France… via Bristol

The fifth annual Bristol Beer Week came to an end on Saturday. As I had zipped past this city many times on the way to the West Country or Wales, I made this annual celebration (as well as a recent relocation there by one of my wife’s friends) an excuse to stop and pay my first visit.

Festivities were just kicking off during our stay over an unusually balmy mid-October Saturday and Sunday, just enough time to get a feel for the city’s culture. Sunday morning was spent walking up the hills out of the city centre and into Clifton, the sedate suburb that opens out into open the limestone downland that peers over the sheer cliffs of the Avon Gorge. Spanning the Gorge is Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, a monument to engineering brilliance and dogged persistence. After crossing by foot, 75 metres above the muddy, swirling River Avon, we hiked back down into the city, through the southern tail of Leigh Woods and the rust-and-concrete hinterlands of Spike Island.

This route eventually took us through Bristol Floating Harbour, which, rejuvenated over recent years, is now the hub of the city and exemplifies its current culture and aesthetic. Youthful and yet family-friendly, shabby without being too chic, with a boxpark that sits just the right side of self-consciously “pop-up”, the dramatic jut of St. Augustine’s Reach between Queen’s Square and Bristol Cathedral enhances the sense that this city sits confidently on the water to embrace its dockyard history.

A cynic might describe it as Shoreditch without the heaving crowds. Bristolians would probably regard the Nordic maritime capitals as their true company: this town aspires to be a chaotic-cool Copenhagen, a steel-and-concrete Stockholm or a down-at-heel Helsinki.

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smallBAR, Bristol

Not particularly small

We were heading back to Bristol’s “Beermuda Triangle”, three excellent bars at the western end of King Street, for our final beers before the train back to London. Our destination was smallBAR, a curious amalgam of traditional pub, hipster hangout and log cabin.

Bristol Beer Week rightly celebrates both the legacy and current excellence of the South West’s brewing culture – local craft-beer stars Wiper & True, Left Handed Giant, Good Chemistry, New Bristol, Moor, Arbor and Lost & Grounded are all officially involved and brew special beers for the festival.

But, as we found at all the venues on our flying visit, tastes here are neither parochial nor slavishly beholden to American breweries or styles. Where else would you find, as I did at The Beer Emporium, Duchesse de Bourgogne served on tap next to a dozen local cask ales?

The contribution of smallBAR to Bristol Beer Week, in keeping with its dedication to the funky, unusual and extreme in brewing, was a celebration of sour beers both local and international. As we caught the earliest hours of the event early on the Sunday afternoon we had the full range from which to select, and they included two outstanding brews from our trip.

From Cumbria, Hawkshead Brewery sent its limited-edition, Bourbon barrel-aged Sour Cherry Tiramisu, a ludicrously indulgent sour Imperial Stout with a sweet cherry finish stiffened by oak vanilla and tannin, and 10% ABV. From Denmark, the ever-inventive and consistently brilliant Mikkeller shipped kegs of its Nelson Sauvin, a Belgian-accented amber ale that is a riot of vanilla and apricot, the sour and the creamy.

Sour Beers at smallBAR, Bristol

Celebrating sour beers at smallBAR: Hawkshead, Mikkeller, Woodman’s, Lindheim

For the second round we maintained the Nordic vibe with Norway’s Lindheim Ølkompani and its Raspberry Brett, a barrel-aged fruit beer that was missing a firm backbone of tannin but impressed with its pleasingly dry, fruity profile, and especially its profound Brett-barnyard character, reminiscent of a Drie Fonteinen Framboos.

Unfortunately, the local representative, Woodman’s Wild Ale from Cornwall, served up the most disappointing beer of our weekend. It’s Mermaid’s Kiss sounded exotic, but tasted exotic only to the extent that it resembled tropical fruit squash, over-diluted with five-day-old fizzy water, complete with floating gobbets of fruit flesh.

