One style of beer that I am increasingly fond of brewing (and drinking) is the French Biere de Garde. I thought I would share some background information about the style and recipe formulation that I have learned over the last year or so whilst I have been brewing various versions of this beer.
This traditional farmhouse style originates from the French Nord and Pas de Calais regions….just across the border from the Belgian Wallonia area…a combined region that may be better known as Flanders, where Farmhouse brewing has a rich historical tradition. Indeed, the Saison farmhouse style from Belgium and the French Biere de Garde are often considered to be related, even though the most widely recognised commercial examples… Saison Dupont and Jenlain Biere de Garde are quite different from each other. This shared heritage often results in much recipe crossover in homebrew communities, especially in the choice of yeast that is used.
Without re-writing the entire BJCP style guide word for word, let us just take a high-level look at the basic elements of a Biere de Garde…
A fairly strong, malt-accented, lagered artisanal beer with a range of malt flavours appropriate for the colour. All are malty yet dry with clean flavours and smooth character.
So….a beer that showcases malt character rather than hops, can start malty sweet yet should finish dry, should have a smooth clean lagered character…and apparently comes in a variety of colours. The malt richness and complexity usually increases as the colour darkens (BdG comes in Blond, Amber and Brown versions) and lasts long into the finish but the beer should never end up sweet and cloying. It is perhaps this sweet start/dry finish that is tough to balance when brewing this style but there are techniques we can use to help achieve this. However, this is not to say that there is not any hop aroma or flavour in a BdG… indeed in the paler beers a little bit more hop spice or pepper is not necessarily a bad thing…but they are there to support the malt and complement it, rather than be a key component of the style.
So, if we wanted to put some vital statistics around the BdG style what would we see?
Well typically you are looking at OG’s from between 1.060 and 1.080 and finishing anywhere from 1.008 and 1.016 giving a reasonably strong 6.0 – 8.5% ABV. Colours can range from 12-37 EBC with bitterness from 18 to 28 IBU’s.
Classic examples demonstrate malt driven flavour and aroma, with a light to medium mouthfeel (full bodied examples do exist). There are minimal aromatics and flavours as by-products of fermentation, and both ale and lager yeasts may be used at temperatures between 12 and 18 degrees. BdG’s also often undergo a period of lagering, or cold aging, for between 4 and six weeks. Indeed, the name Biere de Garde literally means “beer for keeping” and it was traditionally brewed in the spring months for drinking in warmer weather. The best examples display a hint of hop character, most usually as bitterness to balance the malt and just occasionally as a flavour dimension.
BdG recipes are usually relatively simple affairs in the paler varieties with more malt complexity as the beers get darker. Most are constructed on a base of Pilsner or Pale Malt with the addition of a selection of Munich, Caramel, Aromatic, Amber, Biscuit and Colouring malts, depending on the style variant being brewed. Other fermentables will also include adjuncts or sugars in the boil, and combining these with low mash temperatures around 63/64 degrees is what delivers some of the additional strength, as well as the noted dryness in the finish that the style is known for. Traditionally, step mashes may have been employed, but with today’s highly modified malts these have fallen out of fashion and a single temperature infusion mash is commonly used. Do not forget though that BdG is essentially a Farmhouse beer and as such you could quite easily brew one as a “user upper” of leftover malts of various varieties. My very first BdG featured no less than 8 malts (including 5 different base malts) as a means of reducing stock levels!!!
In terms of hops, most BdG’s use varieties locally grown in the Alsace region (remember Eric Cantona’s advert for Kronenbourg featuring the hop farmers of the Alsace?)…most typically Brewers Gold and Strisselspalt. Ocasionally German varieties such as Hallertauer (a close neighbouring region to the Alsace) and occasionally Saaz also appear in recipes. Clean bittering hops like Magnum may be used early in the boil. Add in the fact that the French Nord region also borders the hop fields around the Belgian town of Poperigne then you can see that there isn’t any reason for local brewers to seek out nonlocal hops for their BdG’s.
Yeast usage is a little bit harder to pin down to specific varieties. As previously noted, both ale and lager yeasts have been used and several commercial breweries claim to use multiple strains in their fermentations. What is clear though is that two desired fermentation outcomes are the production of a degree of restrained fruitiness, along with a high level of attenuation (to achieve that dry finish I keep talking about). Many homebrew recipes will use Belgian strains, especially those sometimes found in Saisons to be used in Saisons. This seems to be a result of the perceived close relationship between the two styles however it is something that I do not necessarily agree with (I’d say they were more cousins than brother/sister). The Saison strains will introduce flavour and ester characteristics that, in my opinion are not part of the BdG style. I am not saying they would not create a nice beer, just that they just potentially detract from the malt forward balance of the BdG style.
