Biéres de garde are often grouped with saisons under the banner of ‘farmhouse ales’… [but] whilst the saison booms, its French cousin generates far less interest. This is understandable, in a way — if the dry, peppery quality of a saison in the Dupont vein invites dry hopping, mixed fermentation and other ‘crafty’ goings on, the soft, sweet, malty character of many biéres de garde hardly screams experimentation.
[These] yeasts are extremely diverse, and that the yeasts don’t cluster by what region they came from. A Finnish yeast sits in between the Lithuanian ones, and some Lithuanian ones are closer to some Norwegian ones than to the others. Even within Norway the geographical relationships don’t hold. Stranda, furthest north, is the most similar to a yeast from Voss, furthest south.
When I was a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, we happily cradled sloshing pitchers of Alexander Keith’s IPA without a thought of hop characteristics in our heads… In Halifax, you can’t go far without having a Keith’s thrust upon you- it’s the province’s favourite sup and was heavily marketed under the slogan ‘those who like it, like it a lot’ throughout the summit of its popularity in the 90s.
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.
That’s actually the name of the brewery, not a description — a clear benefit of being one of the first ‘craft’ breweries in your region.
We were tipped off to the existence of Nice’s answer to The Kernel by Ratebeer. We tried to find the beers on sale in a bar or restaurant but didn’t have any luck and so visited the brewery to buy takeaway bottles during the brief daily window between 17:00-19:00.
It operates out of a retail unit on literally the wrong side of the tracks, beyond the main station, away from the sea and the historic tourist district, and is the kind of place that you think mustn’t actually exist until you go just one block further and, yes, there it is across the road from a seedy cafe near a boarded-up supermarket.
The owner seemed delighted to see us and wanted to know how we’d found out about the brewery; he’d never heard of Ratebeer but wrote down the URL. When we said, ‘This isn’t really beer territory, is it?’ he gave a long, bitter laugh and rolled his eyes. ‘You can say that again!’
There are two bars in Marseille with large beer ranges, both out of the centre of the city: La Cane Bière near the Parc Longchamp, and Bar Fietje, in the shadow of the cathedral of Notre-Dame Du Mont.
Fietje (143 rue Sainte) is a relatively new venture that opened (we think) in June this year as a spin-off from a well established bottle shop in La Plaine. It is on a fairly quiet, mostly residential back street and would look more like a shop or showroom than a bar if it was not for the crowd of smokers sipping beer from Teku glasses around the front door. Inside, the decor is ‘craft industrial’ — bare brick, wooden beer crates re-purposed as shelves, stripped boards, wipe clean tiles and steel and, yes, the obligatory Edison lightbulbs.
The beers — around 80 in total — were listed on Perspex boards on the walls, with those on draught also being displayed, with prices per 250ml, above the row of taps on the wall behind the bar.
There wasn’t much to excite the hardened ticker other than a couple of local beers that, when pressed, the barman told us he could not wholeheartedly recommend, but we didn’t go short of good stuff to drink, from BrewDog IPAs to Belgian classics. The only beers that were expensive were the British imports — everything else was priced on a par with standard lagers available elsewhere in the city, at €3 to €4 per serving.
The atmosphere was a touch quiet and scholarly — you have to be a real geek to be into beer in Provence, it seems — but certainly friendly enough, and we felt quite comfortable spending a couple of hours revisiting old favourites. We especially enjoyed some of the (relatively speaking) bargain-priced bottles: it’s been a while since we bought Rochefort 10 for anything like €5 (about £3.70), on- or off-premises.
* * *
La Cane Bière’s (32 Boulevard Philippon) name is a bit confusing: La Canebière, some distance away from this bar, is also the name of Marseille’s answer to Oxford Street, famous in the 19th century for its many swanky bars and cafes, and something of a symbol of the city. Though we had intended to visit we actually stumbled across it by mistake, our eyes drawn by the sight of people swigging Saison de Dottignies from the bottle around a table on the pavement outside, and swerved in.
Inside, we found a wall of bottles on shelves, a selection of bottles chilling in a freezer, and a single unlabelled beer on tap that we think was the increasingly ubiquitous La Chouffe. Though we could have enjoyed beers from BrewDog, Thornbridge or Fuller’s, we went for 375ml bottles of Saison Dupont 2015 Dry Hop (6.5%) — a limited edition beer we’ve struggled to get hold of in the UK and which tasted all the better at a mere €3.90 ( £2.90) a pop.
If Fietje was a touch uptight, La Cane Bière was a party waiting to happen: the entirely local crowd on the pavement, especially a tipsy bloke with dreadlocks, made space for us on one of the tiny tables and was generally welcoming. No-one was taking tasting notes or sniffing their pints and most weren’t even bothering with glasses for their Guinness Foreign Extra or saison. At one point, a dog sat on the pavement with its arse in front of a passing tram and there was a collective holding of breath; when the tram passed by within inches of the hapless hound, which barely blinked, we all cheered together. It sounds a bit silly but it was one of those moments that reminds us of why its nice to get merry with strangers.
* * *
Both bars were quite different even though their ranges overlapped. There is probably room for a few more such bars in a city as big and as cool as Marseille, though it might be nice to see a bit more beer from the area, or at least from France, on offer. But if it’s crap, it’s crap — there’s no point stocking it for the sake of it.
It’s interesting, we think, that both bars were self-service, contributing to a feeling of informality, signalling their difference — the distinctly un-French ‘global’ vibe — and presumably also helps to keep the price of the beer down.
First, we sought out the brewery tap of Brasserie de la Plaine in the hip Cours Julien/La Plaine district where students, hippies, street drinkers and the bourgeois hang out in and around overlapping cafes, bars and public spaces, surrounded by graffiti, poodle crap and parked scooters. If you visited Hoxton in the 1990s, or Bristol about ten years ago, you’ll get the idea — not yet posh, exactly, but the grot is beginning to look a bit like window dressing.
The Bar de la Plaine (57 Place Jean Jaurès) is a tiny space on a corner where two draught beers and a selection of seasonal bottles are dispensed. We found a crowd of locals, many with children in tow, engaged in post-work debriefing as they knocked back small glasses of beer and scooped chunks from a liquid-ripe wheel of blue cheese on the counter.
We didn’t expect much so were pleasantly surprised to find that neither of the draught beers was downright dirty — there was no unplanned sourness, and no floating grit between the teeth. Blanche (wheat beer, 6% ABV, €3 for a generous 250ml measure) was light-bodied to the point of wateriness, like lemon barley water. A heavy hand with the orange peel gave it most of its character. Though it didn’t reward concentrated pondering, as a refresher on a hot evening, it was quite welcome, and probably almost on a par with Hoegaarden.
Blonde (5%, €3 for 250ml) was a golden ale rather than lager, and clearer than the photo above makes it look. Served almost freezing cold, it seemed at first bland, gruel-like and yeasty but, as it warmed, it became more likeable with loaf-crust maltiness and a whisper of savoury-herbal hops. It’s not a complex beer but we’d certainly choose it over Heineken, if not over such commonly available Belgian beers such as La Chouffe.
We didn’t try the bottled beers — no-one else was drinking them either — but on our visit the range included an amber beer and one infused (we think) with essence of violets. An IPA advertised on the menu, and which we were keen to taste, was not available, being the seasonal special for October.
This is a solid contemporary community brewery making decent draught beer just about as adventurous as (we suspect) the local market will tolerate, for now. If we lived in Marseille, we we would certainly aim to make regulars of ourselves.