Newly reinstated in snowy Boston after a week in Paris, and avoiding stepping into the outside tundra, I decided now would be the perfect time to investigate French beer from the comfort of my couch. I realize that France is better known for its other alcoholic beverages, but thought that it must boast some beer talent, with its close proximity to beer powerhouses like Germany and Belgium.
My hypothesis proved correct, and conveniently one type of beer is more influenced by German brewing while the other borrows from Belgian traditions. These two major types of beer in France are bière d’Alsace and bière de garde.
Bière d’Alsace, not surprisingly, comes from the Alsace region of France (that would be northeastern France for those geographically challenged) right along that German border. Most French beer is produced in Alsace, including Fischer and Kronenbourg. These beers are mostly pale with some pilsner characteristics. I tried Kronenbourg at a lovely sidewalk café one afternoon. It poured a golden yellow with respectable lacing and smelled sweetly grainy and a bit hoppy. It felt crisp and light in my mouth, and the taste revealed a nice balance of malts and hops, with some grassy notes. I would describe it as a traditional European pale lager.
Perhaps more interesting and certainly more complex is the bière de Garde (in English, “keeping beer”), which originates from French Flanders, Picardy and the Pas de Calais in northern France. Bière de garde was traditionally brewed from February to March and enjoyed during the summer. This copper- to golden-coloured brew’s main characteristics are its malt accent and ale-like fruitiness, but it also has earthy and caramel notes. The beer is spicy and strong enough to be passed off as a Belgian ale. One very tasty bière de garde that I have sampled is called 3 Monts from the Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre. It comes corked and pours a bright straw color and is very clear. It smells of yeast – earthy and spicy – and tastes of hoppy bitterness. The taste is also earthy and maybe a little nutty, with notes of cinnamon, clove and white pepper. This beer is very drinkable – dangerous with the high alcohol content – even though the high carbonation will make your mouth “fizzle”.
Next time you dine at a French bistro or brasserie, whether in Europe or in the Boston tundra, why not forego the predictable wine selection and investigate whether the restaurant offers these tasty beers? You might be surprised by how well they pair with the French food! Salut!