A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Rupert returned bearing gifts after a holiday in Brittany; a boxed set of beers from Brasserie Lancelot. I instantly wanted to taste them based on the labels alone. Yes, very silly, but I'm a bit of a sucker for Arthurian stuff, so the Cervoise Lancelot label fascinated me -- and I freely admit I love John Boorman's Excalibur, despite the hammy acting from Gabriel Byrne and whichever Boorman played Igrayne in the early parts.
I have to admit, I struggle to name French beers that I have really enjoyed. My favourite was probably... ehhh, no, it's gone. Should I admit to enjoying Kronenbourg Blanc, or some of the Fischer stuff? That'll do. So, it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that three of us opened these bottles on a Friday afternoon.
The only background I have is from their wesite. Founded in 1990 by Bernard Lancelot -- so it wasn't just chosen as a celtic marketing gimmick -- and based in the renovated building associated with a former gold mine in Roc-Saint-André in Morbihan, they make seven regular beers "inspired by the history of Brittany and Celtic legends". Fine, but what do they taste like?
A Blanche Hermine, or the white ermine, is the symbol of Brittany, and apparently the inspiration of the motto of the region: "Plutôt la mort que la souillure!", or "Rather dead than soiled!". I've never visited the area, so I'd like to visit and see how clean it really is. The Lancelot Blanche Hermine is a 4% wheat beer with an earthy aroma, touching on farmyardy, with citrus highlights. The flavour has a grainy element, with citrus and a fairly decent spiciness. Not a bad start as it was a hot day, and despite the fullish feel to it, it was refreshing. It's highly carbonated, and it did gush a little on opening, so a tad less might have made it less filling.
Another bit of a gusher was the Lancelot Bonnets Rouge, a beer named after the revolt of the Bonnets rouges which was centered on Bretagne in 1675. The list of ingredients includes elderberries, so I was hoping this would blow the socks off the Germans and prove a point about the Rheinheitsgebot. Pouring a rather murky, dried blood red, the aroma is lightly fruity. It certainly doesn't lift out. The flavour shows a sweet toffee base with subtle, dry, berry notes, but a little artificial in tone. The finish is dry and a bit acidic. As with its sister, it's not bad, and while the Germans appreciated the effort, they were not converted to the joys of fruit in beer. I'll have to break out a Cantillon Kriek to shift those socks.
Moving up the alcohol stakes to 6%, we took on the Lancelot Bière Blonde -- or just Lancelot -- a dirty blonde laced with yeast that was apprently inspired by Trappist beers. The aroma here suggests more alcohol than 6%, with a malty sweetness touched with lemon. As with the Bonnets Rouge, there's an underlying graininess to the flavour, like raw malt. It also has that fruitiness you sometimes get with a Belgian strong ale, and it gives an orange-like finish. It's quite heavy going really, and is more of a sipper than a summer beer, but it got some respect from my fellow tasters.
Staying in the same strength bracket, the label of Cervoise Lancelot tells us it is brewed with seven plants and "un peu de miel". Pouring a slightly pinkish amber, the aroma is intriguing. With a heavy ginger aroma to the fore, you can detect sweet, honey-like notes, and, dare I say it, is that heather blossom? Whatever it is, there's a floral element in that mix. The flavour gives everything suggested in the aroma. Herbal flavours abound, and there's a honey texture underlying it all. It finishes with a slight ginger heat. A very interesting beer that's well worth trying, but probably not one for session drinking!
If we had known about the ginger, we might have put the Cervoise Lancelot after the Duchesse Anne, another strong blonde ale named in honour of Anne de Bretagne (1477), who was twice Queen of France after marrying Charles VIII and Louis XII, presumably not at the same time. In actual fact, it probably didn't matter as the aroma was sweet and fruity with an alcohol hit that suggested whiteboard markers. The flavour is also sweet, with robust caramel, pear-like qualities and a bit of cherry. The finish is surprisingly dry, and a touch herbal. It tastes a lot stronger than 6%, and is really quite satisfying. Like the rest of the Lancelot beers, this was highly carbonated, possibly lending to the filling qualities. On an aside, while reading about the Duchess on Wikipedia, I couldn't help but notice how she's been airbrushed a bit on the label. Great job!
We left the darkest one till last, but it was also one of the weaker ones, weighing in at 4.5%. Lancelot Telenn Du, meaning Black Harp, is brewed using malted barley and buckwheat, a grain coming from a non-cereal (pseudocereal) plant commonly used for bread and noodle making. Pouring a lovely dark brown, the aroma is rich and chocolatey with a touch of roastiness. The first impression on tasting it is of a strangely thin mouthfeel, which disappoints, but still, there's a caramel note running all the way through, supported by a slight chocolate toffee flavour, a thin roasted element and later a heavy, grassy, green flavour. As highly carbonated as its siblings, it failed to deliver on expectations, but then, it might be a bit more delicate than the big girls we had before it.
Overall, I was delighted to try this selection, and many thanks to Rupert for thinking of bringing the box into the office. If I had to pick a favourite, it'd probably be the Cervoise Lancelot, simply for the combination of interesting flavours, and especially that ginger-like notes, which I really quite like. I'd love to know if there really is ginger in there! Duchesse Anne is also worth trying if you can find it. Hell, try them all if you can and decide yourself!
It's good to know there are breweries in France doing interesting things with beer, and it's a shame that they don't seem to be available a little wider. But then, finding a surprise like this while visiting the place probably makes it a little more special.