Picture yourself in Paris, or anywhere in France. That café-accordion music is playing. You’re sitting at a zinc-topped bar with a glass of beer. Wait. What?
Yes. La bière. In a glass. And it’s what everyone — locals and tourists alike — is drinking. In 2018, some 500,000 people visited breweries in France. Thanks to an influx of influential imports and homegrown upstarts, craft beer has found a foothold in France. Again.
The country has a long history of beer production and consumption, primarily situated by the borders of Belgium and Germany, neighbors who influenced their style.
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In the 4th century B.C., “cervoise” (derivative of Ceres, harvest goddess; ancestor of “cerveza”) was the national drink of the Gauls. The word “bière” has been on record since a 1489 law stating only master brewers and “sworn guards” can use the term was published. There’s been a national brewers association, Brasseurs de France, since 1878. Today it represents 98 percent of French beer producers.
There were about 3,200 breweries in France in 1914, according to Brasseurs de France. At the end of World War II there were about a dozen. Most closed. Some merged to survive. Many were later were bought out. The country’s brewers then worked for someone big (Heineken-big) and maybe home-brewed as a hobby.
A spokesperson for the Brasseurs de France identifies 1985 as the start of France’s craft beer resurgence. That year, there were 25 breweries in France. And that was the year Brasserie Coreff opened in Brittany, following an inspirational, beer-fueled trip to Great Britain. In 1986, three brasseries opened in Lille.
By 1995, 15 new breweries were opening annually in France, a pace that increased to 50 by 2010, 100 by 2016, and nearly one new brewery a day in 2018.
“We have to admire the audacity of these entrepreneurs, passionate and stubborn, who always imagined that there was space for other beers since at that point the idea of the French beer market didn’t exist,” says a spokesperson for Brasseurs de France. “They were right.”
She’s talking about a market for la bière artisanale, craft beers beyond imports and mass market producers, like Kronenbourg. Owned by Carlsberg Group since 2008, Kronenbourg says its responsible for 40 percent of the country’s beer output. It produces the top-selling French beer in the world: Kronenbourg 1664 — named for the year the brewery opened(!) — and saw a 4 percent increase in sales in 2018.
Motivated by the evolving consumer preferences and options, Kronenbourg recently updated its portfolio. “To be in tune with the new tastes and consumption patterns, we have accelerated the transformation of our portfolio,” said João Abecasis, CEO, Kronenbourg SAS, in a press release. Three new beers (one pale ale, one flavored, and one alcohol-free) debuted this year. The company also opened a brewpub in Strasbourg, resurrecting Tigre Bock IPA, a vintage brew.
“The image of beer is changing rapidly and positively,” says Abecasis, citing a 2018 study that found the once-negative image of beer in France is now on par with the perennially positive image of wine. Another study revealed that nearly 80 percent of French households consumed beer last year. “The French are increasingly seduced by beer.”
What took so long?
Because the beer market was dominated by big, industrial breweries, “people forgot the real taste of a good beer,” says Xavier Cyrek, proprietor of Brasserie de la Souffel in Griesheim-sur-Souffel. Beer’s loss was wine’s gain.
In France, says Vivien Remond, of Brasserie Sainte Cru, everyone has a friend who makes wine. Now that’s becoming the norm for beer, too. “Drinkers want to change the beer they drink because they are sick of filtered lager,” she says.
Today, there are more than 1,600 breweries of all sizes in France. This is what we mean by all sizes: about 500 hectoliters annual production for Brasserie 3 Mats; 5,000 hectoliters for Brasserie Sainte Cru; 15 hectoliters for Brasserie de la Souffel; 7 million hectoliters for Brasserie Kronenbourg in Obernai.
And where there are breweries to tour and beer to taste there are tourists.
“France is a gastronomic country,” says Nicolas Lescieux, referring to the broad culture of good eating and drinking, and the love of preparing and consuming all things delicious. He’s the associate director and co-founder of L’Échappée Bière, a France-based biérologie agency (beer tours, tastings, pairings and more). When the team got together in 2013, there were no other beer-centric tourism companies in France, and only a handful in all of Europe. At the time, says Lescieux, who comes from France’s ultimate beer region, le Nord, brewers were just starting to think about opening their doors to visitors.
