Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thoughts on Evans, 1905 - Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France

When I started this blog, I expected one of the focuses to be discussing the scientific brewing literature. The main reasons for this were because my training/background is in science and I enjoy reading the scientific brewing literature. And that these papers are not always open access, so by writing about them I could share a bit of the ideas they discuss for those who don't have access. There was a bit of this discussion in the early days of this blog, but not very much. So now I'm deciding to get back to it with some shorter posts talking about specific texts

To start this off I'll write about an article titled The Beers and Brewing Systems of Northern France written by R.E. Evans in 1905. Articles from this era of British brewing journals are pretty cool in that they are presented as the article, which was read by the author and a board of similar brewing scientists, and then discussed with a questions and answer section which is transcribed after the article. This text (and others from the era are similar) may seem more like a historical document now than a scientific one. This is because rather than an in depth investigation of the impact of some specific process/ingredient/etc., this type of text serves to introduce British brewers and brewing scientists to the way brewing was being carried out in other regions. So in this way this era of UK brewing science is a great resource for the modern Anglophone interested in historic brewing in the UK as well as some bits in non-Anglophone countries.

This text comes at a unique time for French brewing, and a unique time for western European brewing in general. Perhaps Evans knew the full magnitude of this when he wrote it and perhaps not, but it does seem like he has some good awareness of what is going on. Imported lager beer was becoming popular, fueled by recent advances in pure culture and also general advances in the ability to package and distribute beer well, and it was challenging the native beers. Local/regional and traditional breweries, and with them the regional/local/traditional beers that they made, were on their way out. Large scale brewing was growing significantly, and technology was allowing breweries to become this large. Evans acknowledges some of this change when discussing the acidic and vinous Biere de Garde brewed in some areas of Northern France. In Lille, he says that Biere de Garde accounted for 50% of the production in 1900 but by 1905 it was down to only 20%. Most of my following discussion of this text will focus on this Biere de Garde.

To speak further to the looming changes in French brewing WWI, which would greatly change the landscape of brewing in places like the North of France and Belgium, was not so far away. So in these ways the research by Evans captures a unique a moment in French brewing history - an industry in a upheaval with significant social/political/economic changes on the horizon.

Here is a quick write-up of some of the things that stood out to me in this text, focusing mainly on production of Biere de Garde which at the time is presented as an acidic, regional, top fermentation beer:

Regional split:
We see already that France is being split to a good degree regionally in regard to beer. Of course there had been regional beers for a long time and regional differences are not new, but this is a different regional split of 'new' beer and 'old' beer. With the influx of lager beer, some regions such as the north of the country, held out longer. Evans describes 6 counties/regions of France still producing top-fermenting beer (the old type) which contain about 2,355 total breweries, or roughly 85% of the total breweries in the country. These are preferentially clustered in the north of France and they combine for roughly 75% of total French production. Meanwhile the remaining 80 counties/regions, which contain only roughly 400 breweries, account for the remaining roughly 25% of national production estimated by taxes (suggesting that they a produce disproportionately high amount of beer given their number).

The largest top fermentation brewery at the time was in Lille and produced roughly 85,000 Hl. Evans notes that this is generally small relative to English brewing. He also notes that in general beer is not a major drink compared to what he and other English brewers are used to. No big surprises there I suppose.

Biere de Garde:
Part of this text discusses the production and characteristics of Biere de Garde (much of this is in describing the mashing as one of 4 main mashing systems employed in France).Biere de Garde is presented as a beer with a regional following, but generally restricted to that region (and not even universally appreciated there). As discussed above its favor was falling. Evans describes Biere de Garde as purposely allowed to become acidic and as vinous. They acquire this from extended storing/fermentation (vatted 6+ months). Evans lists a representative Biere de Garde as having an OG of 1.041, an FG of 1.001 and an ABV of 5.2%. Hopping rates were on the higher side when compared to other beers and were 1.75 lbs/barrel or more.

The mashing process described for the Biere de Garde of Lille (which Evans terms 'Thick Mashing') falls somewhere between modern decoction mashing and turbid mashing. Below is a schematic of the process which I created with my excellent artistic prowess (and to include an image in this otherwise text-heavy post). The process starts rather thick and cool, similar to turbid mashing and some saison mashes (see the Brasserie a Vapeur post). This is followed by an infusion to bring the temp up to roughly 50 C / 131 F. Immediately following this first infusion, wort is pulled out as in lambic mashing until the grain bed is nearly dry. This is heated in another vessel (a boil kettle will work, or dedicated decoction kettle) for 15-20 min.

The decoction of almost all the liquid has to do something to the enzyme activity. Perhaps the cool mash up until this point has limited extraction from the grain. But this process does differ in important ways from decoction in regard to the relative amount removed and that it is wort and removing it leaves the grain bed rather dry. Following the boiling, as with decoctions, this added back to raise the mash temp into the saccharification range where the mash remains until lautering and sparging. Given the total mash time listed and the steps so far (making some general assumptions for mash in and infusion times), the saccharification rest seems to be on the long end around 90 minutes or maybe a touch more.

