, see pg. 65, reported on the analytics of beers from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and the U.K. They were sourced from different towns in Belgium except the foreign beers, which were from taverns “les plus en vogue” in Brussels. Only one beer, a lambic, is specified as bottled, so it appears the rest were draft.

The “bière de l’abbaye de Forges” is from Chimay monastery, yes, the same Chimay beer we know and admire today. The full name is Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont. It was built in 1850 on the Scourmont plateau at Forges, a hamlet now in the municipality of Chimay.

Chimay beer, in 1877, is stated to be “7.2%”, almost surely alcohol by volume, the typical way the French measured it in drinks. Modern Chimay Red, or Première as it is also known, is 7% – to all intents the same.

horloge-biere-chimayThe closest beers in alcohol were a Scotch ale, at 7.1%, basically the same as Chimay, and an English Burton ale, at 5.9%, so a point under.

The other beers from Belgium, and Luxembourg, were much weaker, about half of the strength of Chimay. The British beers appear pretty much what one would expect, some a tad under the norm perhaps. The account states the figures are not averages of a large sample but simply represent the beers selected.

Still, one can see how low in alcohol the typical Belgian and Luxembourg beers were compared even to today’s lager norm of 5% abv.

These low figures are consistent with what brewer and writer George Johnson reported in 1895 as I stated in my last post. He gave an original gravity range of 1025-1040, or 2.5%-4.5% abv more or less.

I do not say the 1877 beer is in taste “the same” as Chimay Red of today. The yeast in the current beer was isolated by Father Théodore in the late 1940s, for one thing. But the strength is the same, and the colour.

Certainly Chimay Trappist ale stood out as strong among Belgian beers of its day. It may not have been what the fathers drank day-to-day, but it was the strength sold in the market, the same as Chimay Red today.

Polyptyque_d'IrminonThe monks at Scourmont have stayed consistent in this respect from the outset, for colour as well. Many things alter over time, but if anything should stay the same in a beer of repute, it is colour (which can influence taste), fermentation method, and strength. And they have.

As to what grains were used in Chimay in 1877, I cannot say. In abbey brewing in a much earlier period, c.1000, inventories (Polyptyques) of abbey estates suggested a range was used: malts of barley and spelt, sometimes oats, and wheat.

Spelt often entered into Belgian saison of the 19th century, so it may have in Chimay’s beer, too. Knowing what grains Chimay raised or malted in this period might help to answer this question. Early records of the Melleray Abbey, which I discussed in my last post, might assist as well. Important as the grains are, I don’t think the cereals composition was critical if the bière de l’abbaye de Forges was made mostly from barley malt, and I believe it was.

The best beers of the U.K. then were also top-fermented and of a similar strength: good mild and old ale, Burton, stout, Scotch ale. Not all were brown, but many were. Of course, in this period they were all-malt, except for any which used some sugar, allowed in British brewing since about 1845. One may reflect that fine Belgian ales today frequently use malt + sugar. Perhaps Chimay in 1877 was the same, as today sugar is part of the mash.

Taken with what I discussed in my previous post, the strength of Chimay in 1877 is consistent with an English connection, at least.

Note on images: the images above, of a castle in Chimay, Belgium, an advertising item for Chimay beer, and an extract of a Polyptyque of Irminon Abbey, were sourced here (a premier Belgian beer tourism site), here (a site offering branded Chimay items), and here (Wikipedia). All images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Trappist Ale And English Ale – Connections

tripelAre Belgian Trappist And Abbey Beers of English Inspiration?

Most beer fans, and many casual ones, know that Belgium has a number of Trappist breweries, such as Westmalle, Chimay, Orval. Some know that Trappist breweries exist in some other countries including Italy and the U.S.

Trappist beers are generally bottled unfiltered, are top-fermented (“ale”), and on the strong side. Many are the brown, “dubbel” type, varying in alcohol from 6-10% abv and more. Some Trappist is now available on draft including Chimay White (a tripel-style) and Westmalle Dubbel.

Chimay has two brown-coloured beers, the Red, 7% abv, and the stronger, richer Blue (9%). The brewery also makes a weaker or single beer, the Gold. It is reserved for the use of the fathers but is occasionally made available beyond the abbey gate. The highly traditional Westvleteren has a more or less similar line including a 5.8% golden, as does Abbey Rochefort save it has no pale beer. Some other Trappist breweries make a golden or pale beer as well, e.g., Achel.

Orval monastery’s beer is rather different, more like a strong, modern English pale ale but with a notable brettanomyces (wild yeast) element. It may well imitate a well-matured English pale ale of the 1930s, when the recipe was devised.

