Alchemy in France
French Micros Rediscover Regional Flavors
Great beer in France? Long renowned for its fine cuisine and its wine industry, France is today recalling its past as a great brewing nation.
Brewing in France reached its zenith in the 19th century. Earlier, the French Revolution of 1789 saw the end of many entrenched privileges, including the power of the coopers (cask makers). This vacuum gave rise to the birth of a new trade of “brewing masters,” who thrived until 1900 in over 1,000 local breweries.
These breweries were the inns that made beer for their own needs, or very small artisan and farmhouse breweries. Two regions dominated the market—Nord-Pas de Calais and l’Alsace—followed by the Lorraine, the Ardennes, Picardie and Brittany, all regions in the northern half of France.
Then, as happened in so many countries, the “industrial progress” of the 20th century and two world wars nearly wiped out the artisan approach. By mid-century, a few large brewing companies dominated the scene, producing beers that had little connection to French tradition.
In the last 50 years, the concentration of brewing interests has intensified. Many small breweries sustained damage during the last war. They were not able to make the investments to modernize, or adapt to new habits of consumption or, above all, adjust to large distribution networks far from their home base.
The large foreign brewing groups have appeared on the French market, too. Heineken of Holland and the Belgian Stella Artois (Interbrew today) arrived, as well as the French Kronenbourg (Danone), and all began to buy up these failing breweries, sometimes only in order to close them. The concentration of beer interests heralded the globalization that continues even today. The last French breweries to be bought include Fischer, acquired by Heineken in 1996, and Kronenbourg, acquired by Scottish and Newcastle in 2000.
The new wave of microbreweries and brewpubs (cafés brasseries in French) since 1995 may appear to be a spontaneous modern innovation. Instead, these new breweries herald the renaissance of a once-established tradition. Within a few short years, 136 new brewing establishments have sprung up in the country’s four corners. Like their elders of a century ago, they are flourishing because the innkeeper is brewing his own beer adapted to local taste habits. But, in contrast to the older breweries, yesterday’s empirical approach is being replaced by new technology and modern methods.
David and Goliath
The new microbreweries did not appear on the scene out of thin air. As upholders of French brewing traditions, they were preceded by a few of the industrial “Goliaths” who nonetheless represent the heritage of the past. Often family owned, but above all independent and proud, these large breweries were characterized by their quality and successful brands.
Their names glorify the tradition of brewing: Meteor at Hochfelden and Schutzenberger et Schiltigheim in Alsace, Brasseurs de Gayant, Jeanne d’Arc, Terken (G.B.M.), Duyck, Castelain, Ricour, De Clercq, Dhaussy, Annoeullin in the region of the Nord Pas de Calais. From these national breweries come many beers in a traditional mold.
Many of these breweries produce a bière de garde, a uniquely French ale style. Top fermented, the bière de garde is fruity, most frequently amber in color, generally well structured in alcohol and conditioned between 40 and 60 days in a cave, in the manner of a lager. It is close to the abbey beers of Belgium, but a little sweeter and less malted. It is typical of the regions of Nord Pas de Calais, the Picardie and the Somme, that is to say, in the north quarter of France. The best known include Trois Monts, Jenlain, Sebourg, Choulette, Ch’ti, and l’Angelus.
Trois Mont from Ricour is a northern French blonde bière de garde of great quality, rounded and delicate—ideal with cheeses such as le Maroiles or Munster. For me, it is one of the best beers in France and, indeed, the world.
Belzebuth from la Brasserie Jeanne d’Arc is a very strong beer, similar to Bière du Desert from the Brasseurs de Gayant.
The Alsace region, which lies in the Rhine River basin, clearly imparts its German influence to beers such as Schutzenberger or Meteor, the latter of which offers Pils, Blanche, Ackerland Lager, Ackerland Brown, Mortimer, and Wendelinus Abbey. From Schutzenberger comes Cooper, Tütz (a light blonde beer with an aroma of grapefruit), Beer sur lie (“on yeast,” or bottle conditioned), Jubilator (a blonde beer), and Patriator (a brown beer).
