Thursday, May 19, 2005

Brasserie Thiriez: Bieres de Garde as you've never experienced them.

French Flanders, the lowland region of Northern France that borders on Belgium, is the home of Bieres de Garde (beers to keep, implying ones to be laid down until needed).

These “country ales” are at once traditional and modern, having all but died out in the early-to-mid 20th century before being revived, usually with only sketchy references upon which to base contemporary reformulations.

Bieres de Garde surely are among the least understood and appreciated of formal beer styles. I fell in love with them one otherwise uneventful day in the mid-1990’s -- but not while visiting northern France, a momentous event that occurred later during our first bicycles & beer journey in 2000.

Rather, I was cooking at home, and chose St. Amand (Brasserie Castelain – currently in 2005, unavailable to us) to accompany a plate of pasta with garlic-laden marinara sauce, accompanied by crusty bread.

The rich, earthy, amber French ale met my spicy Italian seasonings and formed a perfect match, one I’ve never forgotten.

As Bieres de Garde have evolved, French brewers have blended barley malts in creative ways that yield complex malt character. Many of these ales are cold-conditioned (lagered), a process that rounds the sharper edges of the traditional ale flavor profile.

For the most part, the use of hops has been restrained, indicating a commitment to a balanced malt profile without appreciable bitterness, hop flavor or hop aroma, but as we are about to see, this isn’t always the case.

Recently we received cases of three pleasingly atypical Bieres de Garde, all brewed by Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France, a town located not too far away from Cassel, home of the world-classic beer café l'Estaminet 'T Kasteelhof.

These three ales from Thiriez add a whole new dimension to the reliable aim of Bieres de Garde, as they are enticingly hopped to go along with the complex malt, adding a mouthwatering “session” component to the mix.

Owner and brewer Daniel Thiriez, an escapee from the corporate world, studied brewing in Belgium before starting his own brewing operation. It would seem that his chosen mission is to elevate the hop from its role as insurer of balance to one of co-starring status with the signature maltiness of Bieres de Garde.

More power to him.

Thiriez Blonde
French farmhouse ale for the pilsner drinker? It’s a hazy, pale shade of gold, with far more spicy hop in the nose than malt, and medium-bodied at best. Hop flavor is up front, along with a lemony hint, and a lingering bitterness remains behind to demand the next sip. As with its sister ales, a dense and gorgeous head yields to clinging lacework from start to finish.

Thiriez Amber
French farmhouse ale for the Altbier drinker? Lightly hazy, amber/brown, pours brilliantly, with malt aromatics turned up a notch, and hop nose slightly more muted. My choice to accompany the mixed platter of local meats, pates and cheeses served at the Kasteelhof, as it bears more of a resemblance to the traditional style, albeit with more hop bitterness and flavor.

Thiriez Xxtra
French farmhouse ale for the unrepentant hophead? The hops in question hail from Kent, in England, as part of a European brewing cooperation program. As with the preceding examples, the crisp freshness of the hop character verges on the revelatory – there’s just more of it here, and it’s hard to imagine the aggressiveness being more immediate were the ale to be sampled at the brewery. Xxtra obviously is comparable to the elusive hoppy Belgian ales like XX Bitter and Poperings Hommel Bier, but it is lower in alcohol content, and with a musky, funky hop presence in all respects.

All three are currently available at Rich O’s, in 750 ml crown cap bottles (have a knife ready to assist in peeling away the neck covering), at $12.50 in house, $9.00 for carry-out.

These excellent ales would be recommended irrespective of national origin, but I like them even more precisely because they’re French, and indicative of a creative willingness to expand already delicious boundaries of a beer and brewing culture unfairly ignored by many American beer aficionados.

For further reading:
Shelton Brothers web page for Thiriez

La Brasserie Artisanale d'Esquelbecq (in French)

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