There are many beers brewed in France, overshadowed of course by the many great French wines. Most of the French breweries make products that are more or less German (in Alsace, especially) or Belgian (in Flandres); there are Celtic beers produced in Brittany, and standard European-style pilsners in the Paris region. Only Bière de Garde, produced mainly in the Artois and Picardie regions, often with barley grown in Champagne, is considered a truly French style.
Ah, but what is a Bière de Garde? And how is it different from the Saison-style produced not far away in Flandres? And how do you pronounce it? Last question first – in French, an i followed by another vowel becomes a consonant y. And the accent grave on an e in the middle of the word is pronounced “eh”… so its “byair”, one syllable, more or less.
How does it differ from a Saison? Bigger, maltier, less tart, often with a little oxydized “cellar character”, earthy and rough. Traditionally, BdG were brewed along the same timeline as a Märzen or Oktoberfest – brewed late in the winter (March) and put away to store cool during the summer months when brewing was not possible. “Garde”, from the verb “garder”, to keep, indicates it was meant to be stored long-term. So it had to be higher in alcohol than the ordinary table beers. They were traditionally brewed as an ale, although with the advent of modern lagering techniques, some breweries switched to a bottom-fermenting yeast; some even use a technique similar to a Steam beer, using a lager yeast at a warmer ale-friendly temperature.
What should you expect a Bière de Garde to taste like? The commercial examples are all over the map – ranging from a pale gold to a deep reddish amber in color, they also range from 5% abv to upwards of 9%. Most emphasize maltiness (cookies and biscuits are frequently mentioned in comparison) and hops generally only serve to balance the malt. Yeast character is prevalent, leaving many examples fruity and estery. Bières de Garde tend to be very complex, with layers of flavor that change and swirl as the beer warms.
Le Bossu, Bière de Garde Blonde
5 gallons, all-grain
- 5 lbs. Weyermann Abbey malt
- 3 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
- 1 lb. Cara-Belge malt
- 1/2 lb. Belgian Biscuit malt
- 1/2 lb malted wheat
- 2 oz. whole Strisselspalt hops (at 3% aa)
- White Labs French Ale yeast (WLP072)
- 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)
Procedure: Crack malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 168°F. Mash in grains, hold at 155°F for 90 minutes. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 27 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, add 1 oz. Strisselpalt hops. Boil 30 minutes, add 1 oz. Strisselspalt hops. Boil 30 more minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Remove hops and chill wort to 80°F. Take a hydrometer reading, pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment warm (68°F) for 6 to 8 days. Rack to secondary, condition cool (50°F) for two to three weeks. Prime and bottle, age two to three months cooler (45°F).
Note on the name: Le Bossu is the title of one of my favorite French novels of swashbuckling and derring-do, by Paul Féval,the story of a discredited Musketeer who resorts to disguises and cunning to outwit a powerful corrupt nobleman. The 1997 film adaptation, starring Daniel Auteuil, is called “En Garde”.
Note on malts & hops & yeast: I hope that the mix of Belgian and Bavarian malts will approximate the straight French grain bill one would normally find in this beer! The hops are the only variety native to France (developed from Bavarian Spalt), grown in Alsace. Most Bières de Garde would use local hops, as well as German, Czech and Styrian aroma hops. The yeast is, according to rumors, the strain used by Brasserie Duyck, brewers of Jenlain.
Note on this brew: I brewed a darker Bière de Garde some months ago, and have not been very happy with it. This brew will hopefully make up for what the prior one lacks.
Note on style: For those interested in tasting a commercial example of this style, I reccommend the following (if you can find them!): Jenlain, Ch’ti (by Castelain), St. Arnoldus (also by Castelain), Trois Monts (brewed by St. Sylvestre), Vieille Garde (brewed by Monceau St. Waast) and La Choulette.