Friday, 13 April 2012

Tasting/Recipe : Vielle Vache Sac

Biere de Garde is one of those beer styles that can be difficult to nail down. A style originating from France, it is a sweet, malt-forward beer with little hop character, other than some moderate-low bitterness to balance the sweetness. Fairly strong (up to ~8.5% ABV), it has some alcohol warmth, a light-to-moderate fruity ester presence, moderate-high carbonation and a musty/cellar character in the aromas and flavors. What can be confusing about this style is in terms of appearance - technically a BdG can be either blond, amber, or brown.

In my brief beer travels, I've been able to try several Biere de Gardes. It seems that the majority of the commercial examples are of the amber type (such as the more-widely available Jenlain Ambrée), but I have had at least one tasty blond version of the style - Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts. While not for everyone, I recommend trying at least one decent example; while there are similarities to several Belgian styles of beer, BdG definitely stands on its own.

I think I decided to try brewing BdG more on a whim than anything else. I was looking for a new style to try, and had a little to go on based on the few I had tried. Turns out it's a little trickier than I had thought, mainly because of that musty/cellar character that true BdGs from France have. These beers HAVE that character because of yeast and mold that are found in their area; homebrewers just don't really have a chance of replicating that, and our attempts will therefore taste "cleaner". Still, I wanted to give it a shot, so I turned to the old recipe-standby, Brewing Classic Styles.

The grist of this recipe has Pilsner malt as the majority, with about 20% Munich malt to give that toastiness appropriate to the style, as well as 5-6% Caravienne and just a touch (1 oz) of Black Patent for color. The mash temperature is quite low at 148 F - while BdG is a malt-forward beer, you want it to finish nice and dry. There is also a pound of table sugar (which I added after boiling in a bit of water, when fermentation began to slow) to help boost the gravity AND help dry out the beer further. The hops used are minimal in this recipe; basically just an addition of English hops at the 60-minute mark to provide a bit of bitterness (I aimed for the higher end of IBUs for the style).

As for the yeast, BCS suggests Wyeast 1338 European Ale*, described by Wyeast as giving full-bodied, malty beers. BdG is not a style listed on Wyeast's website under the 1338, but Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski mentions it specifically as being a very good yeast to use when brewing BdG. I'm going to go out of my way to reiterate what Wyeast says about this yeast - it is SLOW. I didn't have a problem with it STARTING slow, but fermentation continued for a long while; it was 4 weeks before I reached my FG of 1.008. And for most of this time, there was a thick, rocky, milkshake-like krausen on the beer. *Unfortunately, Wyeast has discontinued this strain from production.

Biere de Garde is translated as "beer that has been kept or lagered"; generally, this style is meant to be aged for some time before consuming. BCS says the longer the better; I believe I started drinking my homebrew version within a few months of bottling, and I've been trying a bottle here and there since. It's now been over 15 months since I brewed it; I wouldn't say the character has changed drastically in this time, but it definitely continues to mellow out a bit - the alcohol is hardly noticeable at all now, and the beer drinks very smooth.

Appearance: Pours with a moderate-sized, off-white, creamy head that hangs around for a really long time, before finally fading to a full-finger or so. Body is a deep amber/dark orange color, with excellent clarity.

Aroma: Mostly comprised of a light, malty sweetness with a bit of toast. A touch of spiciness that is probably some phenolic character - I wasn't filtering or treating my water for chlorine when I brewed this, unfortunately.

Taste: Medium sweet-maltiness, with a touch of toast and a little bit of caramel flavor. No hop flavor. No diacetyl. Medium-low hop bitterness in the dry finish. A hint of lingering phenolic, plastic flavor that is unwelcome.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied, with moderate-high carbonation. Touch of alcohol warmth. Very smooth.

Overall: The only real problem with this beer is the phenolic character mentioned in both the aroma and flavor. I assume this is due to Fredericton's chlorine-treated water, and not infection during brewing (I hope). I'm happy with what the yeast added in the flavor of this beer. Next time I'd bump up the Munich for some more toastiness, and soften the water by cutting it with some distilled. I'd also like to try racking the beer to secondary when fermentation was complete, and then lagering the beer for a month or so.

Recipe: (5.5 gallons, 73% efficiency): OG 1.069, FG 1.008, IBU 26.6, SRM 10, ABV 8.0%

Grains & Other:
4.09 kg Pilsner malt
1.18 kg Munich malt
340 g Caravienne malt
28 g Black Patent
454 g table sugar (added when fermentation began to slow)

Fuggles - 28 g (3.75% AA adjusted for age) @ 60 min
Fuggles - 28 g (4.8% AA) @ 60 min

1/2 tsp yeast nutrient @ 15 min
1 tab Irish Moss @ 15 min

Yeast: Wyeast 1338 European Ale (PD Nov. 22/10, with a 2 L starter)

- Brewed Dec 20th, 2010, by myself. 90-minute mash with 17.4 L of strike water, mashed in at 148 F. Sparged with ~5.25 gallons of 180 F water for final volume of 7.25 gallons in the kettle. 90-minute boil. Chilled to 66 F with immersion chiller. Poured into Better Bottle. Pitched yeast at 64 F, aerated by shaking for several minutes before and after.

21/12/10 - 18/1/11 - Fermentation was quite active for the first few days; added table sugar boiled in water and cooled when airlock bubbling started to slow. Temp reached 71 F on second day, was mostly in the high-60s afterwards. Thick krausen for at least 3 weeks. Gravity after 2 weeks was still at 1.017. Finally reached 1.008 after about 4 weeks in primary. Bottled with 133 g table sugar, targeting 2.75 vol CO2.


  1. Interesting to learn more about this style, thanks Shawn!

    1. No problem, Jeff... any Biere de Gardes available up your way? The only one I've actually found in NB, now that I think of it, is a BdG that Pump House releases on tap from time to time.

  2. Good write up. I have been wanting to brew this style for a while, but just waiting to have lagering capabilities and now I do.

    I was thinking of using the yeast from a bottle of one of the commercial examples since they are all bottle conditioned. Have you heard of anyone being successful?

  3. I've heard of lots of people being successful for harvesting yeast from commercial bottles, but not specifically for Biere de Gardes. Can't see it being a problem, though; like you said, since they're bottle conditioned, they're obviously good candidates!

    Just be sure to make a small-volume, low-gravity (~1.020) starter to begin with, and then step it up gradually from there. Apparently it may take several days for the starter to ferment with that first step.

    Good luck!

    1. I've had good experience with using dregs for both sour and clean beers. I'm just not sure if they use the same primary yeast as they do for bottling. I was just curious if you had any experience.


    2. I guess that would depend on the brewery... I know that some definitely bottle using the same yeast, while others add a different strain.

      If you had one or two specifically in mind, you could try contacting the brewery directly and asking them. Most are pretty helpful, in my experience.