Biere de Garde 'thick mashing'.

Evans asserts that this process is designed to yield as much free (which I presume means fermentable) sugar as possible. This is somewhat contrary to what I expected based on the decoction of so much of the wort and the impact that would have on enzymatic power. The decoction is described as wort, and encompassing basically all of the liquid, so I think I am correct in interpreting that it is not a traditional decoction of both liquid and grain. It is possible that by free sugar Evans meant extract from the mash rather than extract which is fermentable to saccharomyces. Either way, the extraction and preservation of unfermentable carbohydrates might be fitting in a beer that was intended to become acidic.

Other thoughts
Some other general parts that I found interesting were the overlap with Belgian systems from around the time that I've seen/heard about. That isn't especially surprising, but I did appreciate the crossover. There was a lot of iron equipment which Evans worried could leach into the beer and cause problems. I've seen (and tasted) the same thing in beers from Brasserie a Vapeur. The iron leaching issue seems to be sorted out now with a Vapeur, but a good amount of old iron equipment remains. Continuing with equipment thoughts, Evans notes that most breweries have two kettles, one main kettle and a second smaller kettle for producing low strength beers (and that this used to be required by law). The mash tun seems surprisingly large for the boil kettles. (the large main boil kettle is 1/2 the capacity of the mash tun). Evans also wrote that nearly every brewery did some malting in house, and this was generally floor malting.

The fermentation system describes seems unreasonably complicated, with beer overflowing vessels, collecting in tubs, and then being added back or not after varying degrees of settling and/or mixing, depending on the beer. This seems somewhat reminiscent of the Burton Union but much less elegant and much more manual. Perhaps those with more familiarity in British brewing could add a bit of insight into how the system here compares.

There were a couple unique beers that received quick mention but a whole lot of details. One of these was a regional beer from Douai which was not boiled and which received high hopping rates. Hops were added at a rate of 2.5-3 lbs per barrel at 194 F / 90 C. Just as the beer reached boiling the heat was cut. Evans describes this beer as destined for casks. He mentions a couple other rather highly hopped beers (one of which was bottled, so it likely had some reasonable shelf stability). This bottled beer, from Cambrai, was mashed on the cooler side (no hotter than 143-149 F / 61.7-65 C). To speak to hopping in general, Evans describes two classes of hops based on origin which were used differently (worse hops for bittering and better for finishing). The Belgian and Northern French hops were not in the finer category...

There's some good info in there about barley origins and malting. It seems that the use of African barley as fairly common. Other mashing procedures (which were more common than the Lille one which I described above) are discussed as well. And there's a bit in there about lower strength standard beers. Evans also includes recipes and processes from some brewers (with more or less detail, depending on the brewer) that might be of interest to folks trying to brew beers inspired by older French brewing and as further insight into the sorts of things the brewers are doing.

There more in the text as well and it's worth a read if this is the sort of thing you are interested in. And look for more discussion brewing articles in the future.


  1. Just reading a copy of it here:

    The way they cooled the wort sounds similar to Morton's refridgerator (seen here:

    Fermentation sound similar to some of the British were doing. Basically trying to get clear beer with minimal waste. I imagine there would be diacetyl present in many of those beers. It is interesting the beer was served in the cask it was fermented in.

    1. Yeah, I've seen those chillers before and I believe they are also called Baudelot chillers, or something like that. I've seen them in Germany and Belgium.

      Thanks for the insight on the similarity to British brewing!

  2. "Most of the larger breweries possessed mechanical cask cleaners, but labour was so cheap that they were not often used." Lol

  3. I find it very interesting that BdG was then described as acidic when I see its lack of acidity as it's major distinction from modern-day amber saison. To me (and BCJP, it appears) BdG should show malty sweetness whereas an amber saison can display a fruity sourness. I think the vinous nature remains in some modern BdG but I suspect no modern commercially brewed BdG has much in common with what Evans wrote about in 1905. Thanks for yet another interesting article.

    1. Yeah, there is a big difference here. The modern BdG revival was from a much more lager influenced time and I think it can, and possibly should, be seen as a completely different entity. Similar things can be said about saison though in regard to being a different entity to ~1900 saison. And there are some pretty malty/perceptibly sweet Belgian saisons out there (like Silly), though that is not the dominant type. One could debate if beers like Silly's ought to use that name but they are in the same region as modern saisons and the brewery has been around for a while so I'm certainly not in a place to tell them they're wrong. It's just not the beer for me.

      I think you're right that one would be hard pressed to find a modern example in France like what is described (both in process and flavor profile). There are aged brown beers made by some producers (like Thiriez) that don't call themselves bieres de garde but are acidic and barrel aged. I think there is the possibility for some North American producers to make some cool mixed-fermentation beers that they are calling bieres de garde and which might have some similarity here. But I would be happy to see more, and especially to see more in France.

      Thanks Bill!

  4. Great article, Dave! Is there any more information about the fermentation/aging profile of BdG? I wonder if it was similar to Flanders Reds with a 2 stage fermentation, or lambic which is primaried and aged in a barrel? I also wonder if they did any type of blending in order to balance acidity/sweetness like these other Belgian sour beers?