The browns don’t all taste the same, but their typically Belgian yeast background gives them a certain unity. This yeast and the generally higher temperatures used in fermentation result in distinctive, estery profiles. Notes of banana, raisin and cinnamon tend to stand out.

Heiligenkreuz.St._BenedictThe tripel of Westmalle, a heady, blonde, top-fermented beer which has been much imitated by other breweries, is the other major Trappist type. To my taste there is a chalky yeast connection with the dubbel family but the palate diverges into bready notes (no chocolate-cocoa) and yellow fruit esters as in pears, or some kinds of apple. It is rather sparkling wine-like. Perhaps the tripel’s yeast, at least, is of French wine-making origin. The same may apply for Duvel, the secular strong golden ale.

Some of the newer Trappist breweries make other styles now, one of the Dutch ones makes a wheat beer, for example.

The old Belgian Trappist breweries have mostly upgraded their small plants and submitted inevitably to some contemporary trends. Some use sugar in the mash or other forms of non-malt carbohydrate, for example. Chimay since about 1990 uses closed fermenters of the Nathan type in which the yeast, which collects in a cone at the bottom, may behave differently than in a square open fermenter.

Once again what most of these beers share is strength. Orval starts at 6.2% and the other, regularly available Trappists go from there to 10% or more.

When you look at 19th century sources on Belgian beer and breweries, e.g., George Johnson’s 1895 survey, one is struck by the low gravities of the peoples’ beer. This is a good summary of Johnson’s much longer article, albeit not mentioning the gravity range, which was 1025-1040 with fairly low attenuation, so equating perhaps 2.5-4.5% abv.

There were exceptions, notably lambic which could reach 6% abv or more. In that period the weaker faro, still made in Belgium, was the more typical drink of the lambic family though, 4-5% abv.

DSC_0608-600x400-15001Johnson’s and this 1862 report from National Magazine on (mostly) Belgian beers don’t mention Trappist or any kind of monastic brewing. The 1862 piece includes some fairly detailed descriptions of Belgian styles, some still current today, some long gone such as beers made with potatoes!

Some were made until fairly recently, e.g., Peeterman and uitzet. (While a brand called Uitzet exists today it does not apparently use the hop which gave the beer its signature in the 1800s).

Since it is known that some abbeys did brew then, the lack of mention is probably because the abbey-brewed beers were for the fathers’ own use or, if made available to the public, it was only locally. The survey-writers, especially foreign ones, would not have known of these beers.

Certainly Westmalle was brewing in the 1840s-50s and in fact a report exists in English from 1847 describing a visit to the monastery and the high quality of the beer. No indication is given of style. I suspect Westmalle’s beer was stronger than the norm mentioned by Johnson. It is true that WW I stimulated the production of strong beer in Belgium due to the Loi Vandervelde which banned spirits production. Still, monks have always had a reputation for making good beer, and one index of a good beer was high strength.

Many sources confirm that monasteries made two kinds of beer in the Middle Ages, strong beer for the fathers (bière des pères), and weaker beer for nuns (bière des couvents). Why would this old tradition not have continued at least for special occasions? I doubt, given the Rule of Saint Benedict allowed monks to drink, that fussy distinctions were made about gravities even before the Loi Vandervelde.

ST. LANDELIN AMBREEAlso, in an 1824 history of the Melleray Abbey in Brittany and similar establishments, Louis Du Bois notes (see pg. 201) that the restored Melleray abbey contained a brewery which followed “English practice”. In this particular case, monks had relocated to Melleray in 1817 from England to help restore the monastery, which had been sold off during the French Revolution. English ale was notably strong c.1820 (7% abv plus), being produced from the first mash and not mixed with weaker extracts. “English practice” probably meant this Melleray beer was like contemporary English ale and also, probably all-malt as English beer was then too.

Belgian Trappist beers also were all-malt initially as far as I can tell, and only later adopted use of sugar or other adjuncts (which only slightly affects their character). Contrast with this the popular Belgian beers which used, and some still do, large amounts of raw grains such as wheat, oats, rye and even corn. Given the close relationships between the monasteries, even in different countries, I think the practice to brew in the English way may have spread early, possibly even before the French Revolution. Cistercian settlements were common in Britain and given the English mastery of brewing and prestige in the field, it is plausible the English way became the Trappist way.

1999-Vu-du-cloitre-w-2d1a5Just as Port-du-Salut cheese became the template for Trappist-made cheese around the world, I apprehend English brewing become the model for Trappist brewing in France, Belgium and elsewhere. Even “abbey” beers, in the sense of beers of monastic origin now made by a secular brewery, show this overall similarity. Think Grimbergen, or Leffe…

At least, these Trappist and abbey beers resemble British ale in its heyday more than they do the sour lambic, faro, Flemish red ale and saison (also typically sourish), fruited beers, and wit beers.

