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.

UPDATE 25/07/2016 21:10

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.

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.

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #11: Troubadour Westkust”

Magical Mystery Pour #10: Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale

The second beer chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale (7% ABV) from Michigan, USA. We bought it from Beer Gonzo at £3.70 per 330ml bottle.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We were vaguely aware of having heard of this beer but pointedly didn’t look it up before tasting to avoid skewing our judgement any more than necessary.

On opening the bottle, we were treated to a wonderful fruity, flowery aroma, like something on the air in an sub-tropical ornamental garden. It looked beautiful in the glass, glowing orange with a rock-steady head of whipped-white foam. Altogether appetising.

The head on a glass of beer.

The first taste elicited involuntary expressions of delight: Ooo, cor, blimey, phwoar! Which we guess answers the fundamental binary question about whether we liked it or not. It took us back to a decade ago, experiencing absolute delight as we tried one American IPA after another at The Rake in London’s Borough Market, marvelling at beers that seemed heavier, richer, sweeter, more bitter and more intense than anything we could find on draught in our local pub.

Close-up the aroma suggested not flowers and fresh fruit but pipe tobacco and boiling marmalade. There was something old-fashioned about the whole package, which brought to mind a historical recreation we’ve enjoyed a lot on more than one occasion, Cluster’s Last Stand.

The bitterness seemed high compared to some similar beers we’ve had, a sort of drying blast over the tongue at the end of each dip, but it conveyed a sense of solid maturity rather than showboating X-TREME-ness.

Another beer that we thought of was Fuller’s Vintage Ale — an odd leap, perhaps, but there you go — which led us to a conclusion: Two-Hearted is like an English bitter boiled down to concentrate. We know that Gary Gillman (blogger and sometimes commenter here) and Nick (mostly on Twitter) are in the habit of letting down packaged beer to recreate the effect of cask ale so decided to follow their lead and dilute a sample of Two-Hearted 50/50 with tap water. This was revelatory, even though it didn’t taste great in its own right: reduced in intensity, it did indeed resemble, say, Young’s Bitter, or Harvey’s Armada IPA.

We were very impressed with this beer and would drink it again. It’s not cheap but it’s not outrageously expensive either and we couldn’t think of many British beers that provide this particular kind of jammy, chewy, juiciness at a lower price. (Suggestions welcome, of course, but think orange, marmalade and toffee rather than mango Champagne.)

Tasting done, we looked it up, and found felt slightly embarrassed not to have tried it before: it’s regarded as a classic by many and (obviously) some people think it is over-hyped. It’s rated as world class by Beer Advocate (disclosure: we’ve done paid work for BA magazine) and has a perfect 100 high score on RateBeer.

Reviews on both sites talk about pineapple, mango, citrus, passion fruit, pine and all that American-hop baggage, none of which we picked up — it’s as if they were describing a different beer. That made us wonder if the journey across the Atlantic, perhaps via mainland Europe, and six months in the bottle (ours was packaged in January) had taken the edges off this apparently legendary beer in a way that just happened to really work for us.

Yes, that’s right: our new favourite beer style is Staled Warehouse IPA™.

Pleasingly, The Beer Nut’s own tasting notes from 2011 seem to match ours. (This is a strangely rare occurrence.)

News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016

Illustration: government stamp on a British pint glass.

Here are all the blog posts and articles from the past week that have captured our attention in one way or another, from ponderings on the pint to the state of Orval.

Whether you like to drink your beer by the pint or in smaller measures is another of those fault lines between Them and Us in British beer. Chris Hall (who works for London brewery Brew by Numbers) considers whether the fact that the pint is the default UK beer serving is distorting the market:

Even in the most wide-ranging, smaller-serving-focused craft beer bars in the country, we remain interested in filling a pint-shaped hole, and if it remains an unchangeable line in our programming, our industry will remain defined by the beers that fit this space, and not by what we could, or perhaps should, be brewing.


The brewhouse at Orval.
SOURCE: Belgian Smaak.

2015 Beer Writer of the Year Breandán Kearney considers the state and history of the brewery at Orval in a luxuriously long post at Belgian Smaak, which also has lots of juicy detail for home brewers and the generally inquisitive:

The malt bill is an evolving one, barley varieties such as ‘Aleksi’ and ‘Prisma’ used previously having been replaced for example with the ‘Sebastian’ variety. ‘It is difficult to speak about varieties of barley malt because a lot of them disappear for new ones,’ says Anne-Françoise [Pypaert]. ‘Brewers don’t have much control on that because farmers value varieties with a good yield. What I can say is that we use two pale malt varieties, one caramel malt and a little bit of black barley.’

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads for 4 June 2016”