Sam­ple the best craft brews in a re­gion where grain comes be­fore grape.

France - - Bienvenue -

Imag­ine, for a minute, that the Hauts-de-france re­gion had been gifted a wine-grow­ing cli­mate. We would be toast­ing Lille reds and Ar­tois whites, and the rum­pled hills of the north­ern coun­try­side would be alive with sun-splashed vine­yards.

Ap­peal­ing? Per­haps, but then so is the re­al­ity, which be­stows on the re­gion a ter­roir that may be un­suited to grapes but nur­tures to per­fec­tion two other sons of the French soil, namely bar­ley and hops. So smile, put the carte des vins to one side and pull up a bar stool. This is beer coun­try.

“My grand­mother used to brew in her kitchen, mak­ing batches for the rest of the fam­ily,” says Mathieu Le­senne, the tall, be­spec­ta­cled co-founder of the Brasserie du Pays Fla­mand brew­ery. I am in the lit­tle Nord dé­parte­ment town of Blar­inghem, 45 min­utes west of Lille. “From the age of five or six I would help her, stir­ring, boil­ing the mix, even tast­ing,” he con­tin­ues. “So I al­ways felt a call­ing, you know? Ten years ago I left my job as a banker and helped to set up this brew­ery. It felt like the right thing to be do­ing. Beer is an ob­ses­sion for a lot of peo­ple around here; I’m one of them.”

This lo­cal pas­sion is noth­ing new. In the early 1900s, be­fore World War I pum­melled the area to a vir­tual stand­still, the re­gion had around 1,000 brew­eries, many of them tiny, fam­ily-run vil­lage op­er­a­tions that had ex­isted for gen­er­a­tions. By the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury, that num­ber had been dec­i­mated, due not just to war but to the in­ex­orable rise of the ma­jor bev­er­age cor­po­ra­tions, who smoth­ered the mar­ket with quaf­fa­ble su­per­mar­ket lager and largely did away with spe­cial­ist re­gional beers.

Brews to savour

But over the past two decades, the pic­ture has been chang­ing – slowly at first, then with mo­men­tum. Cre­atively minded mi­cro-brew­eries have been re­turn­ing in num­bers, not just here in the north but in France’s other main brew­ing re­gions, Al­sace and Brit­tany, and else­where in the coun­try. They place an em­pha­sis on beers that should be savoured rather than guz­zled. Or, as Mathieu de­scribes it: “Our phi­los­o­phy is to re-cre­ate the taste of our an­ces­tors’ beer – that’s the Holy Grail. We’re fo­cus­ing on our roots; on what we know.”

That doesn’t stop him also cre­at­ing a va­ri­ety of more un­usual craft brews – ex­pect ev­ery­thing from dou­ble IPAS to whisky-in­fused brown ales – but it does mean that the main fo­cus is on tra­di­tion. And in the case of the north, there is one ru­ral beer style that dom­i­nates: Bière de Garde. Trans­lat­ing as ‘beer for keep­ing’, it is a strong, malty pale ale heav­ily in­flu­enced by the re­gion’s Flem­ish past, and ac­cord­ingly by Bel­gian brew­ing meth­ods. When I am first poured a glass, it takes me a sin­gle sip to un­der­stand the fuss. The taste is deep, bold and lin­ger­ing.

Bière de Garde’s name de­rives from the fact that it was orig­i­nally brewed over win­ter and spring, then put into stor­age to be con­sumed later in the year. Why? Yeasts were no­to­ri­ously hard to con­trol in July and Au­gust, when the heat played havoc with the del­i­cate brew­ing process, so by mak­ing am­ple amounts dur­ing the cooler months, it en­sured that farm work­ers and vil­lagers would have some­thing to drink over the sum­mer. As a happy con­se­quence, the stor­age pe­riod also al­lowed the drink to ma­ture, and de­velop more flavour.

Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy means that any sea­sonal is­sues around yeast have be­come mostly ir­rel­e­vant. But the long stor­age pe­riod, and the changes that the drink un­der­goes in this time, re­mains one of the cor­ner­stones to brew­ing a true Bière de Garde-style beer.

The world in gen­eral has gone un peu fou over beer in re­cent years. Craft ale has be­come hip again, and in a big way. But in the Nord and Pas-de-calais dé­parte­ments, where the green land­scapes roll off un­der vast skies, and the hos­pi­tal­ity is frank and full, this thirst for beer is any­thing but a pass­ing fad.