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We had been in King Street the night before, supping brews at the two other corners of the Beermuda Triangle, either side of a good dinner of tapas and sherry at Pata Negra.

The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer (the “Volley” for short) is a curious pub. It is old; but its size, its relatively recent refurbishment and its sports TVs combine with the spartan bar and its stupendous range of keg and cask beers to create the queasy impression of a hipster Wetherspoons.

Faced with such beer variety we went for a three-glass “flight” of local brews. Wiper & True’s Huckleberry Amber Ale was biscuit-malty, with a forest-fruits finish. An Autumn Saison from Lost & Grounded was, as the name suggests, too dark and Brett-accented to suit the Saison style but made up for the weird name with its complex and warming character. Finally, Kettlesmith Brewing’s Plotline Stout promised a lot with its espresso coffee aroma but came across a bit thin and dry on the palate – probably from letting a Belgian ale yeast loose on a fairly low-gravity wort.

A Flight at The Volley, Bristol

A hat trick on The Volley: Wiper & True, Lost & Grounded, Kettlesmith

It was unfortunate that the bar staff seemed frightened of exciting a foam anywhere near two of these beers, pouring into studiously tilted glasses to achieve millpond stillness. Do they not realise that, outside of the beefiest Imperial Stouts, beer without a head looks unappetising?

Duchesse de Bourgogne at BeerEmporium, Bristol

The elegant Duchesse

A few doors down King Street we entered The Beer Emporium, a bottle shop by day and a cellar bar by night, where it was once again a treat to see so many local cask ales being served alongside the kegged craft beers.

Already fairly beered-out, we were startled by the sight of the elegant Duchesse adorning one of the keg taps and decided to make this classic our last drink, paired with a packet of salty crisps.

Once you’ve turned to the Duchesse, anything else is bound to seem a little pedestrian.

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We were beered-out because earlier on that Saturday afternoon we had dropped into The Hare pub, a charming, quiet and friendly little establishment with a modest but very thoughtfully-curated selection of taps and bottles. Here we sampled perhaps the most innovative of the Bristol Beer Week’s events: a celebration of French breweries.

The selection of a dozen or so beers seemed tilted to Paris and its environs (rather oddly, as this is probably the least beery of all France’s regions). We decided on two each from two breweries: Brasserie du Grand Paris and Brasserie Craig Allan. Both were, until very recently, brewers without breweries: the former have shared premises with Brasserie de la Vallée de Chevreuse, Brasserie Parisis and Brasserie Rabourdin and are currently establishing on their own place; and the latter, a Scottish ex-pat, has been developing recipes at the Proef brewery in Belgium before setting up a full-scale operation in his farmhouse residence, midway between Paris and the Belgian border in Picardy, during 2015-16.

French Beer at The Hare, Bristol

Here Hare Bière: Craig Allan, Grand Paris, Grand Paris, Craig Allan

From Grand Paris we tried an oatmeal pale ale called Walmea Bay, which underwhelmed us as a sort of Sierra Nevada clone, a beer that felt, for want of a better word, strangely dated. The follow-up, a hefty Baltic Porter, was again competent without being exciting.

Craig Allan’s beers were certainly more eclectic and, to my mind, more successful. Agent Provocateur was a Belgian-style blonde with a Dubbel-level ABV but Tripel pretensions in its deployment of hops. Yet more impressive was the rather startling, dry-hopped Dunkelweisse called Cuvée d’Oscar: the first impression is the mango aroma of Nelson Sauvin hops, which recedes somewhat as the beer warms in the glass, giving way to a flavour like Gouden Carolus mixed with Franziskaner. Doughy and spicy, with mace and liquorice and a hint of rum and burnt sugar, this beer is undeniably weird, but in a good way.

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Why is French beer so difficult to find outside France?

