Screw American Beer Month, it’s Bastille Day!

[Please note that the following message from Brother Daniel has not been checked for historical or cultural accuracy, and we strongly suspect that he’s mostly full of crap.]

Ah, Bastille Day, Bastille Day! Our favorite holiday at Shelton Brothers, bar none. Christmas? Bah humbug! Easter? Halloween? We don’t like candy.’What about the 4th of July?’ you ask, patriotically. “Hah!” I reply. “You call that a revolution?!?!” Give me a real revolution — a nice French one. Smelly, ragged peasants with rocks and sharp sticks, beheadings, Marie Antoinette snarling “Let ’em eat cake!” shortly before saying goodbye to her own curly-locked tete — that’s what it’s all about.


So, we put up the Bastille Day tree, hung the Bastille Day stockings, and baked the Bastille Day croissants weeks ago. I got my Bastille Day shopping done early this year. I’ve got Edith Piaf on the Ipod. Je ne regrette rien! Vive la France! Quel fromage! France even came within a centimeter of winning the World Cup last week, and it would have been great if they had won, I guess, but Zidane’s brutal head-butt to the chest of that Italian guy was positively stirring, well worth throwing way the game and the Cup. I mean, how French can you get? It was the perfect way to say, in one swift blow: “We don’t need your stupid gold cup. We have bleu cheese! We have champagne! We have baguettes! We have French-style green beans in a can that are cut much finer than those crude honkers you call ‘green beans.’ I could go on, but you see the point. Compared to these, pizza is nothing, and the Chinese invented pasta! You haven’t had any really new ideas since Julius Caesar was emperor.” These are things that the French nation has been waiting to say to Italy for years. Yep, it seems that the stars are in perfect alignment for a great Bastille Day. Why, then, am I just a little bit sad at this wonderful time of year?Well, the first terrible irony of this Bastille Day is that I’m spending it in Europe, but in Germany, not France. I’m in Bamberg, actually, and have been for a while, keeping an eye on the World Cup, and the beer. As you know, the beer is rather decent here. But it’s just not France — and it’s not home. While the rest of the family are gathered around the tree on Bastille Day Eve to sing those bitter-sweet Bastille Day songs, it will be getting toward midnight here, and I’ll be hunched over a half-liter of Spezial Rauchbier, struggling to hold back the tears, while all around me the Germans will be going about their heavy drinking as if this were just any other night of the week. As a well-known song asks, ‘Don’t they know it’s Bastille Day?’The other devastating irony is that some American marketing hack has tried to declare July ‘American Beer Month.’ Of course, no serious beer drinker would even consider ordering an American beer during Bastille Day week. What the hell were they thinking? I would be okay with an American Beer Week, or Two Weeks, even, maybe centered around the 4th. But why, I wonder, do those American brewers need to take the whole damned month? We at Shelton Brothers aren’t buying it. Can’t we all take just half the month for thinking about French beer? I hereby declare the butt-end of July, starting on Bastille Day, ‘French Beer Half-a-Month.’ Or maybe it should be Le Demi-Mois de la Bière Française. I’ll think about it and let you know. In the meantime, won’t you please join us in celebrating?Here’s what to look for — a little beer, a little history, a little culture — during this wonderful Demi-Mois:Arriving any day now is the first shipment of La Bavaisienne that we’ve had from Brasserie Theillier for about two years. This is the amber beer — brewed by a wonderfully congenial French family in their ancient farmhouse, built on stones laid by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago — that was picked as one of the 50 Best Beers in the World by Men’s Journal magazine exactly one year ago. Michel Theillier, who represents the fifth generation of brewers in the family, has taken over from his father, Armand, and does pretty much everything at the brewery himself, with the help of an occasional laborer. Michael Jackson has written that Theillier is a brewery that “deserves to be better known.” So do what the man says and buy some of this beer, tout de suite. There’s a special bonus this time around: the arrival of the first shipment of La Bavaisienne Blonde. Look for the sunny yellow label at good beer shops and buy the Blonde straight away, since the Theillier beers always go quickly off the shelves. image The Blonde was concocted for a restaurateur in the region, but response was so overwhelming that it has in short order become a regular offering at Theillier. You’re nuts if you don’t go out and find these beers as soon as possible. They’re available only within a twenty-five kilometer radius of the brewery — and in the United States. You don’t know how lucky you are, I swear . . .