An old word in France and Wallonia for a draught of good beer was une goudale. It comes from the English, good ale…

Note re images: the first image above, of Westmalle Tripel in the goblet, is from Westmalle’s website, here. The second image, a reproduction of a Hermann Nigg painting, is from Wikipedia’s entry on St. Benedict, here. The third image is from a Westvletern beer site, here. The fourth is from an Untappd label page, here. The last is from the website of Abbaye de Melleray in France, here.  All are believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Virginia Black American Whiskey

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According to the website, www.virginiablackwhiskey.com, Virginia Black American Whiskey is a collaboration between Brent Hocking, who created the Original Deleón Tequila, and Drake, the rap artist, song writer, film actor and international celebrity. There was a pre-launch recently at the Summerhill LCBO in Toronto. I did not attend but understand the whiskey was previewed there. It’s not yet on the shelves but you can pre-order it from the Vintages LCBO website, which I promptly did after tasting it. I’m not exactly sure when it will be available in Ontario but according to this story in Maxim two days ago, it is coming out on May 1 in some U.S. states. I’d think it will be here by summer.

A bottle is at the tasting bar at the Summerhill LCBO. You can buy a sample (cost: 50 cents). While it is small, I had two, the maximum allowed, certainly enough to scope the product.

Beer Et Seq has considerable experience with bourbon and other whiskeys. I visited Kentucky perhaps 20 times from 2001 until recently, and was active over that period in www.straightbourbon.com, and other consumer bourbon forums. I was named Bourbonian Of The Year by straightbourbon.com’s owner a few years ago. I have also read extensively in bourbon literature from the origins of bourbon until today.

I mention this, not to puff myself up, but simply to point out that I know what good American (and other) whiskey is. I’ve had them from a wide variety of sources, made over a long period including bourbons from old distilleries no longer operating. Until recently, due to the former bourbon glut, you could buy bourbons and other whiskey made decades ago but still being sold at retail in the U.S. I know the bourbon palate, what well-modulated and mingled bourbon is, and its contrary, when bourbon is too old or too young or has an errant taste of some kind.

And I say, Virginia Black American Whiskey is outstandingly good. At $39.95 a bottle (CAN), it will be worth every penny and then some.

The whiskey is, according to the website, a combination of bourbons aged two, three years, and four years. Normally, I feel I can taste whiskey which is very young. There is a characteristic note to it, hard to explain in words. Rubbery or soapy, say, get close. The Virginia Black has none of that taste. I would have thought it was 4-6 years old at least. The whiskeys in it obviously are selected and mingled very carefully. According to the Maxim story, the whiskey is actually not made in Virginia, the source is not stated, but I’d guess by the flavour it is Kentucky bourbon. The word Virginia was chosen for other associations – see the Maxim story again. The colour is not really black, it seemed a normal bourbon colour, I’d think black in the name pertains to the packaging and promotional material.

The word decadent in the labeling is well-chosen as the whiskey has a full, lush taste. It seemed almost like a combination of a very good bourbon and a rich, silky brandy or dark rum.

I’d think it will be very popular due both to Drake’s fame and the inherent quality.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website mentioned above for Virginia Black American Whiskey. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

France, Cheese, Beer – Under A Monastic Roof

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Our theme lately is cheese, beer, France. Let’s continue with an example where all are in one place: the Mont des Cats Abbey in the far north of France, along the French-Belgian border. The monastery’s origins date to the 1600s when Antonine priests established a community on the present location.

The French Revolution terminated its activities and as for numerous other abbeys, the monastic presence was restored at Mont des Cats, with a newly-funded Trappist order. This was in 1829, and in 1890 the brothers founded cheese-making to help sustain the community. A brewery also was in operation. Accounts suggest the beer was brown, strong, spicy. It is difficult to know what type it was, and 19th century accounts of Belgian and French brewing do not mention a “Trappist” or abbey-style as such. It may have been a tart ale, it may have been a porter-type.

Late in WW I, bombardment destroyed part of the monastery and all brewing ceased. It has never started up again on premises, but Mont des Cats has had a beer for some years now. It is made for the abbey by fellow Benedictines at the famous Chimay monastery in Scourmont, in French-speaking Belgium.

The Mont des Cats beer is not a rebrand of an existing Chimay beer, but seems generally in the style of numerous, modern bières Trappistes. Useful reviews can be read at Beer Advocate, hereThink apple, caramel, yeasty, rounded.

