Bière de Garde

by the numbers
OG:1.060–1.080 (14.7–19.3 °P)
FG:1.008–1.016 (2–4.1 °P)

It was well over a decade ago and I was still perfecting my brewing of the entire Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guide. My process was to read everything about a style, drink as many commercial and homebrew samples as I could find, and then brew the beer repeatedly until I was able to get a first place medal in one of the larger competitions. As I am sure you can imagine, this took time. Some styles were easy, because there were lots of good examples and plentiful information. With good information and plenty of examples that showed you what to shoot for, the process boils down to just brewing skill. Once I finished the easy styles, I moved on to the more difficult ones.

Bière de garde was one of the more difficult. Information on the style was seriously limited and often questionable. Even the style guide seemed a bit challenged to define this French style. Finding good examples was problematic as well. I remember buying every bottle of bière de garde I could find. I started with the “classic examples.” Ugh, seriously cloudy, with chunks floating around, sour and stinking like a swamp on a hot day. Oxidation, heat staling, and more was present. Of course, these were the first examples I tasted. When you see something listed as the “best” example of a style, you question your own taste buds. “Oh, maybe it is supposed to be horrible,” you think to yourself. “Maybe it should taste like I just drank a tablespoon of moldy pond water?”

This is one of my (admittedly many) pet peeves about listing beers as “great examples.” Yes, a beer may be awesome at some singular point in time. Perhaps it has many of those points in time, but that does not guarantee that every bottle, every pint is also a flawless example of the style. When a person new to the style tries one of those flawed samples, they often force themselves to believe that what they taste is great. (We see this all the time today with “American” sour beers that taste full of vinegar and butter. No, that is not a great sour beer.) So, it took many more attempts to find great examples. I was very lucky in that I got to travel for work and I worked with people from around the world. It took time, but eventually I began to understand what was a good example of bière de garde and what was just an overly corked, stale, sour shadow of its former self.

Bière de garde is one of those styles in the BJCP style guide with a wide range of color and character. Many experts believe that there are three distinct variations in bière de garde: Brune, blond, and ambrée. Yet there is only one category in the style guide for all three. By contrast, the German bock beer category has the four sub-styles of bocks. One might argue that the variations in bière de garde have just as much distinctiveness and uniqueness as the bock sub-styles. So why then clump all the bière de garde together and why separate out the German bock category? I would say that it has to do with popularity and interest of the styles when they first wrote the guidelines. When I started brewing, it was easier to find good examples of bock and people had a greater interest in them than bière de garde. It is not a fault of the style guides, but it does show how the style guides are driven by what we brew, consume, and chat about online. Now, more than a decade later, it could be argued that the tables have turned. Certainly, in some parts of the United States, there is a much greater interest in brewing and drinking bière de garde than there is in bock.

Because of this catchall approach to bière de garde, the style guide describes the color as ranging from golden blonde to chestnut brown and the clarity from good to poor. While this is a style that is often unfiltered,
I would argue that it is often clear, since it tends to have been cellared. With enough time, most haze will
settle out.

The focus for this style is a complex malty sweetness with a moderate light toasty character. In the darker versions, there is often a toffee/ caramel sweetness present, but no example of bière de garde should finish overly sweet. The beer should be well attenuated and contain enough hop bittering to present a dry finish. Hop character (flavor/aroma), if it is present at all, should be of the spicy, herbal or possibly floral variety. Esters are low to moderate as is any yeast phenolic character. This is a fairly clean fermentation when young, but aged examples will often have some funky character, which might be from local molds or wild yeasts. Unfortunately, these can be the same types of mold that cause cork taint in wine, resulting in a moldy, damp basement, wet dog, type of character. I have found that the cork-finished examples have a much higher incidence of cork taint. My understanding is that it is possible for cork taint to originate outside the cork and actually transfer through the cork to the beer. Regardless of the source, a strong, moldy character is never appropriate.

The base malt for a good bière de garde would consist of Pilsner, Vienna or Munich malts either singly or in varying proportions. The Vienna and Munich malts give more of a rich bready character, while the Pilsner malt is lighter and grainier.