Even the international breweries have played a role supporting distinctive beers. Their main focus may be on the virtues of the goddess Europe and the vices of globalization, but each beer born from the vats of their breweries contributes to French know-how. And through their affiliates, they support innovation. The Dutch group, Heineken, through the ever-creative Fischer, produces the beers Adelscott, Desperados, Tradition, Kingston, Bitter and Dorelei. Karlsbrau Saverne (Alsace), an affiliate of Karlsberg, brings us la Lincorne, and we have 1664 from Kronenbourg—all names that sing and dance on the international scene.
Against this backdrop, and on a marginal basis, the microbrewery constitutes a sort of “David,” linked both to tradition and to new technologies. For their growing numbers of supporters, the micros represent the next taste frontier in a country where gastronomy holds such a predominant place in the art de vivre. These microbreweries bring back nobility and vigor to a product brewed with passion.
School of Taste
Brewing is an art, but the master brewer’s trade is also one that is learned in theory and then applied in practice. Study and apprenticeship with a master brewer are essential for would-be brewers to achieve their dream. A microbrewery needs a specialized person who is able to apply methods rigorously.
In France, the Institute des Boissons, de la Brasserie et de la Malterie de Nancy Brabois, better known as I.F.B.M., located in Vandoeuvre (Lorraine), has been a key actor in this sector. This center specialized in research and development, information and training, and continuing education programs for brewers, maltsters, and hop growers. For years, it trained the majority of artisan brewers in the country.
This is not the case today, as its major shareholders, Kronenbourg and Heineken, judged that the institute contributed to unfair competition coming from the microbreweries. In fact, it is true that the strengths of microbreweries—the originality and complex tastes of their beers—stand in stark contrast to the common practices of industrial breweries in search of quick return on investment.
Although fed up with the taunts of David, Goliath did, however, allow I.F.B.M. in these last few years to train the “beer maniacs” who knew what they wanted but didn’t know how to go about doing it. For this purpose, I.F.B.M. courageously created an affiliate, Qualitech, certified ISO 9002 (the highest international standards). For the last 10 years, Qualitech has continued to train the very best of the microbrewers in all areas—understanding of raw materials, brewing chemistry, sensory analysis and marketing.
Better still, I.F.B.M. helps the young trainees to elaborate on their beers. This creative melting pot can claim credit for successful craft brews, among them the Alsatian Speltor, the Corsican Pietra, the brandy aroma of XO, or Oldarki and the Basque names of Patcharan and Ackerbeltz.
Local Flavor—the Strength of French Micros
The French version of microbrewing is, above all, a return to local origins, tailoring the product to the consumer. In their full development, microbreweries are a witness to the renaissance of flavors and aromas. The varied micro beers reflect once again the regional gastronomic characteristics of the regions of France, paradise of good taste—from the rich, inventive home cooking of one’s grandmother to the great chefs recognized by the world renowned Michelin Guide.
Microbrewed beers represent a passionate relationship between the brewer and his products. Cook as well as distiller, the brewer is above all a craftsman who works with the wort as much as the spices. The intrigued consumer is attracted to this magical, ancestral process due to the qualities of these beer-making establishments—the brewer as an alchemist.
Among the international new wave of craft brewers, French brewers stand out for their willingness to experiment with unusual ingredients. Beers are brewed with flowers, fruits or spices of regional origin, or a selected mixture of the three.
This modern experimentation has a long history. From the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, before the use of hops, the beer ingredient, “gruit,” was popularized by the bishop princes of Liege in Belgium.
Gruit consisted of a bouquet of herbs and spices plunged into the wort. Destined to aromatize the beer, it was composed of coriander, juniper, bay, rosemary, nutmeg, white pepper, thyme, basil, laurel, savory, marjoram and perhaps cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and, of course, sage. True to its epoch, the gruit reflected people’s increasing interest in new tastes inspired by the return of adventurers from the Crusades, the West Indies, or perhaps most appropriately, the Americas.
The therapeutic virtues of spices in gruit were well known from a science baptized “aromatherapy.” Thus, beer gained an advantage on wine, and its control became hugely profitable. But the bishop princes ran into fierce trouble with the mounting cost of beer spices, which were the monopoly of a Bavarian prince. Family quarreling and money problems in the Bavarian court added to the strife.
