The french beer scene
|France has rightly enjoyed the reputation as the gourmet capital of the world and its huge selection of alcoholic drinks is internationally famous. However, despite the fame of its wines, fortified wines, spirits and liqueurs outside its borders, domestically the French – especially the younger generations – prefer to drink beer when socialising away from their homes.
Gone are the days when only a minority of French would be seen drinking beer in bars. Perhaps it is a reaction to the tightening up of drink/drive laws, or perhaps it is due to the good value for money offered by beer; the fact is that, after 50 years of decline, brewing and beer appreciation in France is now undergoing a huge surge of interest.
At the start of the 20th century there were well over 1,000 breweries in France, but a series of events and trends between 1900 to 1950 had a major impact on the industry resulting in many bankruptcies, closures and mergers. Rural depopulation, two World Wars (both of which saw parts of France under occupation by the Germans) and lack of investment capital to replace old brewplant with equipment capable of brewing the ‘trendy’ pilsener-type beers of the 60s and 70s left the country with a small collection of huge beer combines. A handful of smaller regional breweries, some family-owned, managed to struggle through the hard times and were eventually joined by the first of a new generation of special beer brewers which started to appear in the late 70s.
The first of these special beer producers were Castelain (which make the Ch’ti beers) and La Choulette, both in the Nord/Pas-de-Calais region. Thankfully they decided not to try to compete with the likes of Kronenbourg and Heineken by making pilsener-type beers, preferring instead to brew beer with ale yeasts. This original trailblazing encouraged others to take the brave step to open – and even gave some breweries which had long been closed to start brewing again. The beers made in this region, although many have now adopted the production process, undergo a period of “garding” (or lagering, that is a secondary fermentation at very low temperatures just above 0°C) which have given rise to the term “bières de garde” to describe their products.
By the mid-1980s there were two distinct brewing regions – Nord/Pas-de-Calais and Alsace, the latter preferring to continue brewing beer with bottom fermenting yeasts in the broad German style. It was also at this time that the provinces started to wake up to the burgeoning national beer revolution with the opening of Deux Rivières in Brittany and the first of the 3 Brasseurs chain of brewpubs in Lille.
The French beer revival is now in full flow to the point that around 15 breweries opened in 2000, supplementing the 18 that opened the previous year, with a wide variety of beer styles and brewing techniques. Now it is possible to drink British-style real ale, German-style weizenbier, Belgian-style witbier and spiced beer along with the traditional Alsace and bière de garde styles. Even the UK-owned Firkin pub chain has three pubs in Paris, although at present only one brews beer on site. A handful of tiny rural breweries have found the trend towards organic produce in France a real benefit with a ready market for organically-accredited beers.
Although it is easy to point out that almost half of all the breweries of France are in the highly populated and quite industrial regions of Nord/Pas-de-Calais and Alsace/Lorraine, the current trend is for new breweries to open in the rural provinces. Brittany is becoming a brewing centre of its own with 14 breweries operating today, but the rest are scattered thinly around this huge country. With the tendency for information to be only sporadically available and because many new breweries will only be operating within a small radius from their brewery, we greatly appreciate any news and comment from readers and, if we use the information on the website, we will credit the source.
This website is intended to help beer drinkers get the most out of their visit to France or to offer information on products available for drinkers to sample the beers at home or in a speciality beer bar. The French Beer News page will give details of any forthcoming events we are aware of and any amendmens to previously published information. You can get your own update to “The Beers of France” from the “Update” link.