France’s renown as a nation of talented footballers is inversely proportional to its reputation as a beer country. While it’s up to the national team to keep the flag flying tonight, in the Euro 16 game against Iceland, it’s up to me to tell you something about bière artisanale (artisan beer).
Let me guess: not many of you have ever heard of any French craft beer (unless you're French, of course).
Well, despite my love for travel and for beer hunting (and numerous trips to France over the past ten years), I myself had very little chances to get to taste any, or even simply read about it.
France is known as a wine country. Notwithstanding this, it is in fact the world’s third country for number of microbreweries, with some 800 of them! [Alltech]
Traditionally, the principal French brewing regions are Nord-Pas-de-Calais, by the Belgian border, and Alsace. The first is home to arguably the only French beer style, known as Bière de Garde - which nevertheless is more a ‘category’ than a ‘style’. The second is a region that found itself at the core of several conflicts between France and Germany over the past two centuries. Many Alsatian towns carry names of German origin and the local brewing tradition shows a strong German influence too.
Lots of renowned French premium brands, such as Kronenbourg 1664 (Carlsberg) and Fischer (Heineken), originated in that region. Today the brewing map of France is rather different; microbreweries have popped out all over the country. Rhone-Alpes (South-East in the map below) is the region where these are more concentrated, with over 100 of them!
A real pioneer of French micro-brewing is Coreff, which opened in Bretagne (Brittany) as early as in 1985. The idea was to give all those Frenchmen in love with traditional British ales a chance to enjoy some decent beer without the need to cross the channel. Unsurprisingly, many Coreff beers are indeed inspired by British ales and stouts; additionally, the beer range features also some more Northern-French styles such as blanche and brune (sort of a strong Belgian dark ale). Apart from such a unique, pioneering venture, the real beer revolution kicked off about ten years later, in the mid-‘90s.
One of the most popular breweries that started back then is Brasserie Thiriez (Esquelbecq, Nord-Pas-de-Calais), 20 years of age this year. Most of its recipes are shaped according to French/Flemish styles, like their wonderful bière de garde Fiori delle Fiandre (Flowers of Flanders), made in collaboration with Italian Birrificio del Ducato.
It’s not all about tradition though; there’s room for innovation too. I tried their Petite Princesse (Little Princess), a collaboration brew with Jester King (USA), which I would describe as a session saison. It’s a table beer based on Jester King’s recipe but brewed with Thiriez’ own yeast. It’s generously hopped and pleasantly refreshing, with a gentle yeasty, grassy and floral nose. Given the very low alcohol content (only 2.9% vol.) its medium body is quite remarkable.
Despite the sheer amount of breweries that opened since Thiriez moved the first steps 20 years ago, and a well-developed quality-beer culture, the French beer scene is paradoxically one of the lesser known outside its own national borders. I always wondered what was the reason for this. During my last trip to Paris I finally decided to look for someone who could give me a sensible explanation.
Luckily enough, Gilbert Delos (beer journalist, blogger, president of Les Amis de la Bière d'Ile de France, author of 101 Bières) kindly agreed to answer my question. He welcomed me at Mairie d’Issy tube station, where he pick me up and drove me to his nice house just ten minutes by car from there. In his opinion, most brewers like to work on a very small scale and have no intention to get bigger.
- Some beers that I really enjoy - he says - can’t even be found in Paris or outside their own district, so how can you expect to find them abroad? -. As a result, there aren’t many nationwide renowned microbreweries (exception made for the pioneers and a handful of other names, including for instance Br. du Mont Saleve or La Débauche). When I ask him whether he thinks that language barriers are affecting the scarce knowledge of French craft brewing among the non-French speaking audience, he confidently denies.
It’s a matter of fact, however, that no major beer magazines give much room to French craft beers, which leaves the international audience totally unaware of what’s going on in France. In addition to this, French craft beers do not even benefit from the support of a strong - French-speaking - social media community.
One example? Just compare the hashtags #cervejaartesanal (Portuguese/Brazilian) #cervezaartesanal (Spanish) and #birraartigianale (Italian) with #biereartisanale (French) on Instagram to see which is last per number of tags.
Whether in French or in English, Gilbert himself told me that there isn’t much beer writing in France, which certainly doesn’t help the development of the local scene. The only beer-focused publication is Bière Magazine - with whom he obviously collaborates. Gilbert claimed that the lack of entries in renowned competitions is also affecting France’s anonymity within the international beer scene. - Last year, for the very first time, a good amount of French breweries entered and won medals at the World Beer Awards - told me with pride as he was pouring two brilliant French brews for me to taste.
One of these was Zébeer, made by young Parisian Brasserie de l'Être and the ZéBU project during the last Paris Beer Week. ZeBeer is a low-alcohol, old-style saison, with beautiful floral notes and a delicate bitterness.
The second was instead a very rare Wilde Leeuw Cuvée Spéciale (only 250 bottles produced) by Brasserie du Pays Flamand. This 10% vol. blonde ale has been matured in red wine barrels for eight months. The resulting product is an elegant, mildly sour, lightly-bodied beer with very nice cocoa and vanilla notes.
By introducing me to these two great beers, Gilbert meant to show me that now French brewers feel comfortable with traditional styles as well as with rather innovative brews. He definitely delivered the message, those two were very excellent beers!
I certainly agree with Gilbert’s point about awards, as they certainly represent a crucial step towards the ‘internationalisation’ of French craft brewing. A further step is to embrace global craft brewing trends, so it’s not surprising that France has recently been experiencing an exponential growth in popularity of barrel-aged beers (like the Wilde Leeuw mentioned above) and heavily-hopped IPAs.
To find a decent IPA in France is, by now, not a very difficult task. In the minute I walked in La Cave à Bulles (arguably one of the most famous beer shops in Paris, and in France), owner Simon Thillou proudly introduced me to at least five or six IPAs. Oliphant Jérakine is what really caught my attention: an IPA brewed with French hops only by, once again, Brasserie de l'Être.
French craft beer benefits from a comforting balance between traditional styles and innovative brews. A good number of microbreweries now offer a wide range of beers, from blonde ales to IPAs. Many are producing very intriguing experimental beers too, such as Demi-Mondaine (a brilliant 11% vol. ‘cocoa+coffee imperial stout’ by La Debauche), 3Ter (‘coffee triple’ by Br. Goutte d’Or), or Cuvée d’Oscar (atypical dunkelweizen by Craig Allan).
My French beer hunting left me with a burning need to discover more. I certainly wish that bière artisanale was easily available abroad; yet, a big part of me loves the idea that most beers are only available in the immediate surroundings of the brewery where they’ve been produced.
I guess Nord-Pas-de-Calais or even the Rhône-Alpes district are now on my beer-bucket list.