    1. Thanks Dan! It seems from this article that it was a primary in barrels. I'm not sure if there was any transfer, but as a baseless guess I would say not since it is already in barrels. Though with repitching the fermentation trajectory was probably more similar to Flemish red with faster turnaround and two stages rather than a long, drawn out multi-stage ferment.

      Unfortunately the Evans article doesn't give much more on fermentation/aging. Yeah, good question about blending and such. I don't really know anything conclusive here. But I'll put these on my list of things to look into.

  5. One thing I found interesting about the fermentation and packaging side, was that like British brewing, beers were often fermented in trade casks. However, BdG were apparently then left in those casks 6 months or more? If this is the case, it makes sense that they would develop a vinious character. If the were essentially open fermented until the yeast died down, and then fitted with a paper wrapped spile, (A practice still used in Belgium in Lambic breweries.) eventually after the beer had off gassed totally, the cask would then breathe quite a lot through the paper over the next few months, and would likely not be completely full either, promoting acidity. The part I can't work out is how then that these beers would be carbonated at all when finally served.
    I wonder if they weren't (as some British beers were) matured (vatted?) at the brewery and moved to trade casks with a dosing of sugar before being sent for delivery. Is it possible BdG were a close cousin of vatted porter (which could be even a pretty light brown color at the time) before the intrusion of lager?

    1. Sorry it took me a bit to get to this. And that the response is so wordy. You raise some interesting questions and it took a bit to refresh my memory and dig through sources for references.

      Good observation about crossover in process between Belgian/French brewing and English brewing. There is definitely overlap at the time, with info shared in both directions. I don’t know as much as I should about British beer history so I can’t speak with great authority to the specific similarity between French BdG and English porter. I think it could be likely that beers were fermented/matured in barrels as you say, and then transferred to serving casks later. This makes more sense for priming and handling and it would also make it easier to blend in a bit of younger beer as Evans mentions was sometimes (though potentially not frequently) the case.

      Interesting question about the possible close relation to porter. I think it is possible that porter at some point could share certain similarities with contemporaneous BdG but I think it is unlikely that BdG was that dark or that they had much, if any, similarity at the time period of the Evans article I reference in this post. At this point keeping porters seem to be rarely (if ever) found and porters were no longer brewed from 100% brown malt.

      Regarding earlier porters made with only brown malt, I think this is still too dark for bières de garde so I think the resulting beer would be fairly different. None of the kilning temperatures quoted by Evans seem very high (max 100 C). These are of the same range as temps for Munich malt, and certainly below the temps (held only for a short time) used to create diastatic brown malt. To really know what the malt was like for BdG we’d need to know times at temps, but since the malt needed to retain diastatic power, which would not be the case if it spent long at 100 C, I don’t think it could have approached the color of porter malt. There is no mention of the addition of a small amount of color malt to make up for the use of paler base malts if the base malts for bières de garde did shift significantly. Evans of course is dealing with malt around 1900 and I don’t know anything about northern French malt in the 1800s, so perhaps in these sorts of time periods there could have been more similarity. Most of the limited stuff I’ve seen for earlier malts of that general region (south central Belgium) discusses brewing with a single malt or blend of a couple base malts describes beers in the pale to amber range, so my hunch is that they still probably weren’t quite as dark. But I could be wrong.

      So to sum up I think the best/most clear similarities between the two may be aging and the acidification during aging, and the possibility of blending in younger beer. I think something like a Flemish red/brown, which would have been darker, may share more in common with historic porter. Michael Jackson says as much (as quoted in Wild Brews, p.46) when he points out that some attribute the Flanders brewing approach to techniques learned from porter/stout brewers and that he sees the same similarity but suspects the information might have flowed the opposite way.

      I do think it you are right that the introduction of imported lager beer shifted taste preferences quite a bit. Including toward paler beer and away from acidic beer, and this likely contributed to the fall of bières de garde, and some adaptation as they were on their way out and trying to survive.

    2. (part 2, I hit the max character limit)
      Regarding the barrel closure point, usually the modern Belgian lambic breweries/blenderies use silicone/plastic bungs and sometimes unwrapped wood from what I’ve seen, so I don’t think the paper-wrapped wooden bungs are very common anymore. I suspect that might have something to do with newer more regular casks as the paper probably served to help seal any gaps that the wood on wood seal wasn’t great. The only time I think I’ve seen it is in casks that are sufficiently old that they have square bung holes.

      You’re right that the barrels definitely do breathe, but I’m not sure, generally with the modern brewer, that the barrels breathe a lot/that this breathing promotes the acidification. The acidity is more lactic than acetic and O2 exposure wouldn’t do a lot to promote lactic acidity. Regarding historic bières de garde, some of the specs I’ve seen on the beers seem generally comparable to modern lambic, but with a slightly higher Acetic:Lactic acid ratio. So that may mean more O2 ingress in the old barrels/otherwise in the process compared to modern process and barrels.