One brew among many to seek out during Madison Craft Beer Week is Common Thread, an annual special release created by a consortium of local brewers. Changing in style from year to year, the original edition in 2012 was a "Wisconsin Common" developed by six brewers. Ten joined in the camaraderie this year to make a Bière de Garde, a unique French style with a distinctive flavor. It debuted May 1 at an opening tapping party at Capital Brewery, and will be available as limited release for Madison Craft Beer Week.
What is it? Common Thread Bière de Garde is a beer made through the collaboration of 10 Madison area brewers.
Style: The Bière de Garde is a farmhouse style that originated in the northern regions of France, near the border with Belgium. It's often considered a cousin of the Saison, but with more malty sweetness and less spicy, bitter, tart flavors. Bière de Garde means "beer for keeping," and traditionally referred to stronger brews aged longer than the lighter Saison. Both were historically brewed as ales in early spring for the summer field season. Bières de Garde, however, kept longer before being consumed, would ferment more and become stronger than a Saison. Eventually this became a style of its own.
The Bière de Garde is golden to deep copper or even light brown, with light to medium body. The style is known for a light toasted maltiness in both aroma and flavor. Hoppy bitterness is kept in check and usually quite low. However, expect some fruity esters, earthy, yeasty or cellar-like accents. They can range in alcohol from 4.5-8% ABV; however, most modern versions are above 6%. Many commercial examples of the style are sold in Champagne-style bottles.
Background: I was among a handful of spectators who watched the collaboration on this beer first hand at Capital's brewhouse on March 16. Ironically for a beer named "Common Thread," the ten brewers chose a beer style that is fairly rare. The Bière de Garde style is among only a few contributions by France to traditional brewing styles. Only a few U.S. breweries make and bottle it, so it's become a style that serious beer aficionados take pride in tracking down -- and that's especially true for a well-crafted one.
The Common Thread Bière de Garde has a definite Wisconsin twist on the traditional recipe. Its base malt came from northern Wisconsin, grown on land managed by Bo Belanger, the brewmaster at South Shore Brewery in Ashland. Many of the specialty malts came from Briess Malt in Chilton. The hops, Brewers Gold, were donated by Gorst Valley Hops of Mazomanie. Common Thread is also made with local clover honey from the Mazomanie farm of Frank Holzman. It was fermented using a traditional French ale yeast, and it ends up at 6.57% ABV.
The ten breweries participating in making this year's Common Thread were Capital Brewery, the Great Dane, the Grumpy Troll, House of Brews, Karben4, Lake Louie, One Barrel Brewing, Potosi Brewing, Vintage Brewing and Wisconsin Brewing. Common Thread Bière de Garde will be on tap at those locations, as well as at a variety of beer bars and restaurants around the city.
Many other special and limited release beers will be served over the course of Madison Craft Beer Week; several ideas are detailed in a guide to Wisconsin breweries participating in the festivities, which run May 3-12.
- Aroma: Modest fruity, yeasty, light earthiness.
- Appearance: Hazy, amber-copper color, with a medium soft, creamy, light tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied, bubbly, with a roundness to subtle softness.
- Taste: Smooth up-front biscuit-like caramel maltiness. There is a light fruitiness with a hint of apricot and black cherry in the background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The light-but-firm earthy biscuit-caramel of the malt is there, along with a faint and light fruitiness.
Glassware: The stemmed tulip glass is a great way to show off the color of Common Thread Bière de Garde. The glass is ideal for the style because its outward flare to the lip holds the soft creamy head.
It may be necessary to ask the bartender or server for such a glass. Also important in the appreciation of this beer is to allow it to warm slightly from the temperature it will typically be served at most bars and restaurants. The caramel of the malt (especially those biscuit and earthy tones), along with subtle sweetness of the honey, become more evident when it's around 45-50F.
Pairs well with: Common Thread Bière de Garde is great with herb seasonings, and will make a wonderful pairing for lamb, roasted meats, stews and sautéed chicken.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: I really like the Bière de Garde, in part because it's a style that modern brewers tend put their own signatures on with brewing techniques and use of specialty malts and adjuncts. This year's Common Thread exceeds my expectations for the style. It has a hazy amber color with light caramel and biscuit tones that are smooth and rich. While honey isn't a component one commonly associates with Bière de Garde ingredients, it enhanced my enjoyment and admiration for what went into making it. The honey adds some alcoholic strength, a light touch of sweet aromatics, and even some sweetness in the background and finish. There's also a fruity hint of dark cherry in the mid-flavor that's an unexpected treat. For those familiar with the Saison style, this is a slightly heavier and a stronger beer, and one with a lot more malt character.
Common Thread Bière de Garde will be enjoyed most by beer enthusiasts who really appreciate things like earthy-yeastiness. And, while that bready-musty thing isn't for everyone, this is a beer to appreciate for what is stands for and how it's made. It's impressive to think that 10 brewers can come together, agree on a style and their interpretation of it, then pool their knowledge about how to best use a variety of ingredients selected because they were local and donated -- and, in the end, create one tasty brew. What a great way to enjoy Madison Craft Beer Week.