EVERY YEAR around March 1, a handful of French breweries release a special beer to mark the change of seasons. It’s called Biere de Mars, which is French for March beer.
There’s a bunch of hoopla. Cafés put up signs announcing the arrival of the malty, slightly hoppy brew from Meteor, Kronenbourg, Fischer and a few other breweries. It’s all very reminiscent of the campaign promoting the coming of a certain overrated wine on the third Thursday of November: Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!
Only, this is beer, and the French are, well, French, so they don’t pay much attention to any of the hype.
So, here’s my proposal: While they’re over there sipping their Chablis, let’s just sneak through customs and steal their Biere de Mars. Heck, we don’t even have to sneak. All we need is enough American brewers to start making the style, creating their own, distinctive versions, and it’ll be ours before the French know what hit ’em.
Why the foul play?
Well, let’s face it, though many of us enjoy those hearty ales of winter, the majority of Americans still don’t reach for the keg in earnest till the warmer months. Biere de Mars can be our own American tradition. We might have to change the name (Spring Beer?), but it would be an ale our breweries ceremoniously release in March each year to officially kick off beer-drinking season in style.
What kind of beer are we talking about here? Technically, it’s a farmhouse ale, a specialty from Belgium and Northern France that was originally brewed mainly for sustenance, not commercial sales.
Little is known about origin of Biere de Mars, but experts believe it was made in midwinter with ingredients from the fall harvest, including wheat. Because cask cellars would be colder, fermentation was slower. It would age for six to eight weeks before it was released to welcome the new season.
I know, it sounds a lot like another springtime beer that American brewers already make: bock.
But bock is a German lager, fairly beholden to strict style guidelines. Biere de Mars is an ale with few of those restrictive specs.
Brewer Randy Thiel of New Glarus (Wisconsin), for example, said he had no clear idea of the style when he first tackled it several years ago at his former brewery, New York’s Ommegang. “I just wanted something with a nice, fiery orange color to it, with a big, beautiful white head,” said Thiel. He added a bit of funky wild yeast to give the ale a touch of sourness.
At Philadelphia Brewing, meanwhile, they celebrate March year round with Rowhouse Red, a ruby farmhouse style ale made with rye.
And at Southampton Ales & Lagers (New York), which this week released its Biere de Mars in 12-ounce bottles, brewer Phil Markowski includes about 40 percent malted wheat in his recipe.
“I wanted wheat to be part of its profile, with a small hint of spices,” Markowski explained. “It’s not a style that has any kind of benchmark to it – it’s wide open for interpretation. It’s more about the season than it is about particular ingredients. “
It’s not complete anarchy, but there’s enough room here to allow America’s innovative brewers to show their chops.
And that might’ve been the whole idea behind the beer in the first place.
“Brewers would be especially proud of their Biere de Mars,” said Markowski. “It might be their best beer of [the] season, possibly due to [the] fact that they were trying to get people thinking about beer again after a long winter. “
While we wait for more American brewers to steal this style, look for one of these French varieties of Biere de Mars: La Choulette Biere De Mars, Jenlain Biere De Printemps and L’Angelus De Mars.