In the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France, before the advent of the modern technology that brewers today take for granted, farmers brewed bière de garde, “beer for keeping” in French, during the winter and spring months when lower ambient air temperatures minimized fermentation problems. The beer was then stored for consumption throughout the summer and into the fall.
Although it is a rather obscure, rare beer style, bière de garde is produced year-round by commercial breweries with modern technical conveniences, like temperature control systems to ensure proper fermentation. There are still some small producers in France that rely on traditional, rustic, farmhouse methods, using locally grown ingredients and airborne yeast strains that are unique to the region.
The beer’s color varies from golden to brown and the flavor focuses on a complex malt body. Slightly sweet and spicy, when well executed it is dry on the finish. Compared with saison, its more familiar Belgian cousin, bière de garde offers less tartness and spiciness — that is, it is a bit less funky, with more focus on the malt and less on the hops, herbs and/or fruity character. Alcohol strength varies from 6 to 8.5 percent ABV.
American brewers take license with the style, using the tradition as a starting point. Stateside versions often use Brettanomyces, a widely cultivated wild yeast strain, to emulate the flavor of the original, indigenous yeast. One thing modern versions of bière de garde have in common with their old-world counterparts is time. After all, this is quite literally a beer for keeping, so barrel-aging is common on both sides of the Atlantic.
Kopstootje | Upright Brewing
A great example of how American brewers twist the tradition, this one is aged in vermouth barrels and features herbal flavors commonly associated with gin. The grainy character is matched with berry sweetness that dries on the finish.
Bière de Garde | Fremont Brewing
The slightly tart aroma carries through to the flavor, with a bit of fruity twang that transforms into a thick blanket of grain flavors, evaporating quickly on your tongue.
Keera’s Yard | Atwood Ales
Brewed on a real working farm near the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington, stone fruit aromas waft from this amber brew, giving way to flavors of caramel and toasted rye bread, with just a hint of fruity esters coming through at the end.
This article originally ran in the 2018 print fall/winter issue of Sip Northwest. For the full story and more like it, click here.