I’d been looking forward to traveling to France for a long time. Really since 2016, when I tried to visit Mont des Cats café only to have the word “Ferme!” repeated to me several times. I also decided I would learn some French before I came back.
One major reason that France felt like a bit of a pilgrimage is that I consider French Saison to be ‘my beer.’ Mostly because they are hard to find, so I have to make (and drink) my own. That recipe has merited some shiny awards over the years and I wanted to see how close I really was to the “authentic” thing.
Though it is mostly hearsay, beer legend has it that my beloved French Saison yeast (specifically Wyeast 3711 for brewers out there) traces its origins back to Brasserie Thiriez, a small brewery in the quaint village of Esquelbecq, that I (incorrectly) assumed specialized in Saison.
Thiriez blends right in with the village. The building could be mistaken for a large house with a detached garage if you didn’t know what was inside.
Clara, one of less than a dozen Thiriez employees and our tour guide for the day, took us on a tour of the brew house. It was quick, Covid after all, but it was enough to see that Thiriez operated on a blend of modern equipment (the typical stainless steel brew house and fermenters) and manual labor (a small bottling line that is fed by hand). Fermenters fitted with mismatched plastic buckets try to contain vigorous blow off from the active fermentation inside. Cardboard boxes and reusable plastic crates form stacks wherever there is room.
A brewer was weighing massive bowls of white sugar to prime beer for bottle conditioning. Just like I do at home for my Saisons. We saw the foeders where beer was fermented with the solera method for several years. (Every so often some beer is removed for packaging and then the foeder is topped with fresh beer creating a blend that spans several years.)
All in all, not too different from breweries I’ve seen before, but at the tasting I was looking forward to experiencing something new. Almost immediately upon walking to the back of the vacant tasting room Clara told me that La Blonde d’Esquelbecq, a pale Biere de Garde, was by far their most popular offering. At my Saison brewery?!
She went on to say people here (France), prefer their beers a bit heavier and a bit more sweet. They like the Thiriez Biere de Gardes, wheat beers, and Porter much better than their Saison.
The pale Biere de Garde I was tasting fit her description of what French people like to drink perfectly. A rounded malt flavor like a golden biscuit, with just a faint hint of that white pepper and lemon yeast character I love so much, and a whisper of floral and orange zest from hops like Strisselspalt.
The balance between the full mouthfeel and the dry finish was impressive, something I’ve read about when it comes to Biere de Garde, but never really experienced. It’s like something silky that immediately evaporates upon swallowing leaving no sign on the palate that it was ever there in the first place. Other Biere de Gardes I tried on the trip like Jenlain and Ch’ti didn’t quite achieve this balance of fullness and clean finish that I had assumed was a signature of the style.
After tasting a nuttier red Biere de Garde, La Rouge Flamande (named for a breed of cow native to the region) and an amber one with hints of caramel and a more rich mouthfeel, L’Ambrée d’Esquelbecq, it was Saison time!!
Brasserie Thiriez L’Etoile du Nord – Saison or Not Saison?
Brasserie Thiriez L’Etoile du Nord (exported to the U.S. as Thiriez Extra ) is their hoppy pale ale, that Clara herself described as a Saison. It features Bramling Cross hops, an uncommon UK variety with a flavor profile that mimics French Saison yeast character: plenty of black and white pepper with a touch of coriander. It’s a complex beer that takes a couple sips to sort out. What is hop character, what is yeast character, and how does the balance settle out?
In this one, malt sits firmly in the backseat with yeast and hops mingling so seamlessly that it is hard to decide which takes the lead, not that I needed to. What I did decide, or maybe more like realize, is that this fabled Thiriez yeast, though peppery, dry, and absolutely delicious; was more a distant cousin of the French Saison yeast packets sitting at home in my fridge nearly four thousand miles away.
And the more a sipped and thought the more that fact made sense to me. Of course, yeast is a living, changing, organism. Maybe there was a time when Brasserie Thiriez yeast tasted exactly like 3711, or maybe the original sample from Thierez had already morphed before it ever made it to a lab stateside.
Either way it doesn’t really matter. What is important is this trip, my yeast-y mission, and this tasting served to remind me of the most enduring fact about farmhouse beer, you can’t nail them down and you shouldn’t try!