Three of us were struggling up a fairly steep incline, our creaking rental bicycles squeaking and straining over ascending cobblestones. As a proponent of the manly cycling virtues, I found it impossible to admit that I lacked both gears and legs, and kept churning forward, but at some point I glanced backward and saw that my pal Tim Eads had given up the ghost and dismounted.
This was a delightful development, indeed. Bragging rights are oh-so-sweet.
At the end of the climb, where the old town materialized, I finally heeded the banshee wail of every muscle in my lower extremities and stopped to await Tim’s belated arrival. For me, it was a veritable stage victory on the Tour de France, which was fully appropriate, seeing as we were riding in French Flanders, perhaps 10 kilometers from the Belgian beer headquarters of Poperinge.
It was the summer of 2001, and in truth, probably the last time ever that Tim trailed me on a bicycle. He’s younger, and also more determined, so there, atop the Cassel hill, I talked mondo trash while I could get away with it, and prepared to gaze forever more upon his backside each time we went for a ride.
Fast forwarding to 2011, Tim’s fundamental drive asserted itself yet again, when he ignored a litany of potential obstacles, established a company called Starlight Distribution, and promptly bulldogged his way into becoming the sole Indiana wholesaler for Shelton Brothers International, renowned importer of legendary beers like Mikkeller, Cantillon and Mahrs.
Shelton also possesses an unparalleled portfolio of French ales, many classifiable as Bieres de Garde, and most of them brewed near Cassel, the hilltop town where we paused, panted, and resumed our progress through the town square in route to our ultimate destination, the Estaminet T’ Kasteel Hof.
Several of us had been in Poperinge the previous year, pioneering the concept later to be known as beercycling. We heeded sage local advice by planning a day trip to Cassel and seeking out Kasteel Hof – which is to say, I already knew about the killer incline, although perhaps I forgot to mention anything about it to Tim.
The sole point of the journey was Kasteel Hof, which harbors a beer list of up to 50 French-brewed ales. Then, as now, the concept of Bieres de Garde is mysterious even to those Americans who embrace a craft beer ethos. This lingering prejudice against French beer, while wholly justified as it pertains to mass-market lagers shipped duty-free to places like the UK for use as soccer hooligan fuel, baffles me.
Bieres de Garde are produced at farmhouse breweries located near the Franco-Belgian border. Climactically and historically, it is a transitional zone, where wine-making meets brewing, and Bieres de Garde originally came about as the thoughtful solution to problems posed by summertime heat, which rendered brewing almost impossible in the age before temperature-controlled fermentation.
The farmers brewed ale during cooler weather, bottled it in used wine and champagne bottles, and then cellared the bottles for drinking during summer until the heat subsided in autumn and brewing could resume. Bieres de Garde had to be sufficiently ample and alcoholic for cellaring, but not too heavy in body for warm-weather drinking. They also had to go well with food, because after all, it’s France. Hence, the wonderfully complex maltiness of the style’s better, enduring examples, like Jenlain and La Choulette (both in the Shelton book) and Castelain.
At the highest point of Cassell, there is a public park. We all pushed our bikes up the unavoidably steep path, and emerged at a windmill, the highest point in the area. It was a hazy day, yet it did not obstruct a spectacular view of the surrounding plains and two neighboring “mountains,” each actually only a couple hundred meters high, but comprising the Trois Monts brand of local brewing fame. These three hills, a prime strategic objective of the Germans in World War I, remained in allied hands owing to the stalemate at nearby Ypres.
The Kasteel Hof remained in place, clinging to the hillside, its bricks painted a distinctive hue of mustard yellow. There were seats outside on the patio, and we duly ordered and devoured numerous and diverse platters of pates and cheeses, along with fresh, crusty bread, all the while regretting the ride home, while knowing that at least the first leg of the trip would be downhill.
I’m relating this old story today as a prelude to a cooperative venture between two cycling buddies and a chef we’ve only recently met, Louis Retailleau. The chef’s restaurant in New Albany is Louis Le Française, and along with Tim’s Starlight Distribution and my New Albanian Brewing Company, we’re staging a French (and American) beer dinner on Thursday, March 1. We’re providing beers to suit Louis’s Alasatian-themed repast, and while Alsace is a bit further east than Cassel, my guess is that numerous memories will be served along with the food and drink. Readers are cordially invited to attend, and to partake.