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If you’re my father, then you agree that the first is definitely rock and roll, while the second is some kind of noise that definitely needs to be turned down. If you’re Wikipedia (depending on your most recent edits) then you classify both as rock, amoungst all these other subgenres:
OK, subgenres may be the answer! Perhaps we could all agree on what a true IPA is if we separate out all of the substyles first? But that is no small task. Looking at the above list, does Emo even count as a thing? Has it been around long enough, and is it important enough to make the list? What about Screamo? And just what is “Jazz” anyway? These are genuine questions (probably for Kevin Freer) and I don’t know the answers, I’m simply trying to make a point about beer styles, and our example style, IPA. The new 2015 BJCP guidelines greatly expands on IPA substyles, making room for Belgian IPAs, Black IPAs, Brown IPAs, Red IPAs, Rye IPAs and, significant to our conversation, White IPAs… but not “Hopfenweissen”.
So hoppy wheat beers based around Belgian Wits currently make the cut, but hoppy wheats based around German Hefeweizens don’t. That seems odd to me, because at least from my experience, the latter is much more common. So should we switch the two? Add both? Or perhaps try and include both under something like “Wheat IPA” and allow for further sub-types? And what about hoppy American-style wheat beers that lack the definitive yeast character of Wits and Weissbier?
Man, lets forget subgenres for now. It’s too easy to get lost in the weeds. If we go back to just “Rock”, we can see clearly that it changes with time. It grows and evolves as it branches out in new directions. Which is, of course, the whole point of culture. It is also precisely the problem with nailing our definitions down: music, like beer, like all of culture- is a moving target. You can only define it completely in retrospect. So, as soon as you define it properly, your definition is literally history.
SO, lets look at that history- the history of Bière de Garde- to better understand the style, and to understand how it got to be where it’s at today:
A long time ago, in a continent far, far away, I am told there was an idyllic land known as Flanders. Its eastern lands are now mostly Belgium and its western lands are now the north of France, but before it was separated, this land was united by a continuous patchwork of small independent farms that shared a love of beer and a need for survival. This combined interest in fine beverages and staying alive resulted in Farmhouse Ales. These rustic beers served as a way to essentially store surplus produce, and to provide themselves (and their laborers) with a clean source of hydration; water being rather suspect at the time. Because laborers still had to be able to work after a couple pints, these beers were necessarily low in alcohol, perhaps around 3%. Some beer was likely brewed throughout the harvest season for immediate consumption, but due to the nature of farming (very busy harvest times) and brewing (hot weather makes for poor beer) beer was primarily brewed after the harvest was complete. Farmers would spend the colder months of the year using last years harvest to brew up a large stock of beer, enough to provide all of their laborers with sufficient liquid to get them through the upcoming harvest. They cellared and cool-stored this beer until it was needed- so you might say that they lagered it. (If you were German)
Observant farmers noticed that there were two main ways to get their beers to stay in better condition while they aged: increase the hopping rate and/or increase the alcohol percentage. (Both hops and alcohol act as preservatives, which is probably why people who drink beer live such long and fulfilling lives??) After Flanders was split, there was a drift in farmhouse brewing styles with the Belgium side focusing primarily on the use of hops as preservative, which gave us the spicy, hoppy “Saison”, and the French side focusing primarily on the increase in alcohol as preservative, which gave us the Big, Malty “Bière de Garde” (which translates as “Beer to Store” or “Beer to Keep”, essentially, “Beer for Aging”. Though I do love the literal translation of “Beer to Guard”. Anyone who has kept a cellar or a special bottle around, only to have it opened by a “friend” or perhaps a visiting family member, can relate.)
So that’s the simple and romantic story. And it’s a good story! Bucolic brewers making authentic ales. Unfortunately, reality is never quite so straightforward.
