FLAVOUR OF THE NORTH
Sample the best craft brews in a region where grain comes before grape.
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.”
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