Traditional brewers would lean more heavily on longer boils and more concentration to develop greater toffee/caramel flavors in the beer. My preference is to use mid-color caramel malts (20–70 °L) such as Caravienne and Caramunich®. They increase color and add some residual sweetness. You can also use other caramel malts, such as Special B, to add a raisin-like character to the beer. In general, your amount of these sweeter specialty malts should total 0–10% of the grist.

You can use other grains for some additional complexity and color. Wheat, biscuit, aromatic, and others can add varying levels of bready, toasty, and biscuit flavors. Small amounts of highly kilned malts, like black patent or chocolate malt can deepen the color and add a tiny bit of dryness to the finish. You need to be careful not to add too much highly kilned malt. This style should not have any roast notes to it. Keep the dark malts under 1% or so and other specialty malts to no more than 10% and you should be fine.

Finally, some simple sugar can help the beer attenuate more, resulting in a drier finish — 5–10% is about right. It can be any simple sugar, I like cheap table sugar for this style, but if you like the fancy kinds of sugar (turbinado, demerara, muscovado), those work too.

Extract brewers should use Munich malt extract as the base. Most Munich malt extract is a blend of Munich and Pilsner (or other pale malts) in different percentages. The Munich malt in the blend adds a nice bready malt character. All-grain brewers should use a single infusion mash, in the range of 147–150 °F (64–66 °C). If you are brewing a bigger beer, use the lower end of the range. If making a smaller beer, choose the upper end of the range. When using lower mash temperatures, remember that it might take longer to get full conversion, so be patient.Hop flavor aroma are minimal in this style. While the paler versions might exhibit slightly more hop character, it is always restrained. For hop bittering, you want just enough to provide a balance to any residual malt sweetness. The drier the finished beer, the less hop bittering required. As far as hop selection, low alpha hops with spicy, herbal, or floral characteristics are a good choice. I prefer Kent Goldings, but many other low alpha European hops work well. The bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by the decimal portion of the specific gravity) generally ranges from 0.2 to 0.4. The hop additions should all be early in the boil, with maybe 60 minutes of boil time remaining. If you are going to cellar this beer for an extended period (a year or more), then you might want to err more on the high side for bittering because the hop bittering will drop over time.

I have tried fermenting bière de garde with a range of yeasts. I have tried lager yeast, Belgian ale yeast, and clean American ale yeast. These are all yeasts that people recommend as giving good results for this style. However, I find those yeasts either do not produce enough yeast character or produce too much. Perhaps I never found the exact combination of pitching rates, temperature, and nutrients to give a great result with those strains, but one of the better clean yeasts to use for this style is White Labs WLP011 European Ale. (Wyeast no longer makes 1338 European Ale.) The results are always very good, although it needs to be pushed to attenuate well enough. I like to start around the mid-60s Fahrenheit (~18–19 °C), but it is still important to have a strong ferment, so I raise the temperature toward the middle of fermentation. Vigorous fermentation drives off more of the volatile compounds, attenuates better, and results in a cleaner tasting final product. Pitch enough healthy yeast, and make sure to raise the temperature of the fermentation before it slows, which will help keep fermentation active. There are some other strains to try, such as the seasonal WLP072 French Ale from White Labs or some of the available saison strains from either White Labs or Wyeast.
As for the funky aspect, getting the same funky character as in your favorite example can be tricky. You might try growing up the dregs from a bottle or you can experiment with some strains of Brettanomyces. With either, I would add them after fermentation is complete and then see how they do over a long period of cellar time. If you do bottle this with Brettanomyces or other unknown yeasts or bacteria, make sure your residual gravity and any priming sugar you add will not form too much carbonation and result in bottle bombs. When adding the unknown yeast or Brettanomyces, always assume these critters will consume all of the remaining gravity points.


Bière de Garde

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.075 FG = 1.011
IBU = 24 SRM = 12
ABV = 8.5%


10 lbs. (4.5 kg) continental Pilsner malt (2 °L)
2.9 lbs. (1.3 kg) Munich malt (8 °L)
1.1 lbs. (0.5 kg) cane or beet sugar (0 °L)
10.6 oz. (0.3 kg) caramel Vienne malt (20 °L)
1.4 oz. (40 g) black malt (500 °L)
5.5 AAU Kent Goldings hops
(60 min.) (1.1 oz./31 g at 5% alpha acids)
Irish moss (15 min.)
White Labs WLP072 (French Ale) or White Labs WLP011 (European Ale)
Priming sugar (if bottling)

Step by Step

I currently use Best Malz Pilsen and Munich, but feel free to substitute any high quality malt of the same
type and color from a different sup-plier. The black malt and caramel Vienne I use is from Briess. I use
the cheapest granular white sugar I can find at the store, sometimes it is cane sugar and sometimes it is beet sugar. My hops are in pellet form and come from Hop Union, Crosby Hop Farm, or Hopsteiner depending on
the variety.

