News, Nuggets & Longreads for 2 June 2018: Flanders, Erith, Easterly Road

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in writing about beer and pubs in the past week, from D&D to WWI.

First, a great story by Liam Barnes that just missed the cut off for last week’s round-up, about the part pubs and bars are playing in the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons:

On first glance this branch of BrewDog in Nottingham might seem like your typical hipster hangout, but one thing gives it a slightly different air: numerous hand-drawn maps, some character sheets, and voluminous bags of 20-sided dice…. It’s the bar’s monthly tabletop gaming night – and regulars love it…. “I think the escapism is the best bit,” says 27-year-old gamer Hannah Yeates. “For a few hours you can become a completely different person living a completely different life, making decisions you’d never make and forgetting what’s happening in the real world…. It’s liberating.”


German troops sharing beer during World War I.

For All About Beer Christopher Barnes has written a long, detailed, heavily illustrated account of how World War I affected French and Belgian breweries:

The monks of Westmalle and Achel were forced to flee to The Netherlands. The Belgians, in their defense of Antwerp, destroyed a tower at Westmalle to prevent it being used as an observation post by the approaching Germans. Achel was occupied by the Belgians and shelled by the Germans until they were able to solidify their hold on Belgium. To keep citizens from going back and forth over the border with The Netherlands, the Germans erected an electrified fence along the border. Since Achel straddles the border of The Netherlands and Belgium, the fence bisected the abbey’s lands. When the call went out from the German War Department, the monks of Achel were able to sadly watch as their brewery was dismantled. No beer was brewed at Achel until 2001.

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Artyfacts from the Nyneties #5: Sainsbury’s Bière de Garde, 1991

Sainsbury's Biere de Garde.

The image above comes from the Sainsbury’s supermarket in-house magazine for November 1991 and is a great reminder that interesting beer didn’t arrive in Britain in 2010.

Here’s the text that accompanied the product shot under the groansome headline THE BEER WORTH GUARDING:

The new Sainsbury’s Biere de Garde derives its name from the traditional brewing metiiods used at tlie brewery in Benifontaine, in the Nord-pas de Calais region of France. This strong beer, which is made with seven malts, spends six weeks ‘kept’ in special chilled tanks in a locked Garde room while top fermentation takes place. Hence Biere de Garde – ‘kept’ beer.

The design of the bottle, and the label, is a striking blend of the modern and traditional, and the amber beer is, in the words of the buyer: ‘robust, delivering a rich bouquet and an intense full, rounded flavour.’

Biere de Garde is available in 123 stores at £1.79.

Retro Sainsbury’s branding is very cool right now — some of it has aged rather wonderfully — and this Biere de Garde isn’t bad at all.

You can read the whole issue as a PDF via the JS Journal Online pages at the Sainsbury’s Archive, and there’s more on the arrival of ‘world beer’ in Britain in Brew Britannia, especially on pages 106 to 111.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 10 September 2016: Keith’s, Kwak and Kveik

Here’s the best of the beer- and pub-related writing that’s caught our attention in the last week, from Canadian IPA to sour celebrity-endorsed Guinness.

Illustration: Biere de Garde text on weathered wood.

Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass of Beer has been considering the relatively unfashionable Biére de garde style and especially British-brewed takes on it:

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.


Yeast samples in jars.

Lars Marius Garshol summarises highly technical lab analysis of the various Kveik yeast strains he has collected around Scandinavia and the Baltic region:

[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.


Bottles of Alexander Keith's 'Fundy'.

Londoner Rebecca Pate of Brewing East has made a trip back to her native Canada which she finds herself viewing through a beery prism:

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.


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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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Beer and Pretzels in Strasbourg

Meteor beer advertising sign, Strasbourg, France.

Beer has a greater prominence in Strasbourg than in any other French city we’ve visited, except perhaps Lille.

‘Well, that’s hardly a surprise,’ you might say, ‘given that it was part of Germany until 1918.’ And, yes, though it is more complicated than that, street signs are in Alsatian as well as French (Grand Rue is translated as Langstross, for example); and, alongside croissant and pain au chocolat, all the bakers sell excellent pretzels.

