The French Connection

Brains are funny, faulty things. Take, for example, mine. It knew that I planned to make a trip to Britain and Belgium, and so my brain dutifully locked in these coordinates, booted up Google maps, and began helping me plan my trip. At some point late in the process, one of the technicians that resides there happened to notice that France is right there next to Belgium and one of the more interesting French breweries, Thiriez, is a mere 20 kilometers from where I'll be staying in Watou. Thus did I scramble to include not only Thiriez but Castelain and St Germain in my plans. Whew.

Which got me thinking. If you scan the materials on style, you find damn little reference to France. Here's what it says in the Oxford Companion to Beer, in the section penned by Phil Markowski, who wrote the excellent book, Farmhouse Ales: "Considered the only widely acknowledged French contribution to specialty brewing, Biere de Garde..." And indeed, I find no fault in this sentence--biere de garde is the only widely acknowledged French style. It is by no means the only style brewed in France, though, and this is the problem.

(For the purposes of this post, let's pretend that the style biere de garde is a coherent one that might actually refer to a range of similar styles. I don't think that's true, but let's leave the quicksand of style debates to another post.)

Have a look at the range of beers produced at just the three breweries I'll be visiting (France now boasts hundreds):
  • Thiriez. A blond and an amber in the biere de garde class, a hoppy pale (the fields at Poperinge are just a few miles down the road), a black ale, a Flanders red.
  • Castelain (aka Ch'ti). Two blonds in the biere de garde class, an amber I won't try to characterize, an organic pale, and various browns and wheats.
  • St Germain (aka Page 24). A session blond, wit (maybe), three biere de gardes, a rhubarb beer, and a chicory beer.
The ratings sites shoe-horn these beers into various styles or use biere de garde as a catch-all. Yet while I've tried only four of them, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is just lazy. If adding black malt to a beer gives you a wholly new, Brewers-Association-certified style, the idea that there's only a single indigenous style in France strikes me as improbable. Some of these are lagered, some made with lager yeasts, others not. The variation among just the few beers I've tried has been substantial. My guess is that, like so many other places in the world the evolution of brewing styles has outpaced old categories in France.

Of course, this is why visits are so valuable. I'll have a chance to talk to the brewers about their beers, their philosophies, and their methods. I won't really have a chance to dig deeply into French brewing this trip, but even speaking with three brewers can be revelatory. Thank god the old brain woke up in time that I didn't miss the opportunity.