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Viva la Biere! The French Brewing Revolution

Let’s face it, France is not known for its beer. With heavyweights like Germany, Belgium and the UK in the neighborhood, it’s no wonder French brewers get lost in their shadow. It’s de facto wine country, so for my first visit to the Land of the Franks, I felt it necessary, nay, mandatory to drink wine. Given the broad diversity, superb quality and illustrious history of French wineries, you would be a fool not to indulge in a rich Bordeaux, a delicious Burgundy or a vivacious Champagne. But what’s a polyamorous beer lover like myself to do but to cheat a little?

My first night in France, the wife and I were looking for a serious thirst quencher after a five-hour long, guided, nighttime bike tour through the streets of Paris. Wine was just not going to cut it. One of the guides suggested a local bar, or brasserie as they’re called in France. Technically, the word’s French for “brewery,” but the term is broadly applied to pubs, bars and restaurants, and bonafide breweries alike. So, if you’re a craft beer fan in France for the first time, don’t get too excited when you see the word, “brasserie,” adorning the facade of some enticing cafe. However, rest assured that establishment will almost certainly carry some sort of beer for you to whet your palate.

Our guide recommended a place called the “Metro” (short for Au Dernier Métro) in the 7th Arrondissement, a small, vibrant place with all the charm and appeal of an Irish pub. When we arrived shortly before midnight, we found a colorful amalgam of locals and tourists flocked to a row of tables tightly lined up in Parisian fashion. Its antique yellow walls were littered with an assortment of vintage beer, wine and liquor signs, an absolute must if you want to call yourself a “brasserie.”

A list of wine and beer specials was scrawled out on a blackboard hanging conspicuously from the ceiling. The usual suspects made the list, including Heineken, Carlsberg and Kronenbourg 1664 – France’s equivalent of Bud, Miller and Coors. Then one name at the very bottom of the list caught my eye: St. Erwann IPA. As I later found out, this 7-grain IPA is brewed by Brasserie de Bretagne (Brittany Brewery) in a small seaside village along Brittany’s rugged coast. Situated in the very northwestern corner of the country, the denizens of Brittany have seemingly more in common with the Irish than their French compatriots with a strong Celtic heritage that dates back over two millennia. In remote parts of this French province, the natives still speak a form of Gaelic, an ancient language found primarily in Ireland and Scotland.

Another thing that sets them apart from the rest of their countrymen is their affinity for beer. Brittany is too far north to grow grapes so over the centuries the Bretons have brewed beer, using a variety of native grains including barley, wheat, rye, oats, spelt, millet and buckwheat. All seven of these grains made their way into St. Erwann IPA, providing a flavorful, grainy, somewhat spicy malt backbone to balance the piney, citrusy bitterness of the New World hops. The wife, no fan of IPAs, took one sip and immediately declared it, “too bitter,” which confirmed my suspicion that this beer would please even the stingiest of American hopheads. Personally, I gave this beer a 39 out of 50 points, which firmly makes it a must-try beer if you run across it.

Two days later we were walking along the Seine River, the aorta of Paris. The rain was gently falling, which made this moment as romantic as you imagine a rainy day in Paris. It is very wet however. We wanted to see the famed Notre Dame Cathedral before it got too late, so we crossed over a bridge to Ile St. Louis, one of the two famous river islands in the heart of Paris. On the corner, I spotted an inviting tavern with warm, red awnings called Brasserie de L’Isle Saint-Louis. It appeared as good as any place to find a little respite from the chilling drizzle, and we needed a drink. We gorged ourselves on wine for the last 48 hours so I was pining for a good beer. Luckily, I got more than I bargained for.

Little did I know this was one of Paris’ coolest spots to drink a beer on a warm summer day. The minute I walked in I felt like I stepped into a different era. In fact, the building was founded as and has remained a tavern since its inception in the middle of 19th century. The current owners took over this iconic bar and restaurant in 1953, preserving its nostalgic features all the way down to the old-fashioned steel and brass coffee machine mounted majestically to the top of the bar like a vintage steam engine. Classic red and white checkered table cloths covered the tables, and a montage of antiques cluttered the counters and shelves. An assortment of grainy, black and white pictures adorned the walls, and an impressive collection of German steins was perched above the bar.

I asked our rather dignified, well-dressed bartender if he had any French beers he could recommend. Without hesitation, he plopped a large grey ceramic mug full of Mützig Old Lager in front in me and insisted I would not be disappointed. “Mützig”, a name derived from the small town near Strasbourg where it is brewed, lies in the Alsace region of northeastern France. This province sits west of the banks of the mighty Rhine with Germany just across the river to the east. Due to its proximity and its cultural ties to Germany, the Alsace has a decisively German flavor infused with its French heritage. Here, you will find a variety of German-inspired lagers as well as French biere de mars, France’s take on the German märzen. The Alsace is also a renowned hop-growing region where France’s classic Strisselspalt hops were first cultivated. This hop still plays a major role in French beer. To this day, French brewers are very committed to using locally sourced ingredients, and Strisselspalt hops are a big part of that tradition. Its delicate, spicy, lemony flavor is the perfect addition to beers with a lighter profile, which include lagers, blond and pale ales, saisons and blanche (white) beers.