While you’re out, pick up a handy four-pack of Gavroche, from the Brasserie St. Sylvestre. Gavroche is a very fine red ale beer from the brewers of Trois Monts, quite strong at 8.5% and re-fermented by live yeast in the bottle. (It’s the only St. Sylvestre beer that’s bottle-conditioned.) There is a touch of Belgian character to it, though it stays for the most part on the clean side, as the French tend to do, and it is not really all that good at hiding its strength. You’re going to find it very tasty. We’re hoping that the brewers, Serge (at left) and François Ricour, will be pleased enough by sales of Gavroche that they will let us bring to the U.S. their great Bière Nouvelle, a bière de mars, or a special strong beer for the Spring, and the St. Sylvestre Noël beer, which was imported before and consistently came in at the very top of the mega-Chiristmas beer tasting that the Shelton Brothers used to have every year in December. (That was before we started putting our festive energy into Bastille Day, of course.) By the way, Gavroche is named for a character in Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables. I wanted to check this character out, but it turns out that the book is over 700 pages long, so I still don’t know what kind of person Gavroche was, whether he got killed in a plane crash or become President of France, or what. Anyone with information on this, please let me know. Merci.

Sadly, we won’t be seeing much beer from Brasserie Duyck, in Jenlain, this month. The brewery is changing labels (we’re still fretting over the American versions) and even changing a few recipes, so we’re in stand-by mode just now. But sometime in August, the newly re-labeled beers should be out on the street. The Duyck brewery is the most successful of the famous bière de garde breweries that grace the northwest corner of France, a gentle arc of farming country hugging the border with Belgium. Duyck revived the great brewing tradition of the region after it was destroyed by two World Wars (both times, the Germans made bullets out of the melted-down French brewing equipment, but hey, we all screw up sometimes), and has been the great force for rebuilding the industry. Many of the smaller breweries nearby use the special yeast from Jenlain that gives French beer it’s fruity, often champagne-like character. Keep an eye out for tastefully re-labeled Jenlain, an amber bière de garde that is considered to be the benchmark for the style, and a new, stronger Jenlain Blonde — approaching 8% — that will remind you a little bit of Belgium. (Not so long ago, there was no border, and this part of France was a part of Flanders.) The old, 6% Blonde has been re-named, conveniently, Jenlain No. Six. And don’t forget St. Druon, a deftly-hopped blonde beer that really ought to attract more attention. It’s the only French ‘abbey’ beer ever invented, named for the beautiful and imposing Abbaye de St. Druon, a couple of kilometers from the brewery. I almost hate to tell you this, but the Duyck brewery wants to keep the prices on its beers low enough for everyone to enjoy, so picking up a bottle of Jenlain is a fairly economical and satisfying way to introduce yourself to French beer.

imageNot to be confused with Theiller is the Brasserie Thiriez, another tiny one-man operation in an old farmhouse. I guess I’ve said this before, but Thiriez was toasted by a number of serious beer drinkers as the best new-brewery discovery of 2005, and I’m going to keep saying that until you actually do something about it. Daniel Thiriez bought this farm-brewery in a small agricultural town from two brothers who had grown too old to keep up with brewing themselves. He’s put in a nice pub with lots of antiques from old French breweries, and he’s making the kind of vital, tongue-grabbing beer that you want. Thiriez Extra is something quite unique, the result of a collaboration with and English brewery. It uses a single rare English hop variety, famous French malt, and though it’s only 4.5% alcohol, it has a fresh hop wallop as powerful as a Zidane head-butt in the final ten minutes of the match. Thiriez Blonde is richer and more full-bodied than the Extra, but similarly tilted more toward hop bitterness. Thiriez Amber is a reddish-gold beer that has more to do with famous French malts — some say the French grow and malt the best barley in the world — than with hops. After he quit his paying job, about ten years ago, Daniel Thiriez studied brewing in Belgium, and he uses Belgian yeast strains. All of the Thiriez beers have a bit of a saison-like character, harking back to that earlier time when there was no border between France and Belgium, and, as some have theorized, there were no defined characteristics separating saisons and bières de garde. Daniel Thiriez is working on an as-yet unnamed super-strength version of the Extra. We don’t know when this hop-bomb will be dropped on the U.S., but we will of course warn you when the time comes.

