Stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France saw the peloton depart, for the first time in the history of the race, from Wanze, Belgium. Finally, the race made its way into its namesake country, crossing the border from Belgium into France, destined for the forest of Arenberg in the Nord Pas de Calais. The field will travel some of the same ferociously cobbled farm roads traversed in the spring classic, Paris-Roubaix, aka "L'Enfer du Nord."
Today's post comes courtesy of Dan Shelton, one of the two frères behind Shelton Brothers, the US's preeminent importer of French farmhouse beers. From this rough country, as Dan will tell you, come the most distinctive beers of France. Lead on, Mr. Shelton.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais – which is about the size of Connecticut – is almost surely the most ethnically scuffed-up region in France. You can tell by the names of the towns you pass through when you're lost somewhere in the web of little roads that wind through the countryside – places like Volckerinckhove, Le Steent'je, Godewaersvelde, Spreuwkoot, Zermezeele, Socx.... Most visitors just assume that these words are randomly chosen letters perversely arranged to be unpronounceable, and refuse to give their French tormentors any satisfaction by even trying to pronounce them. Actually, these names are Flemish, a variant of Dutch, reflecting heavy immigration from West Flanders, in Belgium. Those immigrants have left the clearest cultural mark here, but countless other groups have passed through or stayed over the years: Irish and Welsh, Poles, Czechs, Italians, Portuguese, North Africans, Greeks, Slovaks, and most recently Chinese and Vietnamese. To make things more confusing, the region has proved to be a major military crossroads, and has seen invasion from all directions for centuries, beginning with the Romans and ending, one hopes, with the Germans in the 20th Century.
The Nord Pas is in most parts perfectly rural, with beautiful rolling fields broken up by small forests and countless stone or brick farmhouses. (Other, admittedly less beautiful, parts of the Nord-Pas have been given over to industry, especially mining in the southwest.) The region is mostly flat, with just a few striking hills here and there. The big city in this part of France is Lille, a sprawling, bustling city with a charming historic center to rival any in Europe. But at its edges, the city turns instantly to countryside. It is the farming country that truly gives the Nord-Pas its dominant feel and spirit.
Unlike nearly every other region in France, there is no wine to speak of made in the Nord-Pas. The local drink here is the beverage of choice of serious bikers everywhere: beer. Much of the barley and hops used in the brewing are grown locally, and the history of brewing in the region is long and distinguished, beginning with the Gauls, whose love of beer is documented at least as far back as the 4th century B.C. Somewhat more recently, the people of the Nord-Pas, in rustic conditions on farms across the countryside, were busy creating France's only indigenous beer style – Bière de Garde, or "beer for keeping."
Bière de Garde is probably better described as a family of beers rather than a style. In the 18th and 19th centuries, certainly, all sorts of beers were made under that general name. The common element was the method of their production. In the farmhouses of the Nord-Pas, brewing was an essential aspect of farm life, carried out in rhythm with the seasons. Working in primitive conditions, and, initially, without any knowledge of yeast (until Louis Pasteur, a Frenchman, identified and cultured yeast in the mid-1800's), farmer-brewers only made beer in the cold months, when wild yeasts that could easily infect a beer were naturally subdued. Hearty beers were cooked up in the late winter and early spring, and siphoned unfiltered into heavy champagne bottles, which were stored in the cellar, to be drunk in the warmer months when brewing was impossible. With live yeast in the bottles, this "beer for keeping" continued to ferment in the cellar for months. When it was finally brought out and opened up as refreshment for the workers in the field, it was refreshing indeed: spritzy as champagne, very dry (highly "attenuated," as brewers say), and pleasingly, but not overly, alcoholic.
This bucolic life of farming and beer-drinking should rightly have gone on forever, but for the unfortunate strategic location of the Nord-Pas. There were slightly more than 2000 breweries in this region in 1900. Two world wars, and German invasion nearly put an end to it. The First World War reduced the number of breweries by half. At the end of the Second, there were only twenty breweries left. Stories abound of beautiful copper brewing installations being taken by German soldiers and melted down to make munitions. And these few remaining breweries had almost nothing to work with – no malt, no hops. Beers made with anything that would ferment were usually struggling to exceed 1% alcohol. Soon, the tradition, and the taste, of Bière de Garde were forgotten.
(Image courtesy of Cartes et Patrimoine.)
The good news is that one of the survivors – the Brasserie Duyck, in the little town Jenlain, not far from Lille – undertook in the 1970's to reinvent Bière de Garde. Their Jenlain Ambrée has become the benchmark for the modern Bière de Garde, but the brewery has been happy to lend its famous local yeast to other small breweries, and it is possible to find many variants around the region. A renaissance of sorts is happening now. Small breweries, many of them with connections to old, extinct breweries in their towns, and an appreciation of their own brewing history, are popping up. The number has climbed over fifty, on its way to a hundred no doubt. Not the good old days, of course, but a good start.
No one really knows what a Bière de Garde tasted like one hundred years ago, sadly, but sitting with a big corked bottle of beer from the Nord Pas, catching the complex, champagne-like yeast aroma, and drinking in the local flavors of sweet, wholesome malt, offset by a tinge of hop bitterness, it is easy to feel a part of the long trail of brewing history.