I later learned Mützig Old Lager became an aprés-ski favorite for French skiers many years ago, earning a cult-like following among the locals with a brewing history that dates back to 1810. Unfortunately, like many American brewers, Mützig was a victim of their own success, selling out to Heineken in 1989. Apparently, the bulk of its production has been outsourced to – of all places – Rwanda, where it’s the former French colony’s second most popular beer. Who knew? Luckily for its die hard French fans, you can still find this Alsatian trailblazer with a little due diligence. As it turned out, I discovered it without even trying. While certainly not mind-blowing, I found this smooth, clean, medium-bodied French lager just the thing to brighten my mood on a rainy day, and an impressive 7.5% ABV packs more of a punch than your typical lager. The wife, however, was not impressed. Ouch. The French were now batting 0 for 2 with the better half.

The next day we bid adieu to Paris, hopped on a train and headed west to Normandy. Our first visit was to the famous medieval monastery of Mont Saint Michel, a twelve-hundred-year-old island fortress on the Norman coast that simply defies the imagination. Rising out of the ocean floodplain and the surrounding salt marshes, this architectural masterpiece sits atop a small granite mountain that transforms into an island during high tide. During low tide, tourists can leisurely walk out across the sandy floodplain and visit the abbey and surrounding village, just as pilgrims have for centuries.

As the sun set over the English Channel, the wife and I knew we had to soak up this awe-inspiring scene. The moment called for a little food and drink. With a little providence, we found a quiet restaurant with a patio overlooking the town’s ramparts, offering panoramic view of the Norman coast. We ordered a galette, the savory, meaty counterpart to the sweet, fruity crepe, and the wife a white wine, but I spied a local craft beer on the menu. Brewed and bottled just a few kilometers away, the restaurant offered a blonde and an ambrée (amber) by Brasserie de la Baie (Brewery of the Bay). I ordered the latter, which bore the elegant moniker, La Croix des Greves (“the Cross of Strikes”), a name attributed to a legendary artifact originally sighted in the bay near Mont Saint Michel in 1150 that has since been lost to the sea.

Founded in 2003, the brewery hasn’t been around nearly as long as the legend of the cross, but to this little brewery by the bay resurrecting Normandy’s proud brewing tradition is considered a higher calling. Like neighboring Brittany, Normandy is historically beer and cider country, and Brasserie de la Baie does its best to pay homage to that history. All of their beers are artisanale – unfiltered, unpasteurized and made with only the finest organic ingredients – and the bulk of the brewery’s distribution is confined to a 150-km radius: a true craft beer with a true craft following.

I found the amber a perfect complement to my ham and cheese galette. Reminiscent of an English ale, its sweet malty notes of caramel and toffee paired extremely well with the galette’s salty, savory flavors. It was smooth, medium-bodied with a nice, silky mouthfeel. Even the wife gave it a thumbs up. Now we were making progress, and of course, you couldn’t beat the view. Here I sat drinking a delicious, malty beer on the walls of a medieval fortress, gazing out at the shimmering sea and the lush green pastoral coastline that literally ebbs and flows with history. I imagined some 12th century Benedictine monk doing exactly the same thing centuries before me, staring out at that same sun setting over that same sea. I don’t want to necessarily call it the perfect beer for the perfect moment, that’s the highwater mark, but this was truly one of those serendipitous beer moments that would always linger in my memories. That much I was sure of.

Two days later we left our little hideaway in the Norman countryside and made our way east to the D-Day Memorial. A guided tour took us to all the highlights: Pont du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the American Cemetery – all sights more solemn and powerful that you ever expect. After a somber and deeply introspective afternoon, we headed to our B&B in nearby Bayeux, a charming town mercifully spared the bombs of WWII. That night as the fog rolled in we combed the cobblestone streets looking for some French cuisine to cap off yet another surreal day in France.

We found an excellent restaurant, Le Petit Normand, where you could get an awesome, 3-course meal for under 20 Euro. I started out with a local cider, which as I mentioned before is something of a delicacy in Normandy. Producing some of the finest ciders in the world, some local distilleries have been in the business for centuries. I can appreciate a good cider, especially ciders with a pedigree like Normandy’s, but they’re usually too sweet for my taste. One tends to be my limit. So, for dinner I was hoping for some more craft beer mojo. Scanning their limited beer list, I spotted two beers from Brasserie La Lie. Once again, there was a blonde and ambrée, two common variations of the French bière de garde category. This time I felt I needed to try the blonde, and I thought it might go well with the oven-roasted chicken I ordered. My assumptions would prove correct.

