Q&A: Is There a Beer of the Somme?

France is well off our beat but we’re always happy to learn, which is a good part of why we like being asked tricky questions like the one above.

First, a bit of geography homework, for own benefit as much as anyone else’s — which part of the world are we talking about, exactly?

  1. The Somme is a river in northern France.
  2. It also gives its name to a regional administrative department in Picardy…
  3. … in which Amiens is the biggest city.

Illustration based on a 19th century Map of Picardy/Somme.

So we’re looking for a style or sub-style of beer, or even just one particular brew, that belongs to and in some sense ‘expresses the land’.

In his 1874 book On Beer: A Statistical Study Max Vogel gives a brief summary of the history of brewing in France:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the brewers of Picardy made their beer of half barley, half rye… The beer, however, except the February and March brewings, would not keep even six months; they made small beer (petite biére) and strong or double beer, this latter being named Queute double in Picardy. To give the beer strength and flavour, they mixed it with pepper, resin, and berries…

We don’t know how reliable Vogel’s history is but that central suggestion — that Picardy beer was traditionally made with a good chunk of rye — is echoed by other authors, and fits with the agricultural history of the area.

The problem is, though there are a handful of breweries in Somme, none of them seem to brew anything with rye (seigle), at least as far as we can glean from scouring Facebook pages and Ratebeer. (French brewery websites in particular tend to the oblique, if they exist at all.) There are lots of Belgian-style beers with coriander and orange peel but no berries or pepper either, by the look of it. So rye and these other historic ingredients look like a dead end, unless any of our well-travelled Francophone readers know otherwise — if so, comment below!

The main reason we’ve heard of Somme in connection with brewing is because of its part in the history of hops, as explained here by Martyn Cornell:

The first documented link between hops and brewing comes from Picardy in Northern France, in 822, where Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens, wrote a series of statutes on how the abbey should be run. The many rules covered areas such as the duties of the abbey’s tenants, which included gathering of firewood and also of hops – implying wild hops, rather than cultivated ones. Adalhard also said that a tithe (or tenth) of all the malt that came in should be given to the porter of the monastery, and the same with the hops. If this did not supply enough hops, the porter should take steps to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself: “De humlone … decima ei portio … detur. Si hoc ei non sufficit, ipse … sibi adquirat unde ad cervisas suas faciendas sufficienter habeat.”

Though Picardy is a historic hop-growing region we can’t find any evidence that the industry survives there, Alsace having taken over completely at some point, perhaps, maybe obviously, after Somme was laid waste in World War I. Nor does there seem to be any particular hop variety associated with the region in the various lists we have at hand. Hops from surrounding regions probably have similar characteristics but that’s not quite in the spirit of terroir, which makes this another dead end.

Samara beer.
SOURCE: Brassier de le Somme.

Talking specifics, Samara from Brasserie de la Somme is a beer clearly designed to be ultra-local, which was created in partnership with archaeologists and botanists at the museum-garden with which it shares a name. It uses no hops but, instead, is brewed with seven different herbs and plants from Samara’s botanical garden, along with local honey, and is intended as a recreation of something brewed by ancient Gauls. (Insert your own Asterix potion joke here.) Before anyone else says it, no, it doesn’t look very appetising, even in the brewery-approved glamour shot.

Anyone wanting to carry out their own exploration of the beer of the Somme might consider going on one of the famous ‘Podge’ tours: Siobhan McGinn is leading the next one in mid-October taking in breweries, bars and battle-sites.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 July 2016 — Careers, Coins, House Beer

Here’s all the beer- and pub-related news and opinion that grabbed our attention in the last week, from careers advice to craft beer on the fringes.

Writing for the Guardian an Anonymous insider provided an insight into the day-to-day experience of working in brewing for those considering a career change:

When I was job-hunting, a large craft brewery was advertising an entry-level position… Mostly… I had to clear out the mash tun, which involves digging two tonnes of hot, wet malt from a confined space. It’s like mining for porridge in an underground sauna.


SOURCE: Mr Pepys' Small Change.

SOURCE: Mr Pepys’ Small Change.

In a long scholarly post the Anonymous author of the Mr Pepys’ Small Change blog attempts to track down exactly who issued a particular trade token in 17th Century London:

The token’s issue date is not stated in its legend. However, on stylistic grounds it arguably dates from the 1650s or early 1660s. What is clear from the token’s design is the business address of its issuer, i.e. at the sign of the Three Tuns “against the Great Conduit in Cheapside”. This places the token’s issuing location in the heart of the parish of St. Mary Colechurch in the vicinity of the Mercers’ Hall, close to where Cheapside meets Poultry.

(Via @intoxproject.)

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Magical Mystery Pour #12: Troubadour Magma Triple-Spiked

Troubadour Magma in the glass, with bottle.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.This 9.8% ABV Belgian take on IPA is the fourth of five beers suggested to us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut).

