Quality Brewing from a Big Player
Scratch the history of Europe and you reveal old enmities, disputed borders and centuries of bloody war. Today, as you drive through the peaceful countryside of Alsace, nestled between the Vosges mountains and the mighty river Rhine, it is hard to imagine that the region has long been part of history’s game of pass the parcel, now in France but twice under German control, most recently during World War II.
With small towns and villages packed with black-and-white, half-timbered buildings, Alsace still has a powerful Germanic feel to it. It is an important wine-producing area, most famous for its fruity Riesling. But, with its powerful German associations, it is also the major brewing region of France. Kronenbourg, which exports its premium 1664 beer to the United States, is the giant of French brewing, with a market share of 41 percent and annual production running at 20 million hectoliters a year.
The brewery was founded in Strasbourg in 1664—hence the name of the beer—by a cooper named Jerome Hatt. His small brewery was in the cellars of a tavern called Au Canon. It was frequently flooded in winter, and in 1850 was moved to the hillier suburb of Cronenbourg, which became Kronenbourg under German rule.
Deep cellars dug beneath the brewery permitted a switch to cold fermentation for lager production. Kronenbourg flourished in the 20th century, took over another large brewery called Kanterbrau, became part of the giant food group Danone, and in 1969, built a second brewery near the town of Obernai.
The Strasbourg plant closed in 2000 and now acts as offices and a museum. Production is centered in Obernai and the Kanterbrau plant near Nancy.
New Beers for Discriminating Drinkers
The year 2000 was a pivotal one for Kronenbourg. Danone had long been anxious to quit brewing to concentrate on food production, and in that year it sold Kronenbourg to Britain’s biggest brewer, Scottish & Newcastle. S&N is now a global giant that owns a leading European lager brand and is also a major player in Russia and the Baltic States.
Obernai is one of the biggest brewing plants in Europe. It has three brew houses, each one producing 30,000 hectoliters of beer a day, with a new brew every two hours. In spite of the history of the region and its close proximity to modern Germany, Kronenbourg’s main brands are not “pure beers” in the German tradition. They contain around 20 percent corn along with barley malt.
But while many global brewers are speeding up fermentation periods, Kronenbourg beers get a respectable cold conditioning. 1664 is lagered for five weeks while new, specialist brands get longer.
S&N is investing heavily in new beers aimed at more discriminating drinkers. Pure Malt is, as the name implies, made only with barley malt and no adjuncts. A delightfully tangy, resiny Fleur de Houblon (Hop Flower) uses Strissespalt hops (an offshoot of the Czech Saaz) fresh from the fields.
A new beer, 1664 Premier Cru, will be of particular interest to beer lovers. The 6 percent beer, which is lagered for two months, has been fashioned by master brewer Jean-Yves Malpote in the style of a 19th-century “Vienna red.” This was the style developed by Anton Dreher in Austria as a “halfway house” between the dark lagers of Munich and the first golden lagers from Pilsen.
Premier Cru is an all-malt brew made with pale and roasted malt. The roast gives a delicious hint of chocolate on the aroma and palate, the sweetness balanced by floral hops and citrus fruit. In an age of dumbed-down global beers, it is a pleasure to congratulate Kronenbourg/S&N on recreating a noble style.
The Beers Live On
In 2002 Britain lost one of its classic pale ale breweries when Brakspear of Oxfordshire closed. The beers live on, brewed a long way from their original home, and have not found favor with drinkers.
But the company that bought the brands, Refresh UK, owns the Wych-wood Brewery, also in the county of Oxfordshire. Refresh has permission from planning authorities to extend the plant and install fermenters and other equipment from the former Brakspear site. The new Brakspear beers, Bitter and Special, are due to appear next spring. There is life after death.