The beer culture, though, doesn’t feel like a reminder of old Strassberg, but as if it came as part of the package with the European Parliament. As in other French cities, or Spanish ones, for that matter, there are local pilsners of varying degrees of blandness, lots of imported beer at high prices, several brewpubs, and a handful of small ‘artisanal’ brewers making hazy, vaguely saison-like bottled beers.

Though we were initially excited at the sight of two branches of the Beer Academy and another specialist Belgian beer bar, the fact that they weren’t selling much we couldn’t buy in most UK supermarkets, and a general sense of exploitative tackiness, caused us to swerve away at the threshold. We did note, however, the ready availability of a rare British beer: Brewdog Punk IPA, which is conquering the world alongside Guinness and Leffe.

The most famous local brewery is Kronenbourg, but most of the locals, as far as we could see, seemed to prefer Meteor. Of their two flagship beers, Pils is the more characterful (their website says 5% ABV; the cafe where we first tried it said 4.6%). A touch brassy in colour, it is hardly big or complex, but we found it a decent, tasty beer with just enough bitterness. It seemed generally to be reasonably priced, too, at around €5 for 500ml. (Compare that to €8+ for 330ml of Heineken in Paris.)

Lanterne beer label.La Lanterne (5 Rue de Lanterne) is a student pub (Jäeger bombs!) which just happens to make its own beer, and sells it very cheaply by French standards.

The blonde, an intended Leffe clone at 6.4%, was just a tiny bit sour (oops!), Christmas spicy, and with a solid malt character — not at all soupy or yeasty despite the customary brewpub haze. The wheat beer (we didn’t note the ABV — sorry!) was similarly pleasing, though it showed evidence of too much sweet orange peel, and it too was a little sour. Finally, we braved a 330ml bottle of a seasonal beer called simply Lanterne (6.4%), which was on deep discount at €3.50. It tasted like scrumpy cider. Clearly, something had gone wrong, and yet… we sort of enjoyed it. After all, aren’t sour, fruit-accented hybrid beers all the rage in the UK right now?

Au Brasseur (22 Rue de Veaux) was an altogether hilarious experience. Overworked and frantic waiters ignored us and everyone else, only stopping to take orders when physically arrested by frustrated customers. The seasonal special was (supposedly) an English-style bitter at 6.8%, but, despite its strength and sticky-sweet treacly maltiness, it was actually rather bland. Both their Blonde (a weaker, less spicy Leffe clone at 5%) and wheat beer (4.6%) were perfectly decent — clean, at least, if not exciting.

We had to hunt a little harder for the local bières artisanales, but eventually found a few trendily-designed bottles of beer from Uberach in a late night cake shop. (France, eh?) Juliette (4.8 %) was a farmhouse beer flavoured with peach, ginger and rose. We found it hard going — brash and artifical-tasting, like fruit tea rather than beer. Having said that, with a little refinement, the underlying idea could go down well in the UK. La Klintz (also 4.8%), a wheaty-tasting hazy blonde Belgian-style beer from the same brewery, was just fine but seemed to be lacking a dimension or two, and was ultimately too sweet for us.

So, there is plenty of beer in Strasbourg, but nothing worth going out of your way for, at least not that we had chance to try during our brief visit.

There’s a gallery with more pictures on our Facebook page.

Revisiting old haunts

Unfiltered lager at Naturbier in Madrid

When I went on my travels a couple of years ago around Spain and France, I didn’t have a huge number of amazing beer experiences to report.  Nonetheless, there were a couple of interesting places  to which I was keen to take Baileythis time round.

The first was Naturbier in Madrid,  a friendly brewpub in the heart of the city. I was interested to see if Bailey would agree with my positive opinions and he did, although we both agreed that this time the “rubio” (blonde/pale) beer was better — almost as good as some unfiltered lagers we’d had in Germany.

The second was the Frog & Rosbif (Paris St Denis branch) which seems to have quite a bad reputation as an expat dive.  I loved it last time and was almost a bit nervous to take Bailey there… Would it be as good?

Yes and no.  The wheat beer and lager were a bit odd tasting, and the waitress warned us off the stout (“It’s not so good today.  Why not try something something else?”).  But the two ales were fresh and the atmosphere and service were great.  What’s interesting about this place is how it manages to be so popular with the locals: we didn’t spot any obvious ex-pats. It’s certainly not because it’s cheap…

Boak