The BJCP provides a fairly simple description of this complex and varied beer style, describing it as “traditional artisanal ale from Northern France brewed in early spring and kept in cold cellars for consumption in warmer weather.”
However, if you really want to get beer-nerdy and dive into the full histoire of this storied French contribution to craft beer, you must consume Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. This book describes everything from the history of the style, to how saison and Bière de garde intersect and differ, to how to brew variations of these classic farmhouse styles. I won’t attempt to summarize the entire book here, but I find that this quote particularly captures the voice of the author and his obvious passion surrounding these styles:
“Bière de garde is the most notable French contribution to world-class brewing. Present-day interpretations are broad and varied; the best examples are malt-accentuated without being cloying.”
The style originates from northern French farmhouses, where the beer was brewed for consumption by farm hands. It was quite low in alcohol so that people didn’t just pass out in the fields and instead continue to be productive workers throughout the day. Smart!
The name translates to “beer which has been kept or lagered,” which I faithfully did with the four examples below for approximately one week in my electric refrigerator, just like ye olde farmer might have done in Lille, France back in the day. Yeah, just like that.
BJCP Style Guidelines
Modern Bière de garde is “a fairly strong, malt-accentuated, lagered artisanal beer with a range of malt flavors appropriate for the color. All are malty yet dry, with clean flavors and a smooth character.” (BJCP) The style can have much variation in color, but the three main categorizations are brown (brune), blond (blonde), and amber (ambrée). The common thread between all variations is that this is always a malt-focused beer. Saisons can be similar, but the Bière de garde is rounder and richer and lacks the spicy, bitter character of a Saison (BJCP).
I drank the following four examples:
From light to dark color the beers were Avant Garde, Rubrique A Brac, Trip in the Woods, and Domain DuPage. All had fluffy heads of billowy bubbles, especially Rubrique A Brac.
Aroma: Candied raisins, barnyard funk, slightly sour, lemon peel, caramel, toffee, a dry, hay-like odor
Mouthfeel: Effervescent and fruity with a dry finish
Flavor: Musty, horsey, fruity (light strawberry juice), hints of raisin, slightly bitter, spicy pepper notes
Domain DuPage (Two Brothers Artisan Brewing) 5.9% ABV
This earthy amber-colored version has won quite a few awards in its category, and definitely lived up to its critically-acclaimed reputation:
- 2016 GABF Gold Medal Winner in Belgian- and French-Style Ale
- 2016 World Beer Cup Bronze Medal Winner in Belgian- and French-Style Ale
- 2014 World Beer Cup Gold Medal Winner in Belgian- and French-Style Ale
- 2012, 2010 and 2007 GABF Bronze Medal Winner in Belgian- and French-Style Ale
Aroma: Caramel, malty, cherries, toffee
Flavor: Caramel, malty, slight grain husk, sweet (yeast esters) slightly dry, and hints of bread crust
Avant Garde (The Lost Abbey) 7.0% ABV
For whatever reason, the brewery’s website refuses to classify this beer as a Biere de garde … uhhbutitisone. It was the lightest in color of all the examples, and the lightest to drink.
Aroma: Clean, lemon, coriander, wheat, floral, hints of phenols
Mouthfeel: Effervescent but smooth and slightly creamy with a hop-like, bitter finish
Flavor: Clean and smooth, drying finish, biscuits, lemon peel, flowers
Trip in the Woods (Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.) 9.8% ABV
This example was an anomaly among the group as it was the only barrel-aged version, and the beer was very different for it, and remarkably boozy. It was also really difficult to find much info on it, but of all places, I found the following from Total Wine: “Aged in Tawny Port wine barrels our Biere de Gard offers bright notes of stone fruit balanced with mellow toffee flavors and a smooth, round mouthfeel.”
Aroma: Caramel, red wine, malty, bourbon
Flavors: Bourbon, malt, toffee, phenolic, caramel, plum, blackberry
Finally, I’d be remiss not to shamelessly mention my husband’s recent and related accomplishment at this year’s Great American Beer Fest. This year, Matt had a heavy hand in creating and brewing Horse Thief Hollow’s award-winning example of this style, Biére de Voleur (“Thief’s Beer”), the 2017 GABF Silver Medal Winner in Belgian- and French-Style Ale. I added the tasting notes below for love and science reasons:
Biére de Voleur (Horse Thief Hollow Brewing Co.) 7.75% ABV
Herbal and spiced, this malty beer was smooth and toffee-like with a nice balance of sweetness, hoppy character and a dry finish.
Aroma: Biscuit, malt, hints of boozy sweetness, toffee
Mouthfeel: Medium, with some very fluffy bubbles and a subtle but tannic, drying finish
Flavors: Caramel, fruity, bready middle, and a quietly hoppy, but overall sweet taste to finish
Cheers, and thanks for reading!