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In the shadows of giants: The beer of Northern France

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French wine and Belgian beer get all the love, but the ales of Northern France never left the table.

By Joe Stange

Craft brewing is not new, of course, and Americans did not invent it despite what the marketers imply. The French were among those doing it long before our little “revolution” of the ’80s and ’90s made it cool. Just ask Michael Jackson. It’s right there on page 179 of his “World Guide to Beer,” the first one published in 1977: “In the Region du Nord, craft-brewing survives…” There are few, if any, references earlier than that.

It’s plausible that the late Beer Hunter chose “craft” as the best word for artisanale, since “artisanal” in English is highfalutin. But it’s an important idea in French food and drink, where gastronomes prize small producers who put quality well above quantity. In the north of France, in the countryside around Lille that hugs the Belgian border, there are more than a few of those.

“I don’t want to grow,” said Daniel Thiriez over glasses of draft Etoile du Nord in his brewery’s estaminet. Hoppy, dry and quenching at 5% strength, it is the beer that Thiriez makes because he wants to drink it. “And I don’t want more people working with me,” he continued. “So we do what we can with the time we have… I will not be more happy with more hectoliters.”

Hang a map of France on the wall and stick a tack wherever there is a brewery. Soon enough, the country’s northern tip starts to look like a pincushion. In the region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, 6 percent of France’s people enjoy about 16 percent of its breweries—most of them small, family-run outfits. Those 40 or so beer-makers of French Flanders are the survivors and renewers of a tradition long overshadowed by the fame of French wine and Belgian ale.

But it’s catching on. The rising popularity of character-driven beer is an international phenomenon that has not left Northern France behind. The resurgence has coincided with an awareness of Flemish identity, food and culture. Naturally, the breweries are part of it.

A shrine to Thiriez's famous farmhouse Blonde

The local beer culture, however, does not live in those breweries. It lives in the estaminets—those old-fashioned, country pubs that ooze ambiance and specialize in regional grub. The estaminet’s classic mantra: It’s not a café but you can drink here; it’s not a restaurant but you can eat here.

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The estaminet at Brasserie Thiriez, to name one, functions as a sort of village pub in Esquelbecq. Its walls and rafters are appropriately loaded with beery bric-a-brac and dried hops, and the Thiriez ales are available to drink or take home.

“I wanted this from the beginning so that people—neighbors or anyone—could be able to come here, to taste, to buy,” Thiriez said. “And we organize a lot of tours of the brewery, so we can explain how we brew, the smell of hops, the taste of yeast. I like this to sort of participate, to educate the people. I will not change the world, but it’s important so that the people can see how we work, how the beer is done, everything.”

Another local must-do is the Blauwershof in Godewaersvelde. The estaminet’s interior boils down  to regional kitsch and identity. Flemish lions, lace curtains, a carved mahogany bar and rafters, more than 70 bottled ales—and the likeness of King Gambrinus himself, looking down upon his subjects from atop the taps, raising his chalice in the air.

The thing to do is come with your family or friends and follow a logical progression: beers, then beers and dinner, then beers and bar games. Those traditional games, or jeux, are essential to the estaminet experience. My friend and I shared a bottle of Blonde d’Esquelbecq and watched as one crew hooted and hollered while playing billard Nicolas—four players squeezing a rubber pear that blows air, trying to move a marble into the areas of other players. (At first glance it looked like the offspring of foosball and Hungry Hungry Hippos.) Meanwhile, out in the hallway, an older couple tossed heavy balls at the grenouille—an open-mouthed brass frog—for big points. Or maybe just for pride.

Also in Godewaersvelde, a few minutes’ drive up the hill, is the Auburge du Mont des Cats, a simple and cozy dining room near the Mont des Cats Trappist monastery. The abbey re-entered the mental to-do lists of beer enthusiasts last summer when it started selling beer again after a 106-year hiatus. Belgium’s Chimay abbey, about 70 miles to the southeast, brews the Mont des Cats beer for its Cistercian brothers.

