As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a ‘reassuringly expensive’ premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.
Wood is not uncommon in a brewhouse; beers aged on fresh oak or made with spruce tips are familiar. But brewers, especially those in arborous domains, have recently begun to eye entire trees—bark, leaves, sap, needles and all—as ingredients. Juniper, cedar, birch, Ponderosa pine, white fir and other timbers all confer their own distinct flavors, from vanilla to citrus to herbs. More than that, brewers say the final beers express the rusticity of their surroundings, that desirable sense of place that has led to a revival in foraging and local sourcing.
And it’s odd that as the owner and production manager of a brewery, he doesn’t even drink beer. “I don’t like it,” he says, as if this assertion were completely normal. “I taste it, but I prefer soft drinks.”
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 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.
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.
Thomas from Happy Beer Time(@HappyBeerTime) asked around among the French-language beer geeks and they did find a beer with rye that sounds a bit like the one described by Max Vogel: La Caussenarde Seiglée (RateBeer). The only problem is, it’s not from Picardy — it’s from the south of France. Still, interesting.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com.
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.