French beer brands and styles – what you need to know

TPB Sustainable Homebrewing

 

 

 

 

 

This page is one I really wanted to write, perhaps because of my French background, but also because France is truly an unsuspected interesting beer producer. The country has been increasingly producing quality and exciting beer for the past 20 years. It is finally reclaiming its title of worthy beer producer, after mainly having been dominated by a limited number of large internationally owned brewing companies (Carlsberg, Heineken, AB-Inbev) since the end of World War 2.

Focusing on the two main regions, Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Alsace, I am listing in this article the French beer brands, both independent and brands that are owned by large brewing groups that may have some distribution in the USA.

As the number of craft and micro breweries continue to grow in France – like everywhere in the world, necessarily we are seeing many different beer styles now being produced there.  Many of them, influenced by new world trends, such as IPAs … but France will remain at its core a country of artisan producers.  We will look at what makes French beer unique: Terroir! (sense of place of origin, expression of local cuisine, tastes and traditions).

 

 

“French people!  Drink French beers!” – A 1928 poster promoting French beers and rebuilding the country left in ruins after World War 1.

Do the French drink beer?

“L’Académie de la Bière” in Strasbourg has 4 locations and offers 15 beers on tap, and a total of about 100 selections.

 

“Mais oui, bien sur!” But yes, of course! France has always been a beer drinking country. Actually, way before wine growing was introduced by the Greeks and the Romans, who themselves didn’t say no to beer. In fact the word for beer in Antiquity – technically referring to gruit, the ancestor of beer, fermented with bittering herbs instead of hops – Cervisia might have Latin roots? Some say it comes from Ceres, the Goddess of grain harvest and Vis, strength.

At any rate, it is a well-known fact that the Gauls loved to feast with beer, so much so that around the 4th century B.C. it was considered a national beverage. It was also used as religious offerings, bartering means, and certainly was a source of income.

When the Romans exported their culture to Gaul, they systematically planted vineyards along all the hillsides wherever the troops were stationed or transited through. Around the 3rd century, with Emperor Constantine, Christianity – where wine is used as a symbol for Christ’s life, had become the empire’s official religion, and wine took the starring role as the noble and cultural beverage.

Nonetheless, it seems like French Kings promoted and regulated the usage and production of beer very seriously. Dagobert in the 7th century founded the first Abbey dedicated to brewing beer. The great Charlemagne himself organized the Brewers trade Corporations in the 9th century by creating rules and regulations guaranteeing beer’s quality. Every Monastery was required to have a brewery to provide comfort to the pilgrim guests staying at the Abbey. Beer in the Middle Ages was also the healthy drink by definition, when water was not. Nourishing, sanitary, easy to produce and store.

The term “brewer” or “brasseur” in French may have appeared in the Flandres region, common to Belgium and France, around the 10th century when the use of hops was discovered for its antiseptic as well as for its bittering qualities, thanks to St Hildegard of Bingen in those days. Brasseur literally means the one who stirs up, referring to stirring the malt in water during the mashing process.

In the 13th century, inns and taverns especially in Paris, were granted the license to sell beer, until then, only brewing corporations had that right. From that time on, the beer business flourished in France.

One of the many destructive consequences of the French Revolution in 1789 was that it dismantled the Brewing Abbeys and private Brewing Corporations. Lay beer companies grew in number but wars and famines forced them to quickly disappear as grain served to make bread instead. At that time beer became a luxury.

By the late 19th century, the beer industry enjoyed a complete revival in France. Pasteur, perhaps more famous for studying and improving wine fermentation and aging practices, is also to be credited for his contributions to laying down the foundations of modern beer brewing. Industrial refrigeration systems allow for mass production of bottom fermented beers. This is the “coup de grace” for small, artisan craft breweries. Train networks make transportation possible from the main French production regions in the North to the other parts of the country.

In 1910, France possessed a total of 2827 breweries, 1929 of which located in Northern France. Remember, Alsace-Lorraine was at that time part of Germany!

And the roller coaster goes up and down again … two world wars, the industrialization of worldwide beer production, and a campaign to severely control the consumption of alcoholic beverages implemented by government laws and regulations in the 1960s decimate the traditional beer activity in the country. In 1976 only 23 French breweries were still open!

Thanks to the craft beer movement in the mid-1980s, we are seeing today a boom of the small breweries. There are now over 800 microbreweries in France, for a total of over 1000 breweries, if we include the non-independent companies. Home brewing as well is becoming a very popular thing.

According to a 2018 report from the CNIV (National French Inter-professional Committee for the Wine industry), On the total amount of money French people spend for beverages, wine represents 30%, spirits 23%, beer 10% and non-alcoholic beverages 37%. Wine has declined by 25% in 20 years, spirits by 8%, meanwhile beer has increased by 11%. Although I don’t have the data on that, but I would suggest the younger generations especially are passionate about learning, tasting and experimenting new styles of beer, while (I would hope personally) rediscovering a rich heritage of beer brewing.