There is no shortage of brewers. While most of its legacy breweries disappeared, consolidated and fell into multinational ownership after the 1950s, a stealthy grassroots brewing renaissance that started in the 70s picked up momentum at the turn of the century. There may be as many as 1,000 breweries at work in the country today. Moreover, they are no longer concentrated in the historic northern brewing landscape that stretches from Brittany in the Atlantic to Alsace in the east. In fact, the region with one of the highest breweries-per-capita ratios is now Limousin in the very heart of France, home to the likes of Bières Michard.

Nonetheless, a lot of non-multinational French beer is produced by microbreweries and brewpubs that are too small to export and, frankly, not really of export standard. But I believe there is more to their low international visbility than that. I would argue that a lack of distinctly French beer styles has stymied interest from beer lovers abroad.

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There are at least two traditionally French styles of ale. One is Bière de Blé Noir, the Breton black wheat beer speciality that has been revived by a handful of modern practitioners such as Brasserie Lancelot, with its appropriately Celtic Telenn Du. That style has barely made it out of Brittany and is perhaps too close to the ubiquitous Irish Stout to do so.

The other French style is the Nord-Pas-De-Calais region’s Bière de Garde, the malty cousin of Saison, the Belgian farmhouse ale. Is this really a beer style? One can identify a few determining characteristics – high ABV, an emphasis on malts rather than hops, some spicy and fruity ester and phenol profiles – but the appellation really refers to a rather indistinct family of farmhouse ales, usually made in Blonde, Ambrée and Brune varieties by the same brewery. In any case, this was how Brasserie Duyck, Brasserie St. Sylvestre, Brasserie Theillier, Brasserie La Choulette and their ilk launched the French beer renaissance in the 1970s and 80s, and Bière de Garde is the traditional beer, especially in its Blonde form, that the new wave of brewers appearing in other parts of France took up as their own.

I am sure it is no accident that northern Bière de Garde is the one type of French beer that has made inroads in other countries. When newer breweries move away from this style they fall back on U.S., Belgian and sometimes even English recipes: while the local market for these beers is clear enough, few in the U.S., Belgium or England have reason to take any interest.

But even Bière de Garde struggles to make much of an impact on the international craft-beer scene. No doubt its elevation of malt over hops doesn’t help. It also gets overshadowed by its more hop-forward northern neighbour, Saison. Why, for example, did Lost & Grounded choose to name the beer I tasted last weekend an “Autumn Saison”, rather than a Bière de Garde? Because Saison has achieved such resonance, such a level of hipness, as a craft-beer marketing term, that it now gets applied to an absurd panoply of styles – some of which could better be described with the French appellation.

On social media a few months ago, I saw a photo of a new beer from a genuine farmhouse brewery in England. It looked, and from its description sounded like, a Bière de Garde. The brewer had chosen to call it a Saison. When I asked why it had made this choice, the brewery responded: “It is actually a Bière de Garde, which is a type of Saison.”

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When the natural wine trend was in full flow I decided it would be a good idea to seek some out as a birthday gift for my oenophile sister-in-law. As luck would have it, one of London’s leading retailers was located in Balham, a mile or so down the road from where I live.

After learning about all the degrees of wine naturalness, from not bottling with fizz-suppressants all the way to harvesting grapes according to the phases of the zodiac, I settled on a couple of bottles.

It was only then that I noticed the shop’s impressive selection of beers, mostly from local breweries. I made a mental note to return on a beer-specific mission. But then something even more exciting caught my eye: in the corner, half-unpacked, was a large cardboard box emblazoned with a familiar logo – La Choulette.

“Oh, yes, I think the owner of the shop knows the brewer from his wine-buying travels in France,” the cashier replied when I enquired about this treasure trove. There were samples of just about every one of La Choulette’s range spilling out of the box onto the shelves around it. “He sends us a random box once every three months. We think we might be the only stockist in Britain. We don’t sell much of it, though!”

Well, I thought, as we haggled over the price of a quartet of unmarked bottles, I can certainly help you with that little problem.

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