Alain Dhaussy of La Choulette bought a defunct brewery in the early 80’s, revived it, and re-named it for the little wooden ball that was used in an odd game (pre-dating football, and Zidane, by some years) that was reportedly something of a cross between golf and field hockey, and played over great distances from town to town in this region of northern France. It turns out that Monsieur Dhaussy is an amateur historian, and pretty into this sort of thing, and so he had a lot of educating to do when it came time to re-label his famous Bière des Sans Culottes for the U.S.. If you love the whole Bastille Day holiday thing like I do, you probably already know about Les Sans-Culottes, the afore-mentioned smelly peasants armed with rocks and sticks, who were defined by their lack of means to purchase the fancy silk breeches — culottes — that French noblemen sported in battle. We decided early on that “Bière des Sans Culottes” was just too much French for Americans to handle on one beer label, so we tried to shorten it to simply ‘Sans Culottes.’ But Mr Dhaussy pointed out politely that we had effectively turned the name into an adjectival phrase meaning something like ‘without undies’ that, in his phrase, has a somewhat ‘sexual meaning’ in French. We could, however, put ‘Les’ at the beginning, making the phrase back into a noun, and a well-understood historical reference in France. Okay, Les Sans Culottes it is! Now, for the label image, we really wanted to use the famous Delacroix painting of a bare-breasted Lady Liberty leading the people to victory in the French Revolution. Breasts and revolutionary fervor are what you want for selling beer, as every American knows. What a great idea. The problem, Mr Dhaussy explained patiently, is that the painting dates to the wrong revolution. Les Sans Culottes were a big hit in 1789, in the first revolution (the one where they actually stormed the Bastille), but the painting refers to the second one, in 1848. What, there were two? Is this just typical French one-ups-manship, or is this real history? I explained to Mr Dhaussy that Americans famously have no history, so really we can’t be bothered with these sorts of razor-thin distinctions. Besides, I argued, it’s not history we’re trying to convey here, but revolutionary spirit, right? And aren’t those peasants in the Delacroix painting fairly smelly-looking, and aren’t some of them carrying sticks? Not wanting to continue discussions with an American writing bad French, Mr Dhaussy agreed, and the results are now visible on store shelves for your inspection. The beer itself is considered to be a classic of the blonde bière de garde style, Mr Dhaussy’s ‘masterpiece,’ according to Michael Jackson, with distinctive ‘champagne aromas’ that are typical of all La Choulette beers. The beer is strong, about 7%, and does indeed offer fruity, musty champagne-like aromas and a spritzy lightness on the tongue. It is a bit on the sweet, malty side, but with enough balancing hop bitterness to keep it from becoming cloying at all.

Given universal acclaim for the beer, and its historically inaccurate but compelling revolutionary imagery, I hereby declare Les Sans Culottes the official beer of American Bastille Day. The thing to do on Bastille Day is to run right down to the store, buy a case of this, pop it in front of the Bastille Day tree, and get a little sans culottes. It’s the French way, monsieur. And remember, because we’re historical dumb-asses, you’re really getting two revolutions for the price of one with every bottle of Les Sans Culottes.

By the way, you ought to try La Choulette Ambrée, which was Mr Dhaussy’s first beer and his most classic bière de garde, and also the best of the French bières de garde in a tasting at the New York Times a couple of years ago. Other people are nuts about La Choulette Blonde, which can be found at Per Se, at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which is reputed to be the best restaurant in the country. (We’re not about to drop that kind of money to find out if it’s true.) Another good option for Bastille Day is La Choulette Framboise, a raspberry beer that uses real fruit and is quite dry, unlike a raft of other sweetened fruit beers floating around out there.

Finally, it’s almost impossible to find right now, but keep an eye out in the near future for a terrific beer from Brasserie Bailleux (Au Baron) called Cuvée de Jonquilles. I visited this brewery eight or nine years ago, but could never manage to get any of the beer into the U.S. (There was a recent entry in the guest book from Michael Jackson, in broken French, praising the beers.) Finally, with the help of Bierlijn in the Netherlands (see ‘Fellow Travelers,’ this site.) We received one small shipment around Christmastime last year, and found the beer eye-popping as ever. We should be getting a few more precious cases of this beer in the next month or so. The Bailleux family is Belgian, but they opened a charming restaurant called Au Baron along a little stream in farming country just over the border in France, and put a brewery in a cramped space near the kitchen. ‘Jonquilles’ are daffodils, which pop up all around the restaurant in the spring. The beer is perhaps the most complex of all the French beers, quite like a Belgian saison, reminiscent of the classic examples of that style from Brasserie Dupont and Brasserie de Blaugies. The Cuvée de Jonquilles is earthy, a little fruity, and richly rewarding, with a perfect balance of bready malt flavors and refreshing hop bitterness.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to pay more attention to this next Spezial Rauchbier that the nice lady just brought for me.

I’ll be home for Bastille Day, if only in my dreams . . .

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