I was amused to learn that la lie, means “the dregs” in French, a clever and ironic play on words. Literally, dregs is the sediment of any liquid, in this case, beer, but the brewery plays off of the saying, “the dregs of society,” and their whimsical, quasi-Cubist, cartoon labels fit the motif perfectly. While they clearly have a sense of humor, their beer was certainly nothing to laugh at. The label proudly stated, “Brasserie Artisanale,” and “BIO,” attesting to the brewery’s commitment to quality and sustainability. Au Pré de ma Blonde (In the Meadow of my Blond) the beer was called, living up to its namesake with a bright, pale gold hue. The scent was sweet, spicy and slightly bready.  The initial taste reminded me of a saison with hints of coriander and pepper but without the barny or funky notes often associated with this style. Its light, effervescent body and smooth, dry, malty finish was just the thing to wash down my meal. Winner winner, chicken dinner.

The next morning, we headed off to the city of Honfleur, the last leg of our Norman invasion. A centuries old seaport, this vibrant town is steeped with history. Ancestral home to fishermen, sailors and ferrymen, Honfleur was the port of origin for the first French explorers to colonize Canada and due to its charming harbor filled with sailboats and lined with colorful, half-timber buildings was a portrait favorite to French impressionists like Monet and Boudin. Oh, and did I mention the seafood? If you visit Honfleur, don’t forget to bring your appetite.

The harbor, the anchor of Honfleur’s culture, is teeming with excellent bars and restaurants where you can load up on French delicacies like escargot, steamed mussels, oysters in the half shell, or pick from a staggering selection of seafood choices. If you order a four-course meal, you can try every critter scouring the ocean floor. Our first night on the town, the wife and I felt like gluttons. On our plates in front of us, lay the carcasses from an indiscriminate number of shellfish. After winning our race to the top of the food chain, we celebrated our victory feast bar hopping, perhaps just to add insult to injury. We stumbled upon a bar I found in my travel book called Le Perroquet Vert (The Green Parrot), an establishment many travel writers insist you visit if you’re craft beer fan.

With a solid menu of over 60 different beers from over a dozen countries, this is Honfleur’s go-to beer bar. We sat at a table on the front terrace facing the harbor, watching the parade of tourists, visitors and half-drunk locals saunter by. It was truly epic people-watching. I ordered two French beers for good measure, not knowing which I’d like more. The first beer, Adelscott, a whisky-infused malt liquor concoction, teetered on undrinkable. It was the only true monstrosity of my trip. Apparently, it’s a French marketing ploy designed to capture drinkers unsure of whether they want to drink bad whisky or bad beer. To me it tasted like they added a not-so-subtle swig of whisky-flavored extract into a mediocre beer. Yeah, the worst of both worlds.

However, the second beer, Pelforth, is considered a French classic. This sweet, malty brown beer is the prodigal son of three brewers who started the Pelican Brewery in 1914 in the town of Lille. This city lies in the northernmost province of Nord-Pas-de-Calais nestled next to Belgium in an area referred to as “French Flanders,” a region well known for its biere de garde. Of the three variations of this French style, I tried a blonde and an ambrée, so I thought it only appropriate to complete the trifecta with a brune (brown). Somewhere down the road, the brewery renamed itself Pelforth in an effort to attract more British beer drinkers, but they have always been known for their double malted, sweet, brown lager in the classic “steinie” bottle.

When I looked up the beer online I couldn’t help but find blogs admitting that while this beer is a tad “too sweet” and “more like a cola than a beer,” many found Pelforth a sentimental favorite. For over a hundred years this soda pop of French beers created a lot of fans, a guilty pleasure to which many beer drinkers were more than happy to confess. More importantly, the wife seemed to approve. She may not like hop crazy IPAs or bland or bitter lagers, but she’s a huge fan of rich, dark, malty beers, and Pelforth fits the bill.

So, there you have it: a Breton IPA, an Alsatian lager, and a blond, amber and brown biere de garde for your consideration. Contrary to popular belief, there’s hope for a beer lover in France. Perhaps French beer was just waiting to be rediscovered. Make no mistake beer fans, there’s another craft beer Renaissance brewing on the other side of the Atlantic as a new generation of innovative French brewers are joining the ranks of, and even surpassing, their country’s enduring brands. In many respects, French brewers are even more resilient than American. In retrospect, it took us decades to recover from Prohibition and the Great Depression, but the French struggled through a bloody revolution and two World Wars on their own soil. You have to admire the resolve of craft beer fanatics. If there’s a will (to drink beer), man will always find a way (to drink beer). Regardless of the tumultuous past, the flourishing French craft beer industry offers a promising future.

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