03 June 2006

Allez les Bleus! (et les blondes et les blanches)

So, recently I was complaining about Ch'ti, and about how France can do better beer. I'm back from France now and can confirm that there is a vast and fascinating brewing tradition in the area of north France which backs on to Flanders. And I didn't even touch the Jenlain.

Starting with one of the more prosaic, barbecue lagers, we have something called 33 Export which is drier than your average lager, and slightly, but not unpleasantly, bitter. It works well as an aperitif, I found. Moving up a level, Pelforth is a fairly ubiquitous brand. The blonde has a strong sticky honey flavour which is delicious. The brune is also sticky, but in a caramel sort of way, with a touch of coffee. Surprisingly easy drinking, for all that.

No visit to France would be complete without some Kronenbourg. They make Wilfort, which is a very thick, dark, sweet beer, similar to a Czech or German dunkel. Quite impressive, given that most of what Kronenbourg make is muck.

The Fischer brewery in Alsace had a number of beers on the shelves in Pas-de-Calais. Their ordinary lager is another of the dry ones. It has a sharp, tangy flavour and a heavy fizz, creating a sensation not unlike drinking mineral water.

The main St. Omer brewery makes four artisan style beers, sold in 65cl swingtop bottles. Blonde de Brasseurs is the lager, and is fairly humdrum: the least interesting of the strong lagers I tried. Pelforth set the standard here. Blanche de Brasseurs is similarly unimpressive: dry and ash-bitter, like Ch'ti Blanche. The Brune de Brasseurs is decent, however: very caramelly and sweet. I was glad that the bottle was only 65cl instead of the stanard 75: this was tough, heavy going. Finally, Réserve de Brasseurs, the ambrée, was the best of them. This is a light ale, clearly related to the Brune but much easier-going.

On to the smaller breweries, producing the bigger, corked, bottles. Vivat is a smooth, dry, malty lager, while the blonde made by Abbatiale de Sant Amand is gently flavoured with juniper berries, giving it a subtle but strong geniver taste. The other Sant Amand I tried was their Speciale Noel beer: this is a copper-coloured ale, spiced with almond, coriander and lots more besides. The overall effect is of Christmas pudding as a beer. In season, this would really be a winner. Goudale is another common artisan blonde beer from the area. It has the rich honey taste but without any of the sticky cloying one might expect, plus a gentle fizz, making this a very easy-drinking beer.

There are a number of brewpubs in the area, most of which belong to the Les 3 Brasseurs chain. This afternoon I visited the branch in the Cité Europe shopping centre in Coquelles, called Le Moulin à Bière. It's a fairly normal looking shopping centre food court family restaurant, which just happens to have a working brewery along one wall. They do four beers in unsurprising genres: the blonde is dry and crisp; the brune is heavy and stouty; the ambrée is quite light; and the blanche is the best: soft and lemony. What spoiled all of these, except the last, is that they carried a distinct aftertaste of fish. On the blonde and ambrée it was particularly unpleasant. The blanche had a little bit of a fish kick too, but given the lemon element, it worked with the flavour rather than against it. I'm all in favour of novel ingredients in beer, but I think something may have gone wrong with the recipe here.

And on to the top prize so far. Christophe Noyon appears to be the area's only Big Name Brewer. He makes two main beers. 2 Caps is a cloudy blonde which is fantastically smooth and wheaty: utterly refreshing. Blanche de Wissant is streets ahead of all the area's blanches, being very light and gently frangranced with a bittersweet lemon aroma. Both are very high quality product. M. Noyon has teamed up with the area's Big Name Cheesemaker (Philippe Olivier) to make a special beer-for-cheese. A bottle is in my bag somewhere and I'm really looking forward to making a report.

Also in my bag are some beers from the Audmaroise microbrewery in St. Omer, and a few other odds and sods, which will keep me in blog entries for the next couple of weeks. For the moment, I shall say that the beer tourist could do a lot worse than travelling the roads of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, between the endless fields of barley, picking up some samples of some really top class beer on the way round.

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