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.