We bought it from Beer Gonzo along with its sibling which we wrote about yesterday. It cost £3.25 for 330ml which seems pretty reasonable for a ‘special edition’ fancy-pants beer with the added faff of Brettanomyces.

This one did gush ever so slightly which prompted a careless pour which, in turn, led to it surging up out of the glass and all over the table. What we managed to catch was misty orange topped with a cream-yellow foam. It gave off an intense room-filling aroma of citrus.

Our first reactions on tasting were gibbering, fear and confusion.

‘That’s quite something,’ we agreed, vaguely, once we’d calmed down.

Tasting notes, fountain pen on paper.

It was extremely fruity in every dimension — hops, of course, but also sweetness and acidity in balance so that, more than any other beer we can recall tasting, including some containing actual fruit, it really did resemble breakfast juice. (Grapefruit, orange, lemon.)

There was a burn in the throat and up the nose — a reminder that this is a boozy beer — and a funky fustiness that seemed quite restrained in the context of all those other fireworks. As we’ve admitted we’re still stuck on Orval = Brettanomyces and sure enough that specific beer did quite definitely come to mind. Could you get close to this beer by mixing Orval, a US IPA and Tripel Karmeliet in equal parts? Maybe.

Close up on the foam of the beer.

Job done, we checked out TBN’s own tasting notes for our own sanity:

I was expecting disappointment and dismay but it is amazing. If anything, the brett enhances the hop juiciness and despite the very definite farmyard funk it still tastes gorgeously fresh. The funk is not a gimmick, it’s not there for its own sake and really does provide a tart balance to the tropical fruit sweetness in the base beer, clearing out some of the heavy sugary malt. Tangy, refreshing and counter-intuitively clean, this is an absolute triumph. I couldn’t imagine ordering anything else for the second round.

This is a big, modern, electroshock of a beer — perhaps a bit much for us, if we’re honest, but we can see why it might appeal to thrill-seekers, jolt junkies and jaded palates.

We’ve only got one more of TBN’s beers to go. If there’s someone you think we ought to invite to choose some beers for us in the next round drop us an email: contact@boakandbailey.com.

Magical Mystery Pour #11: Troubadour Westkust

Magical Mystery Pour logo.This is the third of five beers chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut). It comes from Belgium and is a 9.2% ABV ‘strong, dark, bitter beer’.

We bought two 330ml bottles from Beer Gonzo at £3.25 each — cheaper than many Belgian beers of similar strength.

Something about the design of the label and the type of beer made us look askance: we just knew it was going to gush everywhere. So, anticipating the need to dump it quickly into a vessel, we went for a chunky British-style pint glass rather than a frilly goblet, chalice or holy grail. But, as it happened, though the head was uncontrollably huge and the beer lively, it stayed in the bottle until invited out. The body was a faintly muddy dark red-brown with small flecks of yeast whirl-pooling about; the head coffee crema off-white. We noticed a dusty, musty pantry smell of cocoa powder, dried fruit and sprouts.

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HELP: Real Ale Pubs of the 1970s

For our current Big Project we’re trying to get in touch with people who remember drinking in real ale pubs of the 1970s.

We’ll unpack that term a bit: before about 1975, there were pubs that sold cask-conditioned beer, AKA ‘traditional draught’, but it was usually whatever was local and the choice might consist of one, two or three different beers.

After CAMRA got everyone stirred up some pubs began to tailor their offer to appeal to Campaign members by offering four, six, eight, or even eighteen different beers from the far ends of the country.

If you read Brew Britannia you’ll remember that we covered all of this in Chapter Five, ‘More an Exhibition Than a Pub’, but now we’d like some fresh testimony for a different take.

The Hole in the Wall in 1981.
Detail from ‘Hole in the wall at Waterloo 1981’ by Tim@SW008 from Flickr under Creative Commons.

What were these pubs like to drink in? If you were used to mild and bitter from the local brewery in your home town how did it feel to suddenly see beers from several counties away?

If you worked in or owned one of these pubs, what was that like, and were you aware of being part of what the press called ‘the real ale craze’?

Based on scouring old editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide here’s a list which might help jog memories:

  • The Anglesea Arms, South Kensington, London
  • The Barley Mow, St Albans (covered at length in Brew Britannia)
  • The Bat & Ball, Farnham, Surrey
  • The Brahms & Liszt, Leeds (ditto)
  • The Bricklayers, City of London
  • The Duck, Hagley Road, Birmingham
  • The Hole in the Wall, Waterloo, London
  • The Naval Volunteer, Bristol
  • The Sun, Bloomsbury, London (now The Perseverance)
  • The Victoria Bar, Marylebone Station, London
  • The Victory, Waterloo Station, London
  • The White Horse, Hertford

But other nominations are welcome, as long as they’re from this early phase, from 1975 up until about 1980-81.

Please do share this with any pals you think might be able to help, on Facebook or wherever.

If you’ve got stories or memories to share comment below if you like but email is probably best: contact@boakandbailey.com