First published in BEER July 2007 as part of a piece on French beer.
ABV: 8.5 per cent
Origin: St-Sylvestre-Cappel, Nord, France
Think of French booze and you first think of wine. But pride in fine regional food and drink is deeply embedded in French culture, and extends to the grain as well as the grape.
Admittedly the key beer regions tend to the marches of the French hexagon. The most active craft brewing territory is in the north, and in particular a slice of the Nord department around Lille. Bordering on Belgian Flanders, the area was once Dutch speaking, an influence still obvious in place and personal names. The beers, many of them still warm fermented ales, come with a Flemish accent too, as well as an obvious link to the saisons of the nearby French-speaking Belgian province of Hainaut.
France’s commercial brewing powerhouse is Alsace in the east, facing Germany across the Rhine. The region has changed hands between the neighbouring states several times, and the Germanic influence on its beers (and excellent wines) is obvious – though the biggest brands are now controlled from Edinburgh and Amsterdam.
The northwest peninsula of Brittany boasts a cluster of innovative new micros proud to assert their own distinct national identity in this still-Celtic-speaking region. Brewers here have drawn among other influences from their Celtic cousins on the big island just across the Channel.
That big island is cuddling up a bit closer this summer by hosting the grand départ of the Tour de France on 8 July, so I’ve a good excuse to feature French beers this month, focussing on examples from the Nord department since I can’t do the whole country justice in the space. And once the cyclists have waved goodbye to the White Cliffs of Dover, the 14 July might provide another excuse to pull a cork or two.
Unfortunately finding French craft beers in Britain can be challenging – overshadowed by wine, and not helped by the tendency of even the high strength ones to come in big expensive 750ml bottles, they’re regarded by retailers as a difficult sell.
Bigger, but not necessarily better, Northern brands like Jenlain and Ch’ti occasionally find their way into supermarkets here. Beers of Europe in Kings Lynn (www.beersofeurope.co.uk) and Utobeer at London’s Borough Market (www.utobeer.co.uk) usually have a small range of rarer lines, and imported bars at beer festivals are often worth a look.
Although a filtered beer, St-Sylvestre 3 Monts is one of the very finest examples of a traditional blond bière de garde (beer for keeping), with shades of a Belgian abbey blond. The brewery in the village of St-Sylvestre-Cappel dates back to pre-revolutionary times and since 1920 has been in the hands of Ricour factory.
In the early 1980s the current generation thankfully reversed their 1950s predecessors’ decision to move the cold fermentation, and revived traditional brewing techniques. The beers are marketed as sharing in a distinctive French Flemish heritage – thus the Lion of Flanders roaring over the French tricouleur on the neck label.
The name “Three Hills” celebrates the countryside – unusually rolling for Flanders – around the brewery’s home village, St-Sylvestre-Cappel, between Dunkerque and Lille. This is a hop country – the famous Belgian hop centre of Poperinge is just across the border – and a proportion of the hops and most of the malt are sourced locally.
The beer emerges a beautiful burnished gold with a fine bead and a persistent close white head. A rich and estery malt aroma has cream and tangerine flavours with a hint of banana.
There’s smooth oily malt on a perfumed palate with pear-like notes and a dry sacky hop flavour emerging over mouth-tingling alcohol. A long and spicy finish integrates hop bitterness superbly with barley sugar notes, vanilla and grapefruit.
For more French beers see next post.
Read more about this beer at ratebeer.com: http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/st-sylvestre-3-monts/7321/