For example, Saint Sylvestre’s 3 Monts is a BJCP classic example of a Bière de Garde. It was in the 2008 style guidelines, and remains a classic example in 2015. This is despite the fact that there is no reference to “Bière de Garde” on the label, and the brewery dismisses the very notion of Bière de Garde as “Pure Marketing”. They reject the idea that there is any kind of authentic tradition or defensible history present in modern versions of Bière de Garde, and – they have a point!! Historical versions were not terribly well documented, as they were peasant beers that didn’t leave the farm on which they were brewed, but we know that they were low alcohol ales, often soured, blended, and perhaps bearing more of a resemblance to modern Lambics (or perhaps a low alcohol version of historic English-style Old Ales) than any modern Bière de Garde, which is typically a high ABV lager! Historically, they may have even been smokey (depending on the quality of malting and kilning) and they most certainly varied widely in quality. “Farmhouse”, after all, is not truly a style. It’s better thought of as a particular mode of brewing, such as “Homebrewing”, and just as homebrewers vary wildly in their preferences, opinions, and skill levels, Farmhouse brewers did as well, and the type and quality of beer that they produced may have been many things but “uniform” was certainly not one of them. So how did we end up with “Farmhouse” meaning essentially two distinct styles; Saison and Bière de Garde?
In the more recent past, managers of small, independent breweries began to realize that they could not compete with large-scale industrial brewers by brewing Pilsener and other “generic” lager styles and thus began searching for niche specialty products to brew and market. Bière de Garde became the focal point of that effort and was at the center of the French specialty brewing movement beginning in the late 1970s.
Credited with pioneering the style that we know today, is Brasserie Duyck’s Jenlain Bière de Garde, an obscure brand that grew to prominence as a cult beer in the late 1970s amoung college students in nearby Lille, the cosmopolitan city of the region. Belgian specialty ales had just started to become fashionable in Paris and their popularity spread to other major French cities. It was a matter of time that the French would begin seeking their own specialty ales to drink; apparently, they found Jenlain. The success of Jenlain was largely unexpected, perhaps the result of “Right place, right time” (and probably due to an underdog status, not unlike the accidental rise of Rolling Rock and Pabst Blue Ribbon as cult favorites in the United States)
Most present-day producers of Bière de Garde acknowledge Jenlain as the archetypal example.
So, modern Bière de Garde, that Farmhouse Ale which is somehow a high ABV lager, is a result of something like what might have happened if Pabst Blue Ribbon became so popular in the states, that the US market embraced it as a prototypical example of a whole revived style; “Dad’s Beer”.
Perhaps this gives us some insight into why Saint Sylvestre considers the whole thing to be a marketing invention. Still, there is real history behind farmhouse ales, and there is such a concept as Bière de Garde (it is not a “fake idea”) so how does the modern brewer reconcile the two? What is “Authentic” and “True to Style” in a world that simultaneously recognizes both Punk and Emo as rock?? To switch the analogy away from music and into a realm where I’m more knowledgeable, I think comic books hold the answer.
Seriously. If you’ll bear with some heavy nerdiness, I’ll explain: I like to take what I think of as the “Batman” approach to beer styles:
You see, there is Batman as he currently exists, however that happens to be (which, last I checked, was as some kind of time-travelling caveman?) and then there are all of the Batmen that ever were. There is a Batman who jumps around on giant oversized props with a boy sidekick and makes punny one-liners, and there is a Batman who is a dangerous brooder that lives in a very dark world all by himself… without puns. Both are equally valid. Alfred is simultaneously an ex secret agent and a doting comic relief. Batman has a bat-hound and a bat-phone and tragedy all around him. All interpretations are equally valid, and as long as they remain recognizable as a Batman story, what becomes important is if the story is any good. Every fan is bound to have a favorite version of Batman, but no one version can truly be called “Correct”. The best we can do is “Original”, which isn’t all that helpful, since the original is a pistol-packing, sour-fermented Batman that few today would recognize! In my personal opinion, the best Batman stories draw from throughout Batmans rich history, while also managing to add something new to the lore.