At the auberge, a stove burns wood in the winter or the terrace opens to cyclists and sun-worshippers in the warmer months. The menu is in Flemish as well as French and highlights plats du terroir, including family favorite potje vleesch—chunks of chicken, rabbit and veal suspended in fatty jelly with onions and thyme—or coq a la bière, a chicken braised in the Mont des Cats ale.

There are a few other monts, but this is a flat country, friendly to cycling. Jacques Brel sang that in Flanders, cathedrals are the only mountains. The Asterix comics later quipped that the only mountains were oppidums, which was what the ancient Romans called their forts. One such oppidum, in fact, was Mont Cassel, occupied and fortified by various militaries over the centuries. These days, two of the area’s beeriest estaminets stand guard.

T’Kasteelhofis the one near the hill’s peak, opposite the windmill. It offers sweeping views of the flat lands (to watch for barbarians) and a civilized selection of about 70 bottled ales. Visitors rave about the hospitality and local specialties such as cheeses, sausages and pâtés.

T'Kasteelhof

A short way down the hill, on Cassel’s main square, the landlord’s good taste makes the Kerelshof unmissable for beer geeks. Owner Denis Van Den Driessche keeps a chalkboard list of 50 or so well-chosen bottles, and behind the bar he displays others that are new or interesting. When weather permits, sidewalk tables and chairs allow sipping, sitting, and watching the locals go about their business. Cyclists strongly endorse the winding downhill ride from here but are eerily silent about the climb up.

On the night we came to Kerelshof, Van Den Driessche was entertaining a handful of friends and regulars—including, to our surprise, Daniel Thiriez—around the bar. One of the beers that had them talking was Cuvée d’Oscar, a dry-hopped dark wheat ale brewed by Craig Allan.

Allan is a Scotsman living in France who brews his beer at de Proef in Belgium, and so is as fitting a symbol as any for the globalized craft beer movement. It’s a movement that has reached the northern tip of France, where new beers join old ones in traditional places alongside traditional food. (We enjoyed our Cuvees alongside a selection of local Port Salut-style cheeses, thick strips of pork belly and cubes of pâté.) Perhaps an even stronger sign of the resurgence is that the French craft beers are showing up not just in estaminets, but in supermarkets as well.

Thiriez opened his brewery in 1996, which was an odd thing to do at the time. He was the young upstart then, a forerunner of the present renaissance. He’s pleased that he has more company these days.

“I felt very lonely for several years, so I’m very happy,” he said that night at the Kerelshof, laughing. “I feel old because most of them are in their 30s, and I’m 51.”

Why now? Maybe because gastronomy—a French invention, it must be noted—is more accessible than ever. But what to drink? The pastime of questing for the best, the local and the interesting is well-suited to beer.

“Students and young people, they can still afford to buy a bottle,” Thiriez said. “It’s not crazy like wine. You cannot buy the best wines. We cannot buy them. … I’m happy to see that young people, like my children—they are 20, more or less—and their friends, they are starting to taste and appreciate craft beers.”

Perhaps the most telling of all: The proud Belgian Flemish have been crossing the border in greater numbers on weekends to enjoy French ales and lunches. Already they can look up to the ancient oppidum of Mont Cassel and see that Northern French beer culture casts a shadow of its own.

WHERE TO STAY: At Brasserie Thiriez, the brewer and his wife run an on-site, two-room bed and breakfast called l’Oreiller de Houblon—the “hop pillow” ($66 to $73 per night). Just across the border, the Brouwershuis (Trappistenweg 23A, $90 to $128 per night) is a bed and breakfast adjoining the grounds of the St. Bernardus brewery, amid hop fields near Watou. It once was the house of the brewmaster. Very clean, comfortable, and a welcome perk is the honor bar with all the St. Bernardus one can drink.

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