I am constantly amazed at the number of small craft beer operations that keep popping up in Quebec, many of them far from the urban centres of Montreal and Quebec City. This is encouraging, as one often associates a taste for craft beer with a more urban sensibility; assuming that country folk are too busy haying and hoeing to look beyond the big domestics.
That assumption, like many others about rural people, would be wrong. The town of Saint-Paulin, Quebec, for example is home to a lovely looking Auberge called Le Baluchon. It boasts its own little brewery, which has recently grown into a separate operation; Les bières de la Nouvelle-France, where – according to a note on the bottles – they are “brewed on the fief of the seigneurie de la Nouvelle-France, on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence river."
I tried three of them this weekend. All bear the same nostalgic habitantesque label, with only the brew's name differentiating one from the next.
The first I tried was “Ambrée de Sarrasin” (buckwheat amber). The description on the bottle reads, “Its refreshing flavour and foam density makes this unmalted grain beer distinctive.” Indeed it was. It had a nice yeasty aroma, like bread dough, and a good thick mouse of head with a decent lace. It had nice frontal hop flavours, with a hint of something smoky, a rich texture, and a good clear and distinct character.
Next up was the “Blonde d’Epeautre” (spelt blonde). Its description reads “An unmalted grain beer that has a fruit flavour, a smooth foam, and a slight bitterness.” Label descriptions like that threaten to put us beer bloggers out of business, as that pretty much sums it up. I will add, however, that this one didn’t have much foam, despite the description, and the fruit flavor was there but not clearly identifiable. I don’t much like fruit beers, so perhaps that undefined fruitiness is what put me off this one a bit.
The hint of bitterness was, in my opinion, tasty but almost distracting – it didn’t seem to fit with the hint of fruit. I wanted the beer to be one thing or the other, not try to be both.
While this brew will not be listed among my favorites, I must acknowledge that this is simply a matter of personal preference. The brew is crisp and distinctive, with a somewhat cloudy but robust body.
Finally, there was the “Claire Fontaine.” Its description says, “Claire Fontaine is a light, thirst-quenching malted barley beer.” Anyone familiar with beer marketing-speak will recognize “light” and “thirst-quenching” as generally meaning “devoid of character.”
In this case that would be going too far. It is, indeed, light and thirst-quenching, and it does lack the kind of malty richness and hoppy bite that real beer lovers look for in a brew, but on the other hand it is very clear and crisp, and is the cleanest-tasting beer I’ve sampled in quite some time.
This is a nice beer to serve ice-cold at a barbecue – a good “hot dog beer." I don’t mean that as a slight against it – there are times when that is exactly what you want. It’s also a good beer to serve around people who don't like the meatier tastes of full-flavoured beers. In other words, Claire Fontaine is not unlike the standard yellow beers produced by the big domestic brewers – except that it is cleaner and tastes much better!