In spite of all her protests friends of Anna Hyman still maintain that her visit to the Nord-Pas- de -Calais region of France to learn more about brewing was actually one glorified pub crawl!
There used to be scores of small local breweries in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France but with the decline of coal mining to say nothing of industrialisation and two ghastly world wars they more or less vanished, their place taken over by industrialised brewing and lager style beers.
However, I am thrilled to report that the interest in craft beer brewed by artisan brewers in Nord-Pas-de-Calais is very much alive, well, and indeed, thriving. One of the reasons it is thriving is because the brewers are once again brewing their beers to local tastes, using local ingredients – even if they are using more modern techniques. The result is beers of character with flavour and aroma.
Basically, to make beer you need grain, (usually malted barley), water, hops and yeast. The malted barley is steeped in hot water, which eventually produces a sugary liquid known as wort. The wort is strained off, mixed with hops and boiled. Eventually this is cooled down and put into a fermentation tank with yeast. The yeast feeds on the sugars creating carbon dioxide and alcohol!
The brewers of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais are treating this basic brewing process rather like chefs vary a basic recipe adding their own subtle variations. Different hop varietals grown in different locations make a difference to the finished product, likewise so do the additions of fruit, spices and even flowers.
But first lunch on board DFDS
Before we started our brewery tour we decided it would be sensible to have lunch before we started imbibing.
Our first brewery was just outside Lens, so to save us from having to stop on the road for a snack we decided it best to eat on board our DFDS ferry. We had treated ourselves to an upgrade to premium lounge; and a very good lunch they produced too.
We found the micro-brewery Brasserie Castelain in the small village of Bénifontaine.
Beer has been brewed in the village since 1926, skills handed down from generation to generation and the family run Castelain Brewery, established in 1956, carries on that tradition producing amongst several different styles the acclaimed and award-winning CH’TI beer.
CH’TI Blonde was actually introduced to the world in 1979. After the brewing and fermentation process it is left for many weeks in storage tanks to mature and develop its famous sparkle and flavour. It all started the year before when a beer brewed for Christmas proved so popular that customers demanded it be available throughout the year.
It was closely followed by Ambrée, rated as one of the best beers in the world; and in 1997 by Triple at 8.3% a rich, flavourful and powerful beer. They also produce a gluten free beer. http://brasseriecastelain.com/en/
The stunning Louvre-Lens museum
Whilst we were in the vicinity of Lens, we couldn’t resist calling in at the stunning Louvre-Lens museum. This offshoot of the famous Paris Louvre museum was built on the site of a former mining yard.
In its modern open-plan interior exhibits are displayed on a time-line from ancient to modern. louvre.fr/en/louvre-lens-0
Brasserie Saint Germain
Back on the road we called in at the award-winning brasserie Saint-Germain renowned for its most celebrated and famous beer – Page 24.
Beer, and everything involved with it, has long been a passion for Vincent Bogaert. So much so that in 2003 he, along with Stéphane Bogaert and Hervé Descamps, bought an old building and started their own brewery, determined not only to bring back the old brewing traditions of the area but also to adapt them to the 21st century.
Local hops and a long maturing time
They like to use local hops whenever possible. Currently there are less than 10 hop producers in the area and as the men point out if the growers are not supported, they will go out of business and local hops will cease to exist.
The Saint-Germain brewing process takes two months, plus 24 days extra maturing time. Added to that their superb unfiltered, unpasteurized Page 24 beer is aged for eight months in oak casks which had previously held wines from Burgundy, hence the tantalising hints of wood and wine.
I loved their fresh tangy tasting Rhub’IPA, it actually contains rhubarb juice; and I also loved their gold medal La Hildegarde Blonde, named in honour of Hildegarde of Bingen an Abbess in the 12th century.
Page 24 and spirits
But why the name Page 24, we wanted to know. Apart from the extra 24 days maturing time they explained that Hildegard who was also a botanist and brewer had realised that hops not only had special qualities but also added a bitter quality to the brew.
She wrote treatises on herbal medicine and mysticism plus one treatise which, it is alleged, on page 24 she expressed her views about the benefits of drinking beer.
Not content with making their stunning beers the three guys are turning their attention to gin and whisky production too.
Both promise to be good – another feather in the Page 24 cap. page24.fr
A Combeer tour was the answer
All too well aware that our poor driver had not been able to sample any of the beers from the day before, we had decided to take one of Les Belles Eschappées Combeer tours.
This proved to be an out and out success, and with owner Bruno Delforge at the wheel of one of his vintage VWs we set off along the pretty country lanes of the marais district around St Omer in search of breweries.
First stop was at Brasserie Goudale on the outskirts of Arques, our guided tour beginning with a film explaining the background of brewing and of the brewery. Goudale was also the oldest brewery on our brew crawl.
It dates back to 1919 having started virtually as a home brewing operation before expanding into the high tech organisation it is today producing over 30 different styles of beer.
A high tech brewery
Brasserie Goudale is high tech and I think we all gasped as our guide Anne-Sophie led us upstairs and onto the broad, high walkways allowing us ‘birds-eye’ views of the machines which moved and packed bottles, crates and pallets of beer turning the procedure into a skilfully choreographed and effortless performance.
