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Serious Beer: Bière de Garde

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[Photo: Nick Leiby]

Bières de garde are the underappreciated French relatives of the more famous Belgian saisons. They were traditionally brewed in the winter and spring, and made strong enough to cellar and keep fresh for drinking during the summer. That's where the name bière de garde comes from—beer to keep. A bière de garde might be richer, sweeter, and more malty than a saison, with less spiciness, bitterness, and tartness. Bières de garde often have what is referred to as a 'cellar' character—an earthy mustiness that comes from indigenous yeasts in storage barrels.

The maltiness of these beers pairs well with light foods like salads, poultry, and seafood. For best results, let the bottle warm up a bit out of the fridge—45-50°F is the best serving temperature—and pour into a tulip glass or an oversized wine glass.

We tasted 15 different bières de garde from the US and France and judged them based on aroma, flavor, and overall drinkability. Here they are, in order of preference.

Serious Beer Ratings

5/5 Mindblowing; a new favorite
4/5 Awesome, stock up on this
3/5 Around average for the style
2/5 There are probably better options
1/5 No, thanks, I'll have water.

Brasserie de St. Sylvestre 3 Monts France, 8.5% ABV
3 Monts is golden yellow and crystal clear, with tiny champagne-like bubbles and a towering white head. Its aromas are delicate, with light grassy and floral hops, but there is no hint of the cloves, vanilla and white pepper that surprised us in its flavor. It's easy to drink this crisp beer more quickly than it deserves, or perhaps more quickly than is recommended for an 8.5% ABV beer. 3 Monts hides its weight well, and is very refreshing. It's the beer I'll be drinking with sushi this spring and summer.
4.5/5

Brasserie Theillier La Bavaisienne France, 7.0% ABV
This is a beautiful, copper-colored beer with a sumptuous tan head. Its aroma is sweet and floral, reminding us of honeysuckles. La Bavaisienne tastes like caramel and bread up-front, with a mild, earthy hop finish. What really brought this beer together for us was its mouthfeel—it was effervescent, sticky, and rich. I wouldn't hesitate to serve this as an after-dinner sipper.
4.5/5

Choc Brewing Co. Bière de Garde Oklahoma, 7.0% ABV
Choc's Bière de Garde was more similar to a saison than other versions we tried. There's a huge yeasty smell, with light clove and banana notes and a lemony sourness. The flavor is big and bold—tart and sweet up front, fading to an earthy, musty caramel and pepper.
4/5

Jolly Pumpkin Bière de Mars 2011 Michigan, 7.0% ABV
The nose of this beer has a sourness that reminded us of red wine. Tart cherries and wine-grape flavors come first, with a bready malt and a pleasant cellar funk lingering on the finish. The sourness, while nice, conceals the base beer a bit; we wanted a little more balance. This is definitely a sipping beer to share, maybe paired with sharp or pungent cheeses that won't be overpowered by its tartness.
4/5

Schlafly Bière de Garde Missouri, 7.5% ABV
We smelled melons, apples, and minerals in Schlafly's Bière de Garde. Sweet caramel and bread flavors are swept away by a well-balanced sour and bitter aftertaste. There's plenty of farmyard taste here: hay, leather, and minerals. We liked the carbonation and slight warmth of alcohol in this beer. Pair with trout sautéed in butter.
4/5

Page 24 Bière de Printemps France, 6.0% ABV
Bière de Printemps pours the color of honey and tangerines. Its nose is fruity and sweet- all pears and honey without a hint of hops. The taste is first passionfruit and pineapple, fading to a lingering malty sourness. Heavy carbonation rounds an otherwise thin body into an effervescent silkiness. Drink this with grilled chicken and feta.
4/5

Pelican Pub and Brewery Bridal Ale 2010 Oregon, 7.5% ABV
This earthy beer is more robust than some in the style, laced with caramel flavor and bready yeast. There are some fruity notes at the core: apricots and dates, and a hint of pineapple-orange, but this rich beer tastes mostly of malt, and is a little boozy. Pair it with aged gouda and crisp-skinned roast poultry.
3.75/5

Brasserie La Choulette Les Sans Coulottes France, 7.0% ABV
The beer without pants: a quality name. Its pear and floral aromas made us think of champagne. One of our tasters said, "I can imagine myself sitting on a haystack in France drinking this." The bready malts and grassy hops are toned down and subtle, and it finishes cleanly and quickly. Pair with brie and a baguette, though you can probably get away with dining at a table instead of on a haystack.
3.5/5

Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre Gavroche France, 8.5% ABV
Malts are front and center in Gavroche. The nose is caramel and honey, and the flavors are sweet bread and caramel. The finish is mildly bitter, with notes of dried cherries, grapes, and nuts.
3.25

Two Brothers Domaine Du Page Illinois, 5.9% ABV
This beer has a sweet, fruity nose with hints of plums and fig. Its toasted white bread flavors fade to spicy pepper and cherries in a mildly bitter finish. Domaine Du Page is served in 12 oz. bottles, and I can definitely see myself opening more than one in an evening.
3/5

Brasserie Castelain Blond Bière de Garde France, 6.4% ABV
The grassy hop and bready malt aromas in this beer reminded us of German lagers. Slightly sweet malt flavors are swept clean away by a long, slightly bitter, mineral finish. Castelain's Blond has a mild aroma and flavor, and makes for easy drinking.
3/5

Brasserie Castelain St. Amand France, 5.9% ABV
Maltier than its blond counterpart from Castelain, St. Amand has aromas of plum, caramel, and citrus. Toffee flavors from the malt fade slowly to a burnt caramel aftertaste.
3/5

Brasserie Bailleux Cuvée des Jonquilles France, 7.0% ABV
There are herbal tea, pears, and grassy hops in this beer's aroma. Its flavor is sour citrus and musty cellar, with a residual sweetness and tartness. It's hoppier and closer to a saison than some of the others we tried.
2.75/5

Southampton Publick House Bière de Mars New York, 6.5% ABV
Phil Markowski, the brewmaster at Southampton, literally wrote the book on bière de garde. His beer has caramel, malty aromas and flavors with grassy hops that are par for the course, but it's too unbalanced and sweet for our taste.
2.5/5

Flying Dog Garde Dog Maryland, 5.5% ABV
Garde Dog reminded us of a very mellow Belgian pale ale. It has all of the same peppery and spicy aromas and flavors of that style, just dialed down. It seems like more of a summer beer to us, but is optimistically released in January.
2.5/5

We tried 15 examples of bières de garde, but there are many more out there.What is your favorite?

Disclosure: All beers except for Page 24 and Southampton were provided as samples for review.

About the Author: Nick Leiby is a Boston-based scientist and homebrewer. When he's not drinking yeast, he's probably studying it in lab.

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