The monopoly was undermined by the introduction of hops, which gradually replaced gruit everywhere, with the exception of the Trappist monasteries where brewing continued in the gruit tradition.
The Return of Spices
Spices made a triumphant return in this century, thanks to the phenomenon of microbreweries. Regional curiosities like the astonishing Colomba Blanche from Corsica’s Pietra Brewery, or La Bière des Volcans d’Auvergne from Brasserie du Cerf Combronde—these beers tickle the craftsman’s imagination.
Pietra’s Columba Blanche is flavored with herbs from the “maquis,” the bush lands of Corsica. There, in the dense brush, the hero-bandits hid from the police in Victor Hugo’s novel Columba, which gave the beer its name. In the dense maquis grow spicy herbs such as the thyme, rosemary, sariette and oregano that one finds in this white beer.
From the same brewery, the beer Pietra is flavored with chestnuts. It is a very interesting beer, another example of the close identification of the beers with the land, since the chestnut is a typical Corsican fruit.
By contrast, La bière des Volcans d’Auvergne from the Brasserie du Cerf in Auvergne is based on spices of genievre (Dutch gin): coriander and cardamom.
At the brewery La Scala in Strasbourg, Bernard Dal brews traditional beers of Alsace/Rhine style, based on premium ingredients, but without spices or aromatics other than hops. Le Scala is a brewpub, and the brewpubs often concentrate on the “classic” beers.
But in Alsace, a region where proximity to German brewing traditions leads many breweries to adopt the pilsner styles, the microbrewery d’Uberach is well used to innovation. Brewer Eric Trossat is more creative and more adventurous. He is an authentic researcher who is evolving the taste of his product. He brews marvels like Juliette Amoureuse with its aroma of roses, peach, ginger and the aphrodisiac “bois bandé” herb from the west Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
He also brews Marie Noëlle with raspberries and cherries, and a strong beer flavored with l’eau de vie de bière (bier Schnapps). And we must not forget a beer called Carabosse, named for a witch, brewed with pumpkin in honor of Halloween; or Marc de Gewürtz, flavored with gewürztraminer grapes; or La Lupuline, with aphrodisiac spices and pear. Coming soon is a new honey beer brewed with la Miélusine, an organic malt.
Elsewhere, beers from the Cimes brewery from Aix les Bains include L’Aiguille Blanche, a spiced white beer, with curaçao and coriander in the Belgian style; la Cimoise, a mild amber ale; la Bête des Vosges, a blonde beer with aromatic yeast in the manner of Belgium’s Duvel; la Yêti and la Bâton de Feu, all of which have promising new careers. This creative brewery has attracted the attention of Edgar Grospiron, champion of extreme acrobatic skiing (Olympic and World Champion), as a partner.
Brittany is not left behind, with its 20 microbreweries, where one distinguishes honey beer (cervoise) and mountain ash aromas from the brewery, Lancelot. Normandy innovates with the Blanche Trinquette flavored with Calvados (apple brandy) from the Alauna Brewery, and we can wait for new and special beers coming from other regions.
Surfing on the waves of special beers, young people, and especially women, adulate these artisan brews and rejoice in tasting the succulent banana, kiwi and strawberry flavors of their favorite drinks.
Fresh, natural, often unfiltered and unpasteurized, the beer served in France’s new cafés brasseries celebrates local authenticity, which is newly attractive to the French clientele. The cultural revolution, in concert with the palate revolution that has been sweeping the world these last 10 years, is finding new value in what is traditional and local. This new movement is active, especially now that a true popular beer culture has emerged in France.
The beginning of the new millennium is hailed as an era of sharing. French beer that is as passionate and distinctive as its new brewing locations could reconquer the heart of conviviality in France.
Jean Claude Colin
Jean Claude Colin writes about beer and organizes Eurobiere, the Strasbourg-based beer trade fair. He created the Alsatian Beer Trail, and also creates names and labels for breweries, among them Bête des Vosges and Juliette. His books include La Bière, Saveurs et Degustation, La Bière en Alsace, Le Guide Gourmand de la Bière, and many other titles.