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Mont des Cats beer is not made within the walls of the named monastery. Therefore, it is not technically a Trappist beer, under the rules that is of an international grouping of Trappist breweries which confers the right to use the label “Authentic Trappist” on beers which meet its definition. But since the beer is made by Trappists at another location, it has an authenticity few “abbey” beers – beers of monastic origin but no longer made by monks – have.

The cheese is of the semi-soft, Port-du-Salut or Saint-Paulin (a more commercialised) type, as are Chimay’s own well-known cheeses. The Port-du-Salut abbey was one of the monastic revivals of the 1800s, in the western pays of the Loire. The monks set up cheese-making and evolved a type which has spread through the world. Initially this occurred through the Trappists’ international network and the resultant mutual relationships and support. In some cases, monks moved from Port Salut to other monasteries to help their brethren set up cheese-making, or communicated information and advice on how to do it.

classiqueThis is why many French, Belgian and North American Trappist cheeses, or cheeses originally in that style (some have been commercialized), have a family resemblance – but there are many similar cheeses elsewhere, including Eastern Europe. Bosnia provides an example and indeed history records its monastery was the first to employ the designation, Trappist Cheese.

Not all Trappist cheeses are of the semi-soft, mild type but a good many still are and this provides a singular unity to them, one shared now with the many secular producers of a similar style.

In Canada, the classic Oka was originally made by Trappist fathers near Montreal, trained in cheese-making by monks from Port-du-Salut. The method to make Oka and the name were eventually sold to the large dairy cooperative, Agropur. However, a tiny operation in Holland, Manitoba run by an aged father, which claims to use the Oka formulation from a century ago, still makes a Trappist cheese there. This press account gives the very interesting background.

Mont des Cats is a similar case in that Port Salut was a seminal influence on its cheese-making. Unlike the cheeses of Nord Pas-de-Calais I have been discussing to date, Mont des Cats cheese is on the mild side, as Oka is, as Chimay’s is. This is a generalization as the monasteries often make different qualities and maturation time can affect the palate, as can the temperature at which the milk is heated, if applicable. Some cheese, that is, uses pasteurized milk, some uses lightly-heated milk, some avoid any type of heating.

Mont des Cats sources its milk from area farms and the milk is lightly heated to preserve as much taste as possible yet be suitable for the minimum level of production and distribution the cheese operation requires.

I haven’t tried Mont des Cats cheese yet, but I know Oka cheese well, and Chimay’s. The Oka “Classic” version is extremely good, very French-tasting and surely one of the best in the world of this class of cheese. Numerous Toronto stores sell it, I bought some at Longo’s recently which was first rate. Some here know of Beer Et Seq’s interest in Kentucky and its bourbon. It may be noted that a monastery in bourbon country, Abbey of Gethsemani founded in 1848, made cheese for almost 60 years after WW II but recently stopped due to the ever-smaller number of monks on premises. Still, the abbey produces a number of other interesting foods, not least a bourbon-infused fruitcake, which is nationally known.

I would suspect that Mont des Cats beer accompanies well the order’s cheese. True, unlike the cheese, the beer is not made at Mont des Cats, but it emerges from a vision the fathers had of what would be suitable to associate with their community, and it is made by fellow Benedictines not far away. But even if not the ideal alliance from the palate point of view, these products have harmony at a different, indeed higher, level. All cheeses do around the world of a Trappist origin, or inspiration. That is a satisfaction of a special kind for the gastronomic quester.

Note re images: the first two images above are from the website of the Mont des Cats abbey, here. The third is from Agropur’s web page on its cheeses, here. All are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Local Cheese, Local Beer – Traditional But Not Age-Old

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The problem with fine things to eat or drink is, they sometimes don’t continue. A key ingredient may no longer be available, the next generation of a family decides to sell out, some development of technology renders a valued food obsolete.

The diversity of ham cures went out the window once methodical cooling and freezing permitted the preservation of food without salt or other chemicals. Anyone living in Toronto is familiar with the ubiquity of “Black Forest Ham”. Other types exist but a vast number of commodity sandwiches sold day in day out use this form of meat. It`s a good standard quality, but there is not a lot of choice unless you search it out.

The beers of Young’s brewery in London were in high repute, but the land the brewery sat on was worth a king’s fortune. The brewery was closed and the brands were sold to the ambitious independent, Charles Wells of Bedford some years ago. The beers continue, produced now in Bedford, one hopes with fidelity to the originals. (And yes, even products of the same producer can change over time, but that is a different, more nuanced process than I am addressing here).