I would rather go with neutral ale strains such as you might use for a German Altbier such as Safale K-97 (dry) or Wyeast 1007 (wet) than use overtly Belgian strains. However, if you can get it (it is a seasonal release) then Wyeast 3725 is an excellent BdG specific yeast, which will allow the malt and fruit flavours to shine in Amber and Brown versions. I have also used Wyeast 3726 Farmhouse Ale in a pale/amber version which delivers a very slight tartness which sits well enough in a pale style but I am not sure would work quite so well in an amber or brown version. More recently I have used Escarpment Labs Old World Saison blend in a brown version. Yes, I know what I said about Saison yeasts but I was struggling to find anything suitable and with a description of “complex fruit and black pepper notes along with a reliable, fast and high degree of attenuation” it sounded like it might not be too far out there….plus its allegedly a dual strain blend, so fits in with what many commercial examples might use. Was only bottled yesterday so no idea what the end taste might be like, but the dregs from the bottom of the bottling bucket were pretty damned good!!!
I guess we should talk about water but, given the real lack of information about how commercial breweries treat their local water I am not sure that we can really benefit from an in depth examination of French water profiles, other than to say, the northern region of France is chalk dominated, giving rise to waters with high alkalinities which would need some treatment to enable mash pH’s to sit in the desired range.
When brewing a BdG there is no real need for highly mineral rich water and I have found it sufficient to largely use RO water for Blond and Amber variants, or our local tap water cut 50/50 with RO water for Brown versions. Salt (CaCl) additions to raise the Calcium levels to over 100ppm and the Chlorides to around 140ppm (to enhance the mouthfeel and sweetness) are pretty much all that is required along with a touch of acid of your choice to lower alkalinity if necessary. Sulfates can remain lowish around 80-90 ppm for just a touch of balance.
Suggested Recipe Startpoint
So…if after reading this you feel like you might want to step out and try brewing a BdG, below is a rough outline recipe that you could use as a start point for brewing an Amber version of the style.
Mash low at around 63/64 degrees C for 75-90 minutes.
Throw 250-400g of Belgian Candi Crystals (or perhaps, for an English twist, maybe some invert sugar) into the boil for additional fermentables. We are looking for a post boil OG within 10 points either side of 1.070.
In terms of hops, French Brewers Gold or Strisselspalt will do you just fine if you want to remain authentic to the region of origin, though, as you will have seen, German hops can be used as well. Aim for an IBU around the mid 20’s…keeping the IBU:SG ratio around the 0.35 mark…use the Brewers Gold as the bittering addition to reach maybe 20 IBU, and use the Strisselspalt late in the boil to deliver the remainder of the bitterness.
Yeast….if you can get hold of it, I really do recommend Wyeast 3725 fermented at around 22 degrees. Failing that, for your first attempt, stick to something neutral like Safale K-97 or Wyeast 1007, fermented coolish…16 or 17 degrees.
Lager for 4 to 6 weeks before packaging….carbonate using your preferred method aiming for moderate to high carbonation levels (but not Belgian levels of high!!!).
I do hope you have enjoyed reading this missive about a style that is, in my opinion, not as popular as it should be. The wide range in colour variations and associated malt profiles gives the homebrewer a decent amount of latitude within which to experiment….not to mention that it is a great style to brew to use up a few bits of miscellaneous malt that you have got lying around.
For further reading, I can do no more than recommend the book “Farmhouse Ales” by Phil Markowski, which gives an in-depth guide to both the Biere de Garde style and to its relation, Saison.
Sadly, commercial examples of BdG are difficult to obtain here in the UK. Morrison’s have been known to sell Goudale and Aldi sell a passable BdG called Bierre Millesimee. You will also occasionally spot Ch’ti Ambree on supermarket shelves. Other than that, you are consigned to searching the stocks of online suppliers and specialist retailers, if you can source any of the following, then you are in for a treat…
- Brasserie Duyck – Jenlain (the Amber is considered the flagship beer, but I have much love for the Blond)
- Brasserie St. Sylvestre – Gavroche (you may also find Trois Monts from the same brewery)
- Brasserie Theillier – La Bavaisienne
- Brasserie Thiriez – L’Ambre D’Esquelbecq