The good folks at Vanberg and DeWulf sent me a couple bottles of ale from Brasserie Castelain. If you know that name, you probably know them for their unpronouncable Ch'ti beers--it's something like "shtee." (This is how the French do it; they name their brewery one thing and their line of beers something else. My favorite is Brasserie St. Germain, but you'll only find them by looking for Page 24. You know Jenlain, right? That's Brasserie Duyck. La Bavaisienne? Theillier. And so on.)
Ah, but we were talking Castelain. In my first swing through European beer country, France surprised me a good deal more than Belgium and Britain. I decided to do a quick jaunt through the countryside to sample a few biere de gardes and call it good. It turns out there's a lot more than biere de garde in France, and furthermore, it turns out that there's a lot going on with biere de garde, too. I ended up finding more than I bargained for.
Saisons and biere de garde are usually lumped together--one of the great mistakes in brewing taxonomy. It is true that a hundred years ago the two styles had much in common, but some history happened and they diverged rather sharply. The biggie was the First World War, which cut right through the middle of the northern departments Nord and Pas-de-Calais--the heart of traditional French brewing. Breweries were dismantled, gutted, burned and as a consequence of the war, something like 25% of the population was killed. Add another World War for good measure, and the post-war period saw a 90% loss of breweries. Lager brewing, which even by the turn of the 20th century had grown in popularity, largely supplanted ale brewing.
The style we know as biere de garde emerged after the world wars as a rival to these lagers. Duyck's Jenlain gets credit as the first of these, born just as the wars ended. Very much unlike rustic saisons, it was a smooth, lagered beer (some are even now made with lager yeasts) high on malt character, very low on hops. Students around Lille began drinking it in the 70s and it sparked a mini-boom of ale-brewing in this style back in the traditional corridor of the Nord/Pas-de-Calais. (For what it's worth, saisons almost went extinct, too. They hung on by a thread at Dupont and Silly, but everyone else had abandoned them.)
It reminds me more of some of the drier, hoppier beers brewed by Daniel Thiriez and St. Germain. France is a hop-growing region, and many of the newer breweries have taken advantage of the local bounty. That Castelain, a stalwart of the older biere de garde style, is putting its toes in the hop fields is good evidence of the changes in French brewing. The market is expanding in France and drinkers are becoming interested in more characterful, hoppy ales. Even Ch'ti is getting in on the act.