My trip be­gins in Lille, the re­gion’s swag­ger­ingly hand­some cen­tre­piece, which has a rum­bling en­ergy that gives it a com­pletely dif­fer­ent feel to other ma­jor French cities. Mar­seille and Toulouse may as well be on an­other planet – even Paris seems dis­tant. The cen­tre is a maze of cob­bled streets and sky-spear­ing bel­fries. No one seems rushed. Even in the oblig­a­tory queue at the in­com­pa­ra­ble Meert waf­fle house, there is an air of pa­tience.

Maybe it is be­cause the lo­cals know a good thing when they find one. It is cer­tainly a great city for beer. A ten­minute walk through the cen­tre takes me be­tween two venues that il­lus­trate per­fectly the mix­ture of in­no­va­tion and tra­di­tion that de­fines the north’s beer scene. La Cap­sule is a busy, on-trend bar with 28 beers on tap, 16 of them French. The server has a beard, a back-to-front base­ball cap and tat­toos on his hands. When I ask for the Wi-fi code, he replies in English. “It’s nocrapon­tap,” he says. “All one word.”

Cop­per stills

An hour later, and a short way across town, I set­tle in for din­ner at Les Trois Brasseurs, a restau­rant that has been around for more than a cen­tury and brews five dif­fer­ent beers on site: blonde, am­ber, white, brown and IPA. Waiters scurry past huge cop­per stills bear­ing foamy tankards and plates of beer-braised lamb shank. Ev­ery dish on the menu has a sug­gested beer pair­ing. It is the kind of place that leaves you feel­ing frus­trated that you only have one stom­ach to fill.

Of course, you can find good wine in Lille, but in this city the grain re­mains might­ier than the grape. Just look at the rows of hop-gar­landed es­taminets (small, beer-fo­cused cafés, more of which in a mo­ment) on Rue du Gard. Across France, the na­tional av­er­age beer con­sump­tion for an adult is 13 litres a year. In Nord and Pas-de-calais, that fig­ure tops 100.

The his­tory of beer in the re­gion is a suit­ably long one, with the first recorded men­tion oc­cur­ring in the early 15th cen­tury, when the Count of Flan­ders and Duke of Bur­gundy – Jean Sans Peur, or John the Fear­less – founded a brother­hood ded­i­cated to beer. The Con­frérie du Hou­blon d’or, which trans­lates rather won­der­fully as the Or­der of the Golden Hop, was re­vived in 1962 and is still go­ing strong in Lille.

It is out­side of the city, how­ever, where I en­counter a place that per­fectly en­cap­su­lates the re­gion’s brew­ing tra­di­tion. Thierry Beck owns the Ferme Brasserie Beck, a hop-grow­ing farm tucked up hard against the Bel­gian bor­der on the out­skirts of the Nord town of Bailleul.

The time has just gone 10am, but he wel­comes me into the on-farm bar and pours out two beers. The drink is cloudy, un­fil­tered and dev­il­ishly good. “My fam­ily has grown hops for gen­er­a­tions,” he says. “Twenty years ago, we thought we should make beer, too. It’s only right.”

The end prod­uct, of which he makes around 10,000 litres a year, has just one point of sale: the farm it­self. “Beer has al­ways been a huge part of the cul­ture here,” he tells me. “Un­til the mid­dle of the last cen­tury the tap wa­ter wasn’t drink­able, so even school­child­ren would be given beer; very weak, of course. When my fa­ther was work­ing in the

fields, he would drink more than five litres a day. So it’s won­der­ful to see beer get­ting wider at­ten­tion again. It has re­gained its no­bil­ity.”

By lunchtime, I am 20 kilo­me­tres away in the hill­top town of Cas­sel. His­to­ri­ans con­tend that this is the very hill up which the ‘Grand Old’ Duke of York marched his ten thou­sand men in the late 1700s. Sadly for them, they would have been a cen­tury or so too early to en­joy a stop at Aux Trois Moulins be­fore they were marched back down again. This re­laxed café-bar is a clas­sic north­ern es­taminet, fes­tooned with knick-knacks, dried hops and old mir­rors. The beer is brewed lo­cally, the frites are cooked in beef fat, and the por­tions are gen­er­ous. I’m in heaven.

“You should al­ways feel at home in an es­taminet,” ex­plains Em­manuel de Quil­lacq, who runs one of his own at Jardins du Mont des Ré­col­lets, the beau­ti­fully re­stored Flem­ish gar­dens on the out­skirts of Cas­sel. “Like the beer, the food has to be lo­cal, and ideally home-made. The quin­tes­sen­tial dish is car­bon­nade – beef stew made with beer. Peo­ple say that an es­taminet is a bar where you can eat and a restau­rant where you can drink. For me, they’re the soul of the re­gion.” He smiles. “Find a good one and you never have to leave.”