Bière de Garde – what makes this beer unique

Different labels from Brasserie St Sylvestre – Les 3 Monts

If France has been a long-standing beer producing and consuming country, because of its strong wine culture and because its history, as we have just seen, has not necessarily – let’s be honest – rocked the world with its traditional beer styles.

With genuine local character and background, the Bière de Garde style is arguably one of the rare authentically French beers.

Bière de Garde means “beer to keep”. It was originally made at the end of winter, in February or March, to be laid down during the warmer period of the year, less suitable for brewing because of the higher risk of contamination from wild yeasts, and of quicker oxidation.

Although the Nord and Pas-de-Calais region is geographically very close to the Belgian border, it should be looked at as a region with its own specificity, tradition and beer culture. Bière de Garde is definitely a beer to be enjoyed with food, very much like wine. It originates from traditional artisan, farmhouse brewing.

That Northern France region, more specifically known as the French Flanders, Picardy and Artois, parts of two French departments, “Nord” and “Pas-de-Calais” is rich in history of beer making. Hops were already farmed by monks in Picardy before 822 AD. The region itself as well as nearby Champagne have long supplied large quantities of malt.

How would you describe Bière de Garde? Lots of variations exist, depending on the brewery, generally speaking, the style is somewhat of a Belgian Saison, its close cousin, but normally stronger in body and alcohol, with a balance focused on the malty side of the beer, and not as much on the yeast. Two limited seasonal versions are the “Bière de Mars” (March beer) and “Bière de Noël” (Christmas beer) which are much richer, darker, sweeter, stronger and spicier. These French ales are made to be enjoyed with food such as strong cheeses, brazed meat and game. They replace the wine that cannot be produced in the Northern parts of France, because grapes do not ripen there. Like many French products they reflect a sense of space and tradition, referred to as “Terroir”.

ABV Range: 6-8.5
IBU Range: 18 – 28
Color: 6 – 19 SRM.
Fermentation: Traditionally top fermented – although modern versions are bottom fermented, with French yeasts, such as the Thiriez strain
Appearance: From full gold to dark reddish brown
Aromas: Malty, spicy, with slight notes of ale-like fruitiness.
Flavors: Mostly dry, complex, rich, balanced, with sometimes notes of caramel, and sometimes notes of oak aging. Normally moderately hoppy, varying depending on the producer. Pleasant rustic character.
Mouthfeel: Typically balanced, crafted to pair rich food with different degrees of intensity, depending on the brewery. Noticeable alcohol, but should be still be clean and refreshing.
Carbonation: Fine carbonation. Bottle conditioned Bières de Garde have a more creamy head.

Is Alsace, France’s largest beer region experiencing a revival?

Having lived three years myself in Alsace, where I still have relatives and friends, I can tell you that this beautiful, rich region is truly different, compared to other French regions. In many regards, you know you are in France, because food and wine are ubiquitous, and the people’s lifestyle is unmistakably French, centered on enjoying holidays, time spent at the table with family and friends. However, most names of places on the map, even street names sound and look more German. This is of course because Alsace, a rich region strategically located on the Rhine has been changing hands back and forth between France and Germany five times in the past three hundred and fifty years. The region remained under German control on and off for 51 years since 1871.

Today Alsace still produces 60% of the beer consumed in France and is therefore recognized in that country as a main brewing region. The most famous French beer brands including Kronenbourg, Fischer, Meteor are from Alsace. Until 2008, the region was also a significant producer of hops, exporting and selling to giant breweries such as Budweiser in the US, before the American brand got sold to the giant AB-Inbev (Stella Artois, Beck’s, Corona …), who decided to source hops elsewhere to cut down costs. That was a big blow to the French region’s hops industry. Down to 50 producers from 100 ten years ago.

Alsace beer style is not particularly distinctive or unique. “Elsassbier”, at least the style that most people associate with the appellation could be defined as a style of pale German Pilsner, bottom fermented (lager), sometimes brewed with the local hop, Strisselspalt and without being subjected to the Reinheitsgebot – the German law of purity requiring beer to be produced exclusively from barley, hop, yeast and water – giving the beer a cleaner, lighter profile, especially when large volume breweries use corn in their recipes. The Strisselspalt hop is characterized by its citrusy and lightly spicy aromatic profile.

 

Alsace’s strong beer heritage is still here, dating back to 961 AD or earlier according to the first written records of brewing activity found in Strasbourg. Alsace traditional cuisine screams for beer, with an abundance of brew friendly foods: charcuterie, smoked meat, river fish, pretzels, “choucroute”, the French classic dish of Sauerkraut … Also the concepts of true “Brasserie” (brewpub), and “Bierstub” (beer tavern) are well and alive in Alsace, especially in the Bas-Rhin département.