Lescieux recognizes Brasserie Thiriez, Brasserie des Cîmes, and Brasserie Rouget de l’Isle, launched in the 1990s, as leaders in the resurgence, and notes it was still pioneering to micro-brew in the mid-2000s when the likes of Brasserie du Pays Flamand and Brasserie Vivat opened. Today, he says, these are leaders in the French artisanal beer market.
But this love of craft beer was intermittent until a particularly influential group made beer drinking mainstream.
“As many things in France, craft beer started to become famous when Paris and the press started to be interested in craft brewers,” says Lescieux. That was about 2010.
Julien Richez, co-manager of Brasserie 3 Mats in Strasbourg, describes it like this: In major cities, craft beer drinking is a way for young, trendy people to look smart. “I drink IPA from such-and-such,” he mimics. “It’s so much better than your boring Kronenbourg.”
Which is not to say la bière brassées en France is No. 1. “Even the beer geeks here often recognize the best beers to be foreign-made,” says Lescieux. The most popular styles are the ones that imitate American IPAs, imperial stouts, and aged beers. But that’s changing, too. “It’s very new that some French breweries are on the top of the French charts.”
If you ask anyone about France’s recent beer boom they point to the same thing: IPA.
“At the beginning it was because the taste was very different than industrial beer and unknown for customers,” says Richez. “People thought ‘Oh my God, beer can taste like that and the label is so cool!’”
More specifically, IPA by BrewDog, a Scottish brewery whose beers have been sold in France for less than a decade, was on everyone’s radar.
“I loved BrewDog so much and I thought, ‘why isn’t it possible for me?’” says Remond, who opened his brewery two years after his first taste of Punk IPA.
He wasn’t alone. Suddenly IPA was in bars and supermarkets and home garages were filling up with brew equipment.
Distributors saw opportunity, says Richez, allowing for the development of micro-breweries, which skyrocketed with brilliant marketing, including stylish labels and a clear message: f*ck big breweries and their crap beer.
His words. But, we get it.
Another marketing technique is to call a beer IPA even if it’s fruity and lacks hoppy bitterness, warns Richez. So when people visit France to taste beer he suggests trying everything, without relying on labels. “Just be curious about the diversity,” he says.
The emergence of beer festivals in Paris, Lyon, Lille, and Saint-Malo are helping to introduce the breadth of French beer and the talents of French brewers. The Brasseurs de France launched Tourisme Brassicole in 2018 to connect visiting beer enthusiasts to the country’s brewers. These days you actually have to go out of your way not to pass a brewery or brewpub in France, even in the heart of the capital. BAPBAP, which stands for brassée à Paris, bue à Paris (brewed in Paris, drank in Paris), is a craft brewery in the city’s 6th arrondissement.
Says Cyrek of touring breweries in France, even if they’re small, you may be surprised by what you find. He also recommends checking out the Musée de la Bière in Stenay and the Musée Français de la Brasserie in Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, which has classes as well as tours.
“Beer in France is like gastronomy and the countryside: beautiful in its diversity and its terroir,” says a spokesperson for Brasseurs de France. “The French are more than ever beer lovers.”
Tips for Beer Travelers to France
Order both the type and size of beer you want. A server or bartender will ask, “Un demi ou une pinte?” if you do not specify. (Un demi is half a pint; une pinte is one pint.)
Pair beer with cheese and other French foods.
Go to Lille and/or Strasbourg; these cities and surrounding areas are loaded with microbreweries and enthusiastic brewers happy to welcome you.
Look for local specialty products in local brews: chestnut beer in Corsica, black wheat in Brittany, mirabelle plum in Lorraine, and blueberry in Ardeche.
Styles that best represent French beer
- Blond beer: Often referred as bière de garde. The only French beer with legal requirements: There must be at least three weeks of maturation.
- Triple: Inspired by Belgian and Abbey styles. A strong pale ale with a neat bitterness.
- IPA: Every brewer needs to have an IPA; just know it may not fit the profile you expect.
French Beer Words You Should Know
- À la pression: On tap
- Ambrée: