Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bière à la Française

Monday last, I snuck down to Chick’s Café & Wine Bar to check out a seminar on French farmhouse beers presented by importer at large Dan Shelton.

This was my first visit to Chick’s and, though it’s hard to judge its normal feel based on a Monday night and a special event, it seemed like a place any neighbor should be happy to include on their list of favorite local hangs. Arriving early, I took a seat at the bar and, knowing I’d be sticking with beer thereafter, checked out one of the house signature cocktails, Corpse Reviver #2, a mix of Beefeater gin, Lillet and Cointreau, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a “whisper of Pernod.” Not bad, though I think the bartender for the evening was a little less comfortable with its preparation than its author, roving barkeep Katie Loeb, who was off for the night. After enjoying a brief spell at the bar, I climbed the stairs to Chick’s upstairs room, an elegant contrast to the cozy pub vibe downstairs.

Following a brief introduction by Chick’s Jon Medlinsky, our host took to the podium – actually, a mini-grand piano – and after a few jokes launched into a brief history of his business as well as of brewing in France’s northern hinterlands, from Normandy to the Ardennes and centered in the Nord-Pas de Calais. Dan’s company, Shelton Brothers, run with brothers Joel and Will, is one of the US’s preeminent importers of small production beers. Though they do have a moderately global book, their strength is clearly in Belgium and, proportionately, France. Dan wasted little time in making clear what in the beer world is meaningful to him. Many of his tenets bear striking similarity to those held by some fellow importers in the wine world. And, as is typical of just about every small importer I’ve met along the way, Dan is highly opinionated, very proud of his own work and not afraid to besmirch other products in favor of those in his own portfolio.

Dan Shelton takes to the head of the class.
(All photos courtesy of David Cohen. Thanks!)

  • Brasserie La Choulette, Framboise (6.2% abv)
    One of Mr. Shelton’s first targets was the prevailing use of additives – artificial fruit flavorings, spices and sweeteners for instance – in the current brewing community. In the case of our first beer of the evening, it was raspberry flavoring in particular which came under fire. In contrast to the many raspberry beers on the market which feature flavors akin to synthesized “essence of raspberry,” La Choulette’s Framboise is fermented with real raspberries. The result, though certainly redolent of raspberry, is more wine-like, less one-dimensional or candied than its artificially endowed cousins. Slightly cloudy and amber, bordering on purple, in appearance, its off-dry palate attack was balanced by an attractive earthiness and a hint of winter plum. Dan mentioned that this evening’s bottles seemed to come from a batch that was a tad less dry than typical. The brewery produces only 4,000 hectoliters per year.

  • Brasserie Thiriez, Extra (4.5% abv)
    Thiriez Extra is atypically hoppy relative to most French beers, though nowhere near in intensity to the average American IPA or Double IPA, categories which Dan more or less railed against for their tendency to be high-alcohol hop bombs. Hazy and lightly golden straw in color, the beer is a touch smoky and pleasantly bitter on the palate, with suggestions of clove and nutmeg. Though very light in texture, its flavors are on the dark side, with a lingering suggestion of molasses. I wonder if the smokiness wasn’t coming from a bit of reductivity, as citrus and other lighter aromas emerged with some airtime in the glass. This would make for a great session beer given its balance, depth of flavor and low alcoholic strength.

  • Brasserie Duyck, St. Druon Abbey Ale (6% abv)
    Brasserie Duyck first began brewing bières de garde (literally, beers for keeping) in the late 60’s in response to a growing audience in and around the town of Lille. The color of a new penny, St. Druon Abbey Ale – not technically a member of the bière de garde category – was round, creamy and a touch off-dry, with a distinct aroma of peach butter. After a few tastes, Dan pronounced the night’s batch to be slightly oxidized and missing, as a result, its normally bright hoppiness. When asked (yes, by me) what an importer could do to prevent damaged beer like this from ending up in a consumer’s hands, Shelton’s answer was essentially a shrug of the shoulders. He did make it clear, though, that bières de garde shouldn’t be interpreted as age worthy but rather as a style which can last for three or four months in the bottle. No matter what steps the importer might take, it’s really up to quick turnaround (and proper handling) in the distribution and retail steps of the chain to ensure a fresher product.

  • Brasserie Theillier, La Bavaisienne Blonde (7% abv)
    True farmhouse ale, one of only two beers produced by Theillier in a farmhouse dating back to the 17th Century, La Bavaisienne poured with a choppier, clumpier head than the previous brews, shone a slightly deeper copper hue than Duyck’s St. Druon, and threw a decent sludge of yeasty sediment, evidence of its bottle conditioning. Citrus, grass and yeast notes were backed by a solid, slightly creamy texture. In the late 19th Century heyday of beer making in northern France, there were apparently as many as 2000 different farmhouse breweries located in the Nord-Pas de Calais, more than in the entire US today.

  • Brasserie Theillier, La Bavaisienne Amber (7% abv)
    This was an off-menu surprise courtesy of the staff at Chick’s. Maltier and lower in acidity than the blonde, it was extremely cloudy, with an appearance not unlike fresh-pressed apple cider. Aromas and flavors were of maple syrup, caramelized hazelnuts and subtle baking spices. Medium bodied.

  • Brasserie Thiriez, Amber (5.8% abv)
    The second beer of the evening from Thiriez was darker amber than the preceding brews; think of a well-used three year old penny. It was also the second oxidized beer of the night. Nonetheless, it had managed to hold onto fairly explosive carbonation and showed fruity and malted flavors with accents of tangerine confit and apricot nectar. Crisp and refreshing, with a good malt to hop balance. I’d love to taste a fresher bottle.

  • Brasserie St. Sylvestre, Gavroche (8.5% abv)
    This was the big hitter of the night, at least in terms of alcoholic punch. Named for the street urchin in Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” Gavroche is bottle-conditioned, malty ale. Expansive bubbles carried a whiff of funk to the nose, along with aromas of toast and orange oil. A good cold weather sipper. St. Sylvestre is perhaps better known for its “Trois Monts,” which is the most widely distributed French brasserie ale in the greater Philadelphia market.

  • Brasserie La Choulette, Noël (7% abv)
    Another surprise pour, La Choulette’s Noël, as the name suggests, is a seasonal beer, brewed with local barley and specially selected hops. Round and fruity, it was less dry than the previous beers and showed flavors of spiced gingerbread. The Shelton’s apparently having quite the Christmas beer portfolio. This was a fitting addition and conclusion to the tasting.

Along the way, Dan drove home some of the core principles of his approach to beer and the related direction he and his brothers take in seeking and selecting the brewers with whom they work. Chief among those guiding principles:

  • Small producers stand a better chance of brewing a product with real character.
  • High alcohol may make a big impression but is not a desirable quality in a beer that is actually meant to be drunk and enjoyed.
  • Similarly, dry beers are inherently superior to their sweeter brethren.
  • Traditional, natural brewing methods, including slow fermentations, selected local yeasts, and minimal (if any) use of additives, are desirable.
  • Hops, more so than barley and other ingredients, are what give beer its sense of terroir, a sense made stronger in the bière de garde category by a connection to the season and to the farmhouse itself.

Surprisingly, he’s not a practitioner of paring beer with food. Nor does he think much of wine, repeating a tendency I’ve seen before in the beer community to have an “us against them” view of vino. Most controversially, Dan finished up his post-tasting Q&A session by revealing that he thinks there are only three good breweries in the US. Strong words from a man who clearly feels strongly about his beers.

* * *

Related stories and events:
  • Philly's own Joe Sixpack was also in the audience on Monday. Check out his take on the event -- Unmitigated Gaul.
  • The next beer event at Chick's: Noël Beers From Around the World
    Tuesday, December 18, 7:00 PM. $35 before 12/14; $45 thereafter
    RSVP to 215-625-3700 or chickscafe at gmail dot com


Anonymous said...

really surprising he doesn't like pairing beer w/ food. did he say why?
also, what were the three us breweries?

David McDuff said...

Hello Bill,

I was beginning to think no one would ask. The three breweries Dan mentioned were, in no particular order, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin and Lost Abbey.

As to the question of food and beer, Dan's obviously big into beer. But he's a vegetarian -- enough said.

Seriously, I think the whole concept/project of pairing specific beers to specific dishes just doesn't appeal to him. He didn't give any concrete reason; that's just my sense from spending some time with him over the course of the evening. I think he's more of a "beer for beer's sake" kind of guy.

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