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.

La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice

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!’

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Good Beer in Marseille Pt 2: Big Menu Bars

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.

Fietje taps.

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.

Good Beer in Marseille Pt 1: La Plaine

Marseille is a rough-edged city where the default thirst-quencher is rosé wine but, with the gentrification of previously dodgy areas, there has come the beginnings of a beer scene.

Though we generally like to find places to eat and drink organically in the course of exploring, this time we did check Ratebeer’s local listings before we went, which told us there was a brewery with the whiff of ‘craft’ about it, along with a couple of specialist bars and bottle shops.

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.

La Plaine beers (Blanche, Blonde).
Blanche, left, and Blonde.

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.

Serve Yourself in Nice

We’d been in Nice a couple of days before we took the right combination of turns in the pleasingly confusing old town and stumbled across Au Fût et à Mesure.

Discreet as it is, we noticed it because it wasn’t a bistro a cafe or a Bar Tabac, being less formal than the first, boozier than the second and smarter than the last. Then we noticed the beer list on display outside:

Au Fut et a Mesure, Nice: beer list, summer 2015.

Lots of places in Nice call themselves ‘Cave à Bières’ because they have Guinness and Kronenbourg, but this looked like a really decent range, and competitively priced at that (€3.90 for 250ml — cheaper than basic lager in many places we’d found ourselves). But we scratched our heads over ‘Nos bieres pression en self’ — was it a clever way of referring to bottles, or did they genuinely have all of these on tap? There was, of course, only one way to find out.

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