Anson: Grape and grain – La Boisse beer

Jane Anson meets the Bordeaux winemaker also turning his hand to craft beer...

‘I got the idea when chatting on the phone to a friend who owns a coffee-shop in San Francisco. He was talking about a cold brew coffee that he had been making and how the technique lowered the bitter taste in the drink, and I started thinking that I wanted to make a stout based on the same principle. I wrote down a recipe as soon as I came off the phone, and made it that evening’.

Nicolas Boissonneau, as you can probably gather from this, is not your average Bordeaux winemaker.

For a start his family estate, Château de la Vieille Tour, is an AOC Bordeaux of 55ha that works fully organically and exports 90% of its production in an appellation where exports usually bounce along closer to 20%. He works there with his brother Pascal, the sixth-generation to do so after their great great grandfather Pierre Boissonneau bought his first plot of vines in 1839.

La Vieille Tour is right on the southern edge of the Bordeaux region as it turns into Lot-et-Garonne, in the tiny village of St Michel de Lapaujade. Strawberries and melons grow alongside the vines once you head over the border into the Côtes de Marmandais, where the family also has 5ha of vines under Domaine de Geais. Here they grow Syrah and Abouriou because, as far as I can see, they are smart enough to realise that there is no point growing identikit Bordeaux varieties, in an appellation that has a tough enough time standing out as it is.

Nicolas returned to St Michel de Lapaujade in 2013 after working in New York and California, at first getting a job with local Bordeaux wine producer-merchant Yvon Mau and then négociant Roland Coiffe.

And on the side, he started brewing craft beer in his parents’ garage, developing the idea with his oldest brother Pascal who helped him adapt a 40l wine micro-vinification tank and build a cooling system to get him started. The name was easy – his childhood nickname of La Boisse – although it took until 2015 to start selling the results of his labour.

He is now full-time at La Vieille Tour, with his brewery squeezed into a small barn next to winery, still tiny but growing, capable of producing 1,000 litres of beer a day. The original 40l tank is used for tests, alongside two larger vats made by a local producer of winery equipment.

‘We are certified organic for the beer just as with the wine,’ he tells me as I arrive at the estate on a sunny Saturday morning in late June. ‘We create our own recipes, brew our own beers, bottle and sell. Our beers are not filtered, not pasteurised and are refermented in bottle’.

If you follow any Bordeaux wine critics on Twitter, you might have heard them talking about the La Boisse range of IPA, blond, amber or white beers during this year’s En Primeur tastings. Invariably it meant that they had been to Château Carmes Haut-Brion and had been served a glass by technical director Guillaume Poutier, who loves to take people by surprise by kicking things off with a cold glass of beer.

‘Any winemaker will tell you that beer is an essential part of harvest,’ says Nicolas.

‘There’s nothing else that works quite so well after bringing the grapes in. I spent a day at a local brewery when I came back to Bordeaux and just fell in love with the whole process. I started looking for books on how to do it, then when it became more serious I took a month-long course at the university of La Rochelle to learn the chemical processes behind brewing. I love the freedom and the creativity of it, and that in one day you can have the base of your beer’.

La Boisse beer

Credit: Jane Anson

This sense of creativity must be pretty enjoyable for someone brought up in the confines of an appellation controllée system where everything is set down in a winemaking rule book.

Hops, for example, are crucial in craft beers, as producers use far more of them in the process than standard mass-produced lagers, but they need to be aromatic varieties, so sourcing is crucial.

Nicolas gets his organic hops from Hallertau in Bavaria (‘the Bordeaux of Germany for beer producers’), from a family that has been growing them for more than 60 years. His IPA uses Amarillo hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State, grown by the legendary Carpenter family who are also on the sixth generation of a family business that dates back to 1868, just 19 years after Pierre Boissonneau got his start.

Additional flavourings such as orange peel, coriander and jasmine flower are sourced closer to home. As was the coffee, in a roundabout way. For his cold brew coffee stout he used a single-origin mocha from Ethiopia but bought it from a specialist shop in Léognan.

His next plan is to work on a low-alcohol beer with real flavour. He’s a triathlete when he’s not a brewer or vintner, and a Japanese-character tattoo on his right ankle spells out judo, a sport that he used to practise to national level, so creating a beer to drink alongside sport makes sense.

‘The idea will be to use seresin wheat to make it gluten-free and to add spirulina to retain an earthiness that can be missing in low alcohol beers. But I’m just trying a few things out right now’.

There are plenty of similarities with winemaking that means the two-business approach can work well. Beer and wine use the same saccharomyces family of yeasts (although they are cultured yeasts for La Boisse and only their own natural yeasts for La Vieille Tour). The brothers use the same earth filtration system for both, and the winery labelling line doubles for the beer.

There is also a respect for the process, as hops are one of the hardest crop choices you can make in farming, requiring the kind of high attention to detail that grapes do, and with the same annual dependence on the weather. And it has the unexpected bonus of attracting local drinkers to their wine – me included – for a company that is used to selling La Vieille Tour almost entirely overseas.

‘Beer is less stable in the bottle because the pH levels are higher – around 5pH compared to 3.5pH average in a wine,’ says Pascal, ‘which means you have to be careful about Brettanomyces – because for now we are not looking to make a brett beer, even if plenty of great brewers do, not least because it seems pretty dumb to cultivate brett in a winery…’

Bordeaux craft beers

This is far from the only craft beer being made in Bordeaux. Château Lavison nearby in Entre-deux-Mers is also starting up a small craft brewery within the winery. You can find examples in Bages village up in the Médoc (named D2 after the Route des Châteaux road and made using local barley) as well as at Le Mascaret in Rions, where Nicolas Boissonneau got his first taste for brewing.

There is even a brilliant craft brewery called Les Chantiers de la Garonne on the banks of the river in Bordeaux’s La Bastide district, with a fully-fledged urban beach in front of the bar and a view across to the city main skyline.

But it’s La Boisse that has the clear potential to marry an organic, artisan approach in both beer and wine.

‘The La Boisse beers have many of the attributes that you look for in great wine,’ says Pouthier, explaining why he picks these over the contenders to serve at Carmes Haut-Brion. ‘They are balanced, complex and have real typicity of their type, whether blond, amber, white or IPA. And they have such easy drinkability at 5%abv’.

In return Nicolas says he really appreciates feedback from Pouthier, because he brings a precision and a technical understanding of taste that helps enormously in the development of his own skills as a brewer.

La Boisse is likely to remain an artisan brewery for now. Where the family makes 220,000 bottles of wine per year, La Boisse saw 15,000 bottles in 2018, a number that will rise to 35,000 bottles in 2019.

But for a family steeped in wine, there is one other clearly seductive advantage. Where wine has a 12 to 24-month production cycle, beer is closer to two weeks from brewing to bottling, because they are not involved in the growing of the hops. So where it goes from here just might surprise them all.