With so many different beers to sample in the tasting room it was hard to know where to start. Do try the deservedly popular brews La Goudale and La Géant, the award winning Triple Secret des Moines Blonde and Brune.
In the tasting room
And do try Belzebuth. We had looked doubtfully at the bright, rather lurid colours of the bottles but the contents we decided were deliciously fresh tasting – great for outdoor drinking on a hot summer’s day. Cranberries gave Belzebuth Red a fresh, and fruity, tartness. But for a couple of us our favourite was low alcohol Belzebuth Pink with its tang of raspberries with hints of coriander and curaçao.
The shop is an Aladdin’s cave of delights. Whilst nothing to do with beer, even the visit to the loo proved interesting – take note of the unusual taps and washbasins. brasserie-goudale.com/
Brasserie du pays Flamand
The Brasserie du pays Flamand was founded in 2006 by two friends Olivier Duthoit and Mathieu Lesenne in what had actually been a distillery before WW2.
Demand for their beers has increased so much they now have a another production unit at Merville, but the old Blaringhem brewery is special and still plays a significant role in the Brasserie’s history.
Apart from learning about brewing we also had an excellent unpretentious lunch at Blaringham’s Anosteké l’Estaminet, the restaurant was crowded but the wait for the seasonal, freshly cooked dishes was worth it.
The restaurant takes its name from one of their high fermentation and most popular brews – the hoppy Anosteké.
The restaurant might well have been named after another of the distinctive and very special beers – Wilde Leeuw – matured in oak barrels that were previously home to the likes of Burgundy wines, bourbon, whisky or cognac.
Guided Tours and workshops
Incidentally Brasserie du pays Flamand along with excellent guided tours also hold specialised workshops which cover the complexities of brewing as well as how to brew your own beer. brasseriedupaysflamand.com
Brasserie due Mont Cassel
Driver Bruno had shown us an example of a high tech brewery, as well as one with a somewhat more hands on approach, but the final brewery in the picturesque hill top town of Mont Cassel was different yet again.
For a start the brewery is small; a one man band operation and for another it produces the delicious Bière du Reuze.
One of Cassel’s claims to fame is that a couple or so years ago it won the award of France’s favourite village.
The town dates back to Roman times and apart from the small brewery is also noted for a lovely old wooden windmill, stunning views out over the surrounding countryside, and several annual festivals which always include two huge puppets – Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman (two legendary Flemish giants) who formed the hill on which Cassel stands.
Close to the centre of Cassel and its town gate we found the small brewery owned and run by Anthony Debailleul with ‘stop-gap’ help from his delightful wife.
Beers inspired by giants
Anthony had previously owned a restaurant; but beer had long been a passion. He sold the restaurant and with the proceeds of sale bought an old shoe factory converting it into a small brewery. Small it may be but he somehow squeezed in five brewing tanks and the other necessary equipment for him to produce beer.
His first beer in 2016 was a 6.5% blonde, and today along with the original blonde he now makes a triple and an ambrée from local hops and grains. The distinctive bottles bear the images of the two giants Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman
All four of us loved the three Bière du Reuze – my particular favourite was the ambrée, but it was hard to choose. bieredureuze.fr
Les Belles Echappées
By now we were quite convinced that hiring the vintage VW Combeer with Bruno at the wheel to take us round the narrow, winding, lanes to the breweries had been a masterly stroke.
Apart from the VW combi that we travelled in Les Belles Echappées also has other interesting vintage vehicles and bikes and motorbikes for self-drive tours. les-belles-echappees.com
Abbaye de Clairmarais
Les Belles Echappées is based at the Abbaye de Clairmarais – once a massive abbey and farm, now in the process of being restored. The 17th century barn has been completely renovated and is used for private functions.
Brasserie Abbaye de Clairmarais
In 2020 a brewery opens on site, its brewers determined to continue the tradition of the monks who brewed beer there up to 1791 before they were expelled. Barley will once again come from the farm and water from the well.
By happenstance the brewers were having a tasting session in one of the St Omer hotels the evening we were there.
The beer is good, very good. And we feel sure that the monks of days gone by would most definitely approve. abbayedeclairmarais.fr
We raise glasses to all the brewers
Brewing in Nord-Pas-de-Calais is most definitely back on its feet, and it is thriving.
On board our DFDS ferry heading for Dover we raised glasses to all the passionate and hard-working brewers we had met – but, we have to be truthful, on this occasion delicious as the beers had been it was with prosecco!
DFDS: DFDS is currently offering short-break crossings on its Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk routes for up to three days in France from £80 return for a car and up to nine people (book by 30 June 2020). The company offers up to 50 sailings per day and passengers can upgrade to the premium lounge for £12 per person each way. www.dfds.co.uk; or call 0871 574 7235.
Hotel Louvre-Lens: what was originally a row of miner’s cottages today is the stylish, supremely comfortable and well-equipped four star Hotel Louvre-Lens. It is also home to the exceedingly good Galibot restaurant . hotel-louvre-lens.com/fr
We can also recommend the Restaurant Claire’Marais in Saint Omer. clairemarais.fr/