France is renowned worldwide for its vineyards and its tremendous variety of wine. However, beer? The brewing of craft beers in France is rapidly gaining in popularity but will craft beer ever replace wine on the French table?
Craft beer brewing in France
Wonderful smallscale micro breweries are scattered throughout France producing a huge variety of award-winning craft beers to delight any beer connoisseur.
Beer brewing is a traditional activity in France. In the early 20th C there were over 2000 breweries in France. Indeed, most communes had their own little micro brewery to satisfy local demand.
However, with industrialisation and the decline in rural populations, interest in the art and tradition of brewing wained and many breweries closed their doors.
Thankfully, in the past few decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in micro brewing. Many small craft breweries have revived traditional brewing methods and now produce unique and top quality craft beers.
Craft beer breweries in NE France
There are around 40 artisanal craft breweries in the north east of France. Craft beers are to NE France what wine is to Bordeaux and they even have their own Appellation Contrôlée designation.
The climate of NE France and also its soil and underground springs provide ideal conditions for the cultivation of barley, wheat and hops, those essential ingredients in the production of beer.
The Pas de Calais region is known for its traditional ‘bières de garde’ which means ‘keeping beers’. These strong pale ales have their roots firmly in rural France.
They were originally brewed in farmhouses in winter when temperatures meant fermentation was subdued and bugs kept at bay.
The beer was then conditioned during the spring and used to nourish and sustain farmworkers later in the year as they toiled in the fields.
The ales are usually a copper or golden colour and, as the name suggests, they were brewed for maturing or cellaring for a period of time, just like a grand cru red from Bordeaux!
After the beer has fermented it is cold conditioned for a further 2 weeks or more and then bottled. The ABV range should be between 6% and 8.5%, so they’re not for the faint-hearted
The Castelain artisanale brewery near Lens
The Castelain family is one of the best known craft beer brewing familes in NE France.
They have been transforming water into beer for over 90 years at their brewery at Bénifontaine near Lens and the Belgian border
The brewing knowledge has been passed down through the generations and today their ‘garde’ beer continues to win awards worldwide.
Their Ch’ti beer is probably their best known craft beer and is made from local Flanders hops.
It is conditioned for between 6 and 10 weeks which gives it its complex aroma and flavour.
They have an excellent facility which is open to the public. Visit the eco museum section and learn all about the family’s brewing history.
You’ll also learn the brewing secrets for the famous bière de garde and have the opportunity to taste a freshly brewed beer at the end.
It’s possibe to purchase the full range of speciality beers from their shop and even order kegs of beer for that special occasion you’re planning for the summer. They also sell other excellent regional products which you should try.
Off the wall craft beers in France
The traditional ‘recipe’ for beer in France is for the brew to contain at least 50% barley, water, hops and yeast.
However, over recent years, various alternative ingredients have crept into the mix such as fruit juice, spices and vegetable colours.
Many artisanal and craft breweries in France produce speciality beers for certain times of the year. One of the most widely seen speciality beer is Christmas beer, brewed in October for maturation by the festive period.
Christmas beers are richer, maltier and hoppier than most and contain orange peel plus those traditional Christmas spices of cinnamon and ginger.
Craft beers and French acceptance
Although the number of craft breweries has doubled since 2010, beer consumption in France is a long way from becoming mainstream. The average French person will still prefer a glass of wine with their meal and this isn’t likely to change any time soon.
However, many craft beers are aged in barrels which makes them more acidic, light and refreshing and therefore excellent aperitifs. This could well be the artisan brewer’s door to wider acceptance within the French household!