A Taste of La Choulette

One of the old school family breweries in France is La Choulette, in Hordain, a small village in the Nord region. It is in the Valenciennes district, some 40 kilometres from Lille and only 20 kilometers from Belgium.

Founded in 1895 by an ancestor of current owner and head brewer Alain Dhaussy, the brewery acquired its current name in 1986. Such was the success of the Choulette brand, launched in 1981, that the brewery took the name of its star product for its own.

The brewery makes a sizeable number of beers (see its website) in numerous styles. The Choulette line of bières de garde includes blonde, brown, and amber versions. The beers are top-fermented and given (see website) a period of at least one month’s aging, the “keeping” referred to in the name. Some brewers today make the garde style using bottom fermentation and the style in general is quite flexible and hard to pin down, but unquestionably La Choulette’s is among the most authentic.

Numerous small brewers in Nord-Pas-de-Calais have issued bières de garde since the 1970s and 80s. It was a way to recall the ancestral, top-fermentation tradition in the region that was finally displaced by lager, a process that occurred in many parts of the world but was delayed in the French North until the mid-1900s. Putting it differently, it allowed small producers to compete more effectively against mass market lager breweries.

In about 1992 I visited La Choulette with the late beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007). The brewery was, and remains, a sturdy red-brick complex with a courtyard as its centre. One of the buildings was the home of the proprietors. We were greeted by Alain Dhaussy and he is still in charge today. The brewery remains relatively small with under 15 in total staff. It stands mid-way between the new wave of craft brewers and large industrialized brewers who dominate sales in France, as in most places.

There were almost 3000 village breweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais when La Choulette was founded. By the 1990s, only about a dozen family independents had survived, of which about half remain today including La Choulette, yet the survivors formed a bridge to the region’s currently vibrant craft era. They are in a word an essential part of the history.

According to a special publication, Bières et Brasseurs du Nord et du Pas-de-Calais published by the media group La Voix du Nord, in 2018 some 65 breweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais were in operation, out of 1,200 in France as a whole. Those 65, now surely a higher number, made at least 350 brands, more if one accounts for line extensions and special releases.

La Choulette takes its place justly among those 65 + as a senior member and its products reflect high standards, a result of the brewing tradition it inherited and also new ideas inaugurated by Alain Dhaussy or influenced by the new craft sensibility. It is the best of all possible worlds, the line-up of La Choulette in Hordain.

We especially liked the Amber Choulette, pictured here. I found the beer again recently in Montreal, tasting exactly as in France.

It has a full, complex flavour, quite different from the standard conception at least in North America of a “Belgian ale”. The beer is somewhat earthy, dark fruit estery, with malty/caramel tones, and an interesting tonic or “camphor” edge, almost gin-like to my taste. It has no tart notes, and is quite different from a Flanders brown style, East or West.

The yeast seems highly distinctive and I believe the flavours comes from that and the malts and hops. No spices or herbs are utilized, as far as I could tell. The beer seems closer to some English ale styles than contemporary non-sour Belgian ales, or perhaps mid-way between the two if that makes sense. To my mind La Choulette Amber typifies locality, especially as it tastes exactly as I recall from 30 years ago.

A perfect beer with a meal or flavoursome cheese, it is, what’s more, an analogue to a robust red wine. Quebeckers are fortunate to be able to buy the beer from the SAQ, the government liquor and wine retailer. Americans can buy it too who have access to the Shelton Brothers’ impressive importation range. It seems likely some UK importers offer the Amber as well or another of the Choulette gardes.

N.B. According to the label description, a choulette was the ball in one of the numerous mallet-and-ball games handed down through the ages in the French north country.