In the U.S., a renowned cheese of the late 1800s-mid-1900s, Liederkranz, finally disappeared from the market. It was of the Limburger type, favoured originally by those of German heritage. Maybe a key farm making it went out of business, maybe a health regulation came in and put the kibosh on the distinctiveness. This happens all the time. There is a good ending though: a company revived the cheese albeit after a 25 year hiatus. Details can be read here.

The cheese pictured above is Vieux-Boulogne, made in the Pas-de-Calais in France, across the Channel from Dover. Despite its moniker, it is relatively new, on the market since the early 1990s. It fits well within the tradition of strong cheeses in the French north country, but is a relative newbie in the large family of French cheeses.

agriculture_11-768x512With rural depopulation, the industrialization of agriculture and the general modernity of life, France has suffered no less than other countries losses of many traditional products. In Ninette Lyon`s Tour De France (Gourmand) Des Spécialités Régionales (Marabout, 1985), she often states of a product, “if still made”, or “if still available”. The process can only have accelerated since then.

But France was so rich in food diversity to begin with, at least since the 1800s, that there is still much left. More to the point, new traditional-type products are constantly being invented. They join to the previous tradition and form a seamless whole going forward.

Vieux-Boulogne is a textbook example, but French cheese in general provides a good illustration. I’ve mentioned earlier that another northern cheese, mimolette, was devised to substitute for Dutch Edam whose supply was interrupted by war conditions.

(I thought it was WW I but later read that one of the Napoleonic Wars was responsible. I still think WW I is correct, if anyone knows do tell me).

Saint Agur Blue, a creamy, not-too-salty blue cheese which comes in familiar-looking, foil-wrapped cylinders, was developed in 1988. There is no village called Saint Agur, no saint of Christianity with that name. It is a product of commerce, but the cheese is excellent and now is in the pantheon of French blues.

Vieux-Boulogne is a strong-smelling and tasting cheese of Boulogne’s windswept coastal plain and capes. The legendary cheese merchant Phillipe Olivier, of the shop that bears his name, developed it with local farmers about 25 years ago. Cows grazing on only three farms provide the milk. The rind of the maturing cheese is washed with beer, the traditional drink of the northern pays. I wrote earlier of Vieux-Lille, another strong, beer-ripened cheese of the north, in this case from the interior, easterly of Lille.

doc106Vieux-Boulogne is the same general idea, but the way it is made results in a different product. Salt and minerals enter the soil from winds off the sea and lend a unique quality to the cheese. Cheese was apparently made on the coast near Boulogne in the 1300s. Some claim that Vieux-Boulogne is a revival of that tradition. Accurate or not, in practice the cheese is a new and valuable addition to the rich inventory of French cheeses. In effect, Vieux-Boulogne is already traditional: when and how it was devised is basically irrelevant.

The resurgence of local brewing in France since the 1990s, especially in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, is remarkable. I visited the region 20 years ago and there were, in that total area, about 20 breweries left, from thousands in the late 1800s. Today, Pas-de-Calais alone has about 40 breweries. One of these is Brasserie Artisanale des 2 Caps. Philippe Olivier worked with the brewery to devise a beer particularly suited to accompany northern cheese, the label is pictured below.

Thus, an old tradition, small-scale brewing, has been revived assiduously after a long hiatus. In this sense, the U.K. and North America have done better, but we need to catch up on the food side. The French, too, may be forgiven their delay to restore the richness of 19th century brewing since the country as a whole was never primarily a beer-drinking land; we do not have that excuse.

6ff5bec3e1France has that special connection with food and drink, a spirit of interest to keep old traditions alive or restore them where feasible. It`s bred in the bone. When a country lacks a food culture as committed as that of France, the process is more haphazard. In the case of Liederkranz in the U.S., the cheese finally returned, but so many local cheeses have been forever lost, there and in Canada.

Small-scale producers are trying to repair some of the loss, and to be sure Ontario and Quebec cheese-makers make some interesting and unique products. Finding these can be a challenge though. In France, Olivier has five shops spread through the upper section of the country which offer the house’s superb range in perfect condition. Of course, France is much smaller than Canada and the U.S., but I think at bottom the difference is cultural.

Whether artisan food will survive in France under 21st century conditions of commerce and general living, remains to be seem, but even in the millennial age the food culture seems alive and well. That frozen food shops and large supermarkets are legion is undoubted, but artisan food culture has not been rubbed out of French genes, not yet.

Note re images above: The first image, of Vieux Boulogne, is from the website of La Fromagerie, the top-class London cheese merchants. The second image is from the website of the French Regional Council for Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It was sourced here. The third image is from Villa Opale, a tourist accommodation site, here. The fourth image is from the website of the Brasserie Artisanale des 2 Caps, here. All are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.