So, with Batman in mind (like always) we decided to create something that we felt used the best elements of Bière de Garde: A high-gravity, malt-forward lager suitable for aging- with a rustic accent and a farmer’s philosophy!
Farmers, then as now, are a resourceful bunch, and they certainly brought that quality to their brewing. They were known to use whatever fermentables that they had available in creating their brews; whether it was barley, wheat, oats, honey, or even fruits and vegetables such as pumpkins and beets. We decided to honor this tradition by including a large amount of corn in the brew, which at this batch size, meant one whole bag.
We also included malted oats and wheat, and well as a generous amount of specialty malts, including honey malt (which is a unique malt said to produce a distinctive honey-like flavor) along with victory, vienna, biscuit, and red-x malts. Each malt contributed to to a sweet, malty complexity, while the corn helped to dry the beer out and keep it from being cloying.
Oh gosh, it turned out so nicely you guys! It is toasty, bready, and complexly grainy. Rich and warming, but stopping short of being hot, and really charmingly walking a line between clean lager character and spicy saison complexity… probably on account of how we used both yeasts!
We pitched two packets of expired yeast. (Resourceful! True to style!) One classic lager strain, and one spicy, peppery strain. This mixed fermentation is what really makes our beer special! To review; lager yeast is active at cool temperatures while ale yeast is active at warm temperatures. We pitched both yeasts into the wort at 12° Celsius and held it there. We had planned to let the temperature free rise after about half of the fermentation was complete, in order to let the ale strain (the T-58) contribute some restrained farmhouse flavours, as well as clean up and dry out the beer. But after only one week of fermentation, the gravity had already dropped from 17.2 degrees plato all the way down the 4.8! I can only assume that the T-58 is responsible! What a beast of a yeast! Even expired and pitched dry into high-gravity 12°C wort- it was active!! 12° is a temperature where many ale strains would enter dormancy, and certainly well beyond the normal working range of saison-type yeasts, which occupy the other end of the spectrum, and go all the way up to 30° +! Well, we still took the temperature control off, and, unleashed, the T-58 was able to take the gravity even further down to 2.1. Our final ABV was 8.3%. Malty yet dry? Yes.
I’m incredibly proud of this beer. It’s delicious. And for whatever a statement like this is worth, I think it is a great example of the style. And you know, despite working for many years for a company that emerged from Lille, a French city smack dab in the center of historic Flanders and the epicenter of the modern Bière de Garde revival, I have never had the opportunity to brew a commercial Bière de Garde before! It’s kind of strange to finally have the opportunity independently, but it feels right. What an appropriate style to attempt for Garden Brewers! How fitting with our ethos, and how satisfyingly appropriate for a name?? Bière de Garde’n??! Basically, I think we were obligated to brew this beer! And I think we’re already obligated to brew it again! I’d like to make it often! But, as good as it is, we won’t reproduce this specific batch; our Bière de Garde’n will be more of a style than a brand. Garden Brewers will brew it differently each time, just as Farmer-Brewers of the past would have done. Still, it will be recognizable as part of a thought process, even if pretty different from the last incarnation- a sort of “Batman in a glass”- if you know what I mean.
Since our Bière de Garde’n was brewed just as things are getting cooler and as we’re moving into the fall, I’ve decided to follow tradition and have put aside 2 kegs to cellar until next summer- so you can look forward to those!! If you lack the patience for that, 2 other kegs have already been reserved for our friend Jeremy Coghill at Lansdowne Brewery, a fellow producer in the “Homebrew” tradition. We’re also sending 2 more kegs as our entry into the WVRST invitational, so please try it there and give it your vote- if you like it! Finally, 1 keg has been earmarked for an upcoming tap-takeover with our pal Brad Clifford (Another brewer with Homebrew Heritage) Look for an announcement on that event soon, including details of our collabo brew: Labour Of Love, a Session Flanders Red! That leaves just 4 kegs to distribute around Hamilton, and I’m guessing that since we’ve all been earning our keep and labouring real hard this summer, they won’t last too long.