France is famed for its wine, bread, charcuterie, and, as you well know, cheese. But beer? Unless you savor light lagers such as Kronenbourg 1664, France has few indigenous brews worth sampling. But there’s one notable exception, found in northern France’s Nord-Pas de Calais region, which abuts the English Channel, the North Sea, and, most critically, beer-mad Belgium.
In the border-straddling land known as French Flanders, local brewers specialize in strong, rustic farmhouse ales dubbed bières de garde, meaning “beers for keeping.” (Traditionally, bières de garde were brewed in early spring and kept in chilly cellars for sipping through the warmer summer months; they’re now made year-round.) Unlike narrowly defined styles such as the Czech Pilsner or German Kölsch, bière de garde offers “lots of freedom,” says Matt Brophy, the brewmaster at Maryland’s Flying Dog. Like the related farmhouse-style saisons of Belgium, “you can use bière de garde as a platform for artistic expression.”
Stylistically speaking, bières de garde register a fairly strong 6 to 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The hues of the brew can range from blond to light brown to rich amber, with a sweet aroma displaying a musty complexity, fruit, and perhaps spicy, herbal bitterness, too. The rich, medium bodied beer typically drinks smooth, with a lively carbonation and malt-forward flavor accompanied by a balanced toasty or caramel sweetness.
Though northern France’s brewing industry was decimated during World Wars I and II, numerous traditional bières de garde endure today. La Brasserie de St Sylvestre uses locally roasted malts and regional hops to make the gently sweet, funky, and bitter 3 Monts, while Brasserie Castelain’s Blond Bière de Garde has a beguiling fruity bouquet. American craft brewers have taken to the style, too, with terrific examples that include Two Brothers’ Domaine DuPage, Lost Abbey’s Avant Garde, and Flying Dog’s spring seasonal Garde Dog—“It’s light, refreshing, and still has a good degree of complexity,” Brophy says. “It’s not the expected spring beer.”
When deciding upon a cheese pairing, start out with a soft-ripened Brie. Not only is the cow’s milk cheese a perfect encapsulation of spring’s soft, milky rebirth, but its rich creaminess ably complements the sturdy farmhouse brew. If you can find it, try France’s earthy, excellent Brie de Meaux, California’s silky Rouge et Noir Triple Crème Brie, or, from Texas, Brazos Valley Cheese’s figleaf-wrapped Eden. One taste of that alongside a bière de garde and you’ll be in paradise, too.