Mill the grains and then dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 147 °F (64 °C). Hold the mash at 147 °F (64 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. With the low mash temperature, you may need to lengthen the rest time to 90 minutes or more to get full conversion. Infuse the mash with near-boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.5 gallons (25 L) and the gravity is 1.058.

The total wort boil time is 90 minutes, which helps reduce the S-Methyl Methionine (SMM) present in the lightly kilned Pilsner malt and results in less Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) in the finished beer. Add the hops with 60 minutes remaining in the boil. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Chill the wort to 66 °F (19 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is around 260 billion cells, which is approximately 2–3 packages of liquid yeast or one package of liquid yeast in a 0.9 gallon (3.4 L) starter.
Start fermentation around 66 °F (19 °C) and then raise the temperature a few degrees more (70 °F/21 °C) several days into active fermentation. Let the beer ferment until the yeast drops to the bottom and forms a layer. With healthy yeast, this should be complete in ten days or less, but there is no need to rush it. Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2 to 2.5 volumes.

If you decide to add Brettanomyces or other critters, you might want to do it in a secondary fermenter and then package the beer after it has developed the character you desire. At that point, you can rack to a keg and force carbonate or you can add priming sugar and a fresh dose of yeast to carbonate in the bottle. Be careful if you bottle directly from the primary fermenter with Brettanomyces, there could still be significant sugars present and could result in bottle bombs.

Bière de Garde

(5 gallons/19 L,extract with grains)
OG = 1.075 FG = 1.011
IBU = 24 SRM = 15 ABV = 8.5%


8.8 lbs. (4 kg) Munich liquid malt extract (8 °L)
1.1 lbs. (0.5 kg) cane or beet sugar (0 °L)
10.6 oz. (0.3 kg) caramel Vienne malt (20 °L)
1.4 oz. (40 g) black malt (500 °L)
5.5 AAU Kent Goldings hops
(60 min.) (1.1 oz./31 g at 5% alpha acids)
Irish moss (15 min.)
White Labs WLP072 (French Ale) or White Labs WLP011 (European Ale)
Priming sugar (if bottling)

Step by Step

There are many Munich extract blends out there, always choose the freshest extract. If you cannot get fresh liquid malt extract, see if you can find a dried Munich extract instead. Using fresh extract is very important to brewing great beer. The black malt and caramel Vienne I use is from Briess. I use the cheapest granular white sugar I can find at the store, sometimes it is cane sugar and sometimes it is beet sugar. My hops are in pellet form and come from Hop Union, Crosby Hop Farm, or Hopsteiner depending on the variety.

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Steep the bag in about 1 gallon (~4 L) of water at roughly 170 °F (77 °C) for 30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bag to drip into the kettle. Do not squeeze the bag. Add the malt extract and enough water to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.064. Stir thoroughly to dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

Once the wort is boiling, add the hops. The total wort boil time is 1 hour after adding the hops. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Chill the wort to 66 °F (19 °C) and aerate thoroughly. Follow the fermentation and packaging instructions for the all-grain version.


Bière de Garde Commercial Examples

3 Monts Flanders Golden Ale
Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre
Saint Sylvestre Cappel, France

Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien
Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes
Saignelégier, Switzerland

Bière de Garde
Left Hand Brewing Company
Longmont, Colorado

Castelain Blond Bière de Garde
Brasserie Castelain
Bénifontaine, France

French Country Christmas Ale
Southampton Publick House
Southampton, New York

Humphrey Bière de Garde
Parallel 49 Brewing Company
Vancouver, British Columbia

Lips of Faith Bière de Garde
New Belgium Brewing
Fort Collins, Colorado

Oro De Calabaza
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales
Dexter, Michigan

Portsmouth Bière de Garde
Portsmouth Brewery
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Schlafly Bière de Garde
The Schlafly Tap Room
St. Louis, Missouri

Issue: September 2014