Among out­siders, this part of the coun­try has al­ways had a rather unin­spir­ing rep­u­ta­tion. The clichéd ap­proach is to think of it as dull, driz­zly and in­dus­trial. Those who know it bet­ter point out that its defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics are so­cia­bil­ity and open­ness. Help­ing to bol­ster the lat­ter sen­ti­ment above the for­mer was the 2008 cin­ema hit Bien­v­enue chez les Ch’tis, which broke box-of­fice records with its light-hearted tale of a south­erner fall­ing for the charms of the far north. It may have been comedic, but it played a ma­jor role in re­shap­ing out­side per­cep­tions.

Ch’ti is slang for some­one who lives in Nord and Pas-de-calais, and has its roots in the lan­guorous lo­cal ac­cent – ‘ ch’ti’ is ap­par­ently a con­trac­tion of ‘ c’est toi’ – and is of­ten used in un­flat­ter­ing terms. Many lo­cals, how­ever, iden­tify as Ch’tis (“It’s a bit like a badge of hon­our,” one Pas-de-calais res­i­dent tells me), and tellingly, the word also serves as the name of the re­gion’s big­gest and best-sell­ing beer.

Brasserie Caste­lain brews four Bière de Garde styles, the best known of which is the Ch’ti blonde, a bright, 6.4 per cent ABV drink. The brew­ery has been in busi­ness since 1926 and oc­cu­pies large premises in Béni­fontaine. More than 90 years af­ter its found­ing, it still makes use of the lo­cal wa­ter and draws 80 per cent of its bar­ley and hops from the re­gion.

“We brew seven mil­lion litres a year and ex­port to the US and Asia, but we’re still in­de­pen­dent,” says Pauline Delille, show­ing me around the fa­cil­ity. “We’re proudly re­gional. Beer is part of our iden­tity. The value and im­por­tance that peo­ple placed on lo­cal pro­duce dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has now come back. Beer is def­i­nitely part of that.”

This north-eastern re­gion will never at­tract the kind of glam­our-seek­ing tourists that flock to the Côte d’azur.

‘Un­til the mid­dle of the last cen­tury the tap wa­ter wasn’t drink­able, so even school­child­ren would be given beer; very weak, of course’

The at­trac­tions are far earth­ier – in some cases lit­er­ally. Vast pyra­mi­dal slagheaps still clus­ter the hori­zons around Lens, where the Lou­vre Lens mu­seum oc­cu­pies a for­mer mine yard. The land­scape is also dot­ted with count­less war ceme­ter­ies and bat­tle sites, in­clud­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary Ring of Re­mem­brance me­mo­rial, which lists al­most 580,000 names of fallen sol­diers.

At nearby Ar­ras, a town al­most oblit­er­ated dur­ing World War I, but re­built brick for brick, life goes on. You don’t have to look far for craft beer or good food. And at Brasserie Saint-Ger­main, bet­ter known as Page 24, an award-win­ning brew­ery 20 min­utes north of the town, there is the per­fect ex­am­ple of the kind of high-qual­ity pro­duce that keeps dis­cern­ing vis­i­tors com­ing back to the re­gion.

“Mak­ing good beer is a ques­tion of phi­los­o­phy, not a ques­tion of equip­ment,” says Stéphane Bo­gaert, the brew­ery’s co-founder, crack­ing the tops off two freshly brewed bot­tles and prof­fer­ing me one. From its be­gin­nings in 2003, the brew­ery now makes an ever-evolv­ing range of beers, in­clud­ing an ex­cel­lent am­ber Bière de Garde.

“Ev­ery morn­ing when I wake up, I’m happy to go to work. This is very im­por­tant. We care about what we do. This is why good beer has be­come so pop­u­lar again.” He laughs. “But in my ex­pe­ri­ence, when you go to the south and or­der beer with your food, they still know you’re from the north.”

BE­LOW: Mathieu Le­senne of the Brasserie du Pays Fla­mand in Blar­inghem

RIGHT: A peace­ful cor­ner in Grand’place, Lille; BE­LOW: The Aux Trois Moulins es­taminet in Cas­sel

ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Les Trois Brasseurs in Lille brews five dif­fer­ent beers on site; The main square in the for­mer min­ing town of Lens; Beef, beer and frites – typ­i­cal es­taminet fare

ABOVE: Stéphane Bo­gaert, co-founder of the Page 24 brew­ery north of Ar­ras

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