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In the middle of D.C. Beer Week, a celebration of American microbrews, Special Selections of French Craft Beer seemed like an affront, a duel, an effeminate glove slap to the face. But it was hosted by Brasserie Beck. I figured if that Belgian-only haven could open its doors to not one, but five, French beers, I could swallow my xenophobia for the night, too.
Then I found out the tasting would be led by Jocelyn Cambier, not only a Frenchman but also a wine importer, who had recently ventured into frog beer. It sounded as fun as being lectured on pizza by a Kyoto’s finest sushi chef. Yet there I was, off to hear about beer from a wine-drinking surrender monkey. C’est la vie.
But surely, even in France, there must be some beer worth seeking out, if only as evangelical fodder to coax wine snobs over to our side. If nothing else, I figured I’d come away with some new additions my food vocabulary (“agrestic”?) or a tip on expressive hand gestures.
Instead, what I found was a surprisingly diverse array of food beers that are artisanal in a way many microbrews are not: They truly represent the ingredients of the region the beer is from. American micros are notoriously heavy-handed, especially when it comes to hoppy IPAs (or hoppy anythings, really), and Belgians are Europe’s mad scientists, eager to employ wild yeasts, sugars, and exotic spices and herbs.
France, by contrast, is foremost about malt, the cereal grains (mostly barley but occasionally wheat, rye, and oats as well) that form the backbone of beer. France is known for its superior barley, and the country’s breadbasket towns like to show it off. The first sample of the night was L’Orge du Bouffay, from a tiny farmhouse brewery on the west coast that bases this beer on a family bread recipe.
“It’s very much a bread beer,” Cambier said, explaining that the brewery grows its own organic barley. I admit I spaced out when he started describing the sandstone deposits in the region’s soil (which act as filters and make for purportedly delicious groundwater), but I’ll say this for the dapper Frenchman: He showed the importance of locality. And all without a single utterance of the word “terroir.”
The L’Orge du Bouffay was indeed bready, with dry hints of cereal grains. (Think plain Cheerios straight from the box.) It smelled yeasty, like a flour-dusted kitchen filled with rising dough. Cambier said his favorite food pairing with this was plain sea salt, which seemed to fit; the L’Orge was a plain bagel in need of a simple topping.
La Drôlesse, a lager from Brasserie Sancerroise, was sweet with a strong honey taste, but still bready. As we tossed around words like “bakery” and “baguette” and “crusty,” I began wondering if all French beers would conjure these bucolic images of cottages and wheelbarrows, of tired, old farmhouse dogs and their dough-kneading masters with their knobby hands. Had I come with one French stereotype only to replace it with another?
Luckily, no. The rest of the beers varied from Saint-Rieul Grand Cru, a fruity, rich beer spiced with champagne yeast, to Brasserie d’Oc La Mouska, an odd duck of a digestif brewed with Muscat wine and a French form of grappa. Enjoy them with friends, or sneak one into a wine party and stick it to some beer skeptics.
Didn’t make it out but still want to work on your Clouseau accent? Here’s the Drool List from Special Selections of French Craft Beer:
- L’Orge du Bouffay (Brasserie du Bouffay, Carquefou):Dry and bready, with fresh yeast aromas. Prompted rhapsodic waxing about French countryside.
- Le Drôlesse (Brasserie Sancerroise, Sancerre):Sweet and bready, like a Parker House roll dripping with honey.
- Grand Cru (Brasserie Saint-Rieul, Trumilly): Blueberries, strawberries, and plum, with spices in the Belgian tradition.
- La Sancerroise au Gruyt (Brasserie Sancerroise): Babka beer. Molasses and chocolate sweetness, but dry rye finish. Dark spices like licorice, allspice, clove.
- La Mouska (Brasserie d’Oc, Mèze): Dessert funk. Grappa, lavender, wormwood/vermouth bitterness. With tannins from the grappa, this actually tasted a lot like sweet tea (as noted by fellow diner Kelsey).
Photo by Cyril Plapied