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Classic Beer of the Month April 2011: Jenlain Ambrée

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Jenlain Ambrée, 7.5%

Visits to France are often frustrating for beer lovers. There are plenty of fine brewers now plying their trade across the country, but so many bars are still heavily tied to serving Kronenbourg, Heineken or Leffe.

JenlainOne beer I keep looking for, and happily sometimes find, is Jenlain Ambrée. As much as I want to try beers from the many new breweries, I also want to get stuck in to this old favourite, which has made France a country worth visiting for beer for decades.

Jenlain is brewed by the Brasserie Duyck, a family concern now headed up by Raymond Duyck. Raymond’s grandfather founded the business back in the 1920s, in a small settlement just east of Valenciennes, a stone’s throw from the Belgian border.

Jenlain Ambrée is, in many ways, the classic bière de garde, a style of beer that has its origins in the farmlands of northern France.

In the same way that their near neighbours in Belgium produced saison beers in winter and spring and stored them to be served to thirsty farm hands in the summer (when brewing was impossible), so the agricultural folk here created bières de gardes, robust, tasty, top-fermented beers that take their name from the period of ‘garde’, or storage, they enjoy before serving.

Jenlain’s beer first saw the light of day in 1922, but became more prominent in 1950, when the Duycks began packaging it in recycled Champagne bottles. At last, here was a great beer, with a rich heritage, daring to say to the world ‘Look at me. I’m something special.’

In 1968, the name of the beer was changed from the simply descriptive Vieille Bière (‘Old Beer’) to Jenlain, after its home village, and in recent times, the range of beers has been extended to include Christmas and spring ales, a wheat beer, an abbey-style beer, Jenlain Blonde and a premium product called Or.

Rich Amber

For me, however, the Ambrée does the business every time. The rich amber colour is the result of toasted malt alongside pale in the grist, the same malt that helps deliver subtle hints of nut, chocolate and barley sugars in the spicy, almost liquorice-like aroma.

The malts also render the taste sweet and full, with caramel notes well to the fore but also a good, tangy, almost liquorice-like character from the three varieties of hops that come from Alsace (Strisselspalt, Magnum and Brewers Gold), plus more Magnum hops grown in French Flanders.

The drying, bittersweet finish has a leafy hop flourish, a little liquorice and some gentle warmth.

This is a beer full of taste and character, one that has plenty of fruity ale characteristics and is smooth and well-rounded, thanks to three to four weeks of maturation at the brewery. Being unpasteurised, its flavours are natural and fresh.

Jenlain is one of France’s national treasures and the sooner more bars realise this, the better it will be for both locals and frustrated visitors.

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