Today – Alsace beer revival

Since the worldwide formidable craft beer movement expansion, the region, as everywhere else has seen the creation of many micro-breweries.

Worth mentioning, are:

La Perle, run by the passionate Christian Artzner, who reopened his great, great-grandfather’s brewery in Strasbourg, creating a contemporary range of beers both open to new world styles and expressing the Alsace tradition. He even released a beer fermented from a blend of wine must and barley, called “dans les Vignes”, a tribute to Alsace, both a wine and beer region.

Meanwhile, Brasserie Bendorf, in Neudorf, and Storig, in Schiltigheim also offer beer drinkers French versions of revisited world-class styles such as American IPAs, Belgian Ales, English Bitter …

Other surprising beer styles in France.

The lentil beer from La Sancerroise, which also makes an organic beer from Chestnut.

 

With the flavored and spiced beer wave being so hot these days, no wonder new French brewers will experiment in that arena too. Compared to the extreme and weird (at least it seems to me) flavors coming out constantly in the US, French flavored beers will seem a bit boring? No Lucky Charm IPA, Roasted Jalapeno Blueberry Porter, or Coconut Curry Hefeweizen … instead French brewers prefer to stick to regional flavors and adjuncts.

For example,

Belenium, in Burgundy makes a blonde beer flavored with Cassis (black currant), a Burgundian specialty.

In Corsica, some beers, such as Pietra are made with chestnuts, which are traditionally grown in the island

Another unique regional specialty beer is a blonde beer, flavored with a locally grown green lentil, “la lentille du Berry”, produced by la Brasserie Sancerroise, in the famous Loire Valley wine appellation.

 

France is also a country where people enjoy beer-based mixed drinks. If you go to a bar in France, you may order from this list of most common beer cocktails – some of them are actually pretty refreshing, if the syrup is used judiciously.

Panaché: beer and “limonade” (sparkling lemonade)

Monaco: beer with “limonade” and red fruit syrup

Tango: beer with red fruit syrup

Picon bière: beer with Picon (a caramel-colored bitters, made from orange rinds and bitter herbs from Northern France). Very classic. Very French.

Valse: beer with mint syrup

Mazout: beer and cola

The main French beer brands – from Le Nord and Alsace, which ones are exported

In this article, I chose to focus on the two main and oldest beer regions of France we just discussed. Here is a list of producers, and their availability in the USA.

BRASSERIE (BREWERY) REGION GROUP FLAGSHIP BRAND IMPORTED TO THE USA
Brasserie Licorne Alsace, Bas-Rhin Karlsbräu (Karlsberg) Black Label
Fischer Alsace, Bas-Rhin Heineken Fischer Yes
Kronenbourg Alsace, Bas-Rhin Carlsberg 1664 Yes
Meteor Alsace, Bas-Rhin Independent Meteor Pils Yes
Brasserie de Saint-Louis Alsace, Haut-Rhin Independent Blonde 1816
Brasserie des Quatre Pays Alsace, Haut-Rhin Independent Quatre Pays Blonde, (Organic)
Brasserie du Vignoble (Hollbeer) Alsace, Haut-Rhin Independent Hollbeer
Brasserie Saint-Alphonse Alsace, Haut-Rhin Independent Blonde, Ambree, Brisach
Bailleux (au Baron) Nord Independent Cuvee des Jonquilles
Brasserie d’Annoeuil Nord Independent Pastor’Ale
Brasserie de Theillier Nord Independent La Bavaisienne Yes
Brasseurs de Gayant (St Arnould) Nord GSA Brasseries La Goudale, Saint Landelin Yes
Jenlain (Duyck) Nord Independent Ambree
La Choulette Nord Independent Biere des Sans Culottes
Pelforth Nord Heineken Brune
St Sylvestre Nord Independent Les 3 Monts
Thiriez Nord Independent Blonde/ Ambree – d’Esquelbecq Yes – Limited
Castelain Pas-de-Calais Independent Ch’ti Yes

The French beer brands and styles – in conclusion

For the past 20 years or so, France has truly been experiencing its beer revolution. The French revolution! LOL

There are other secondary regions, not discussed here, perhaps the beer specificities of Brittany deserves to be presented separately.

I’d like to say regardless of the style, history, or region of origin, French beers all have in common a desire to express a sense of place (“Terroir”?) and aim to be made with balanced ingredients. They are crafted to complement the food of the region.

I hope you enjoyed this topic. Please share any comments or questions you may have on French beers or French beer brands.

Thank you for your interest.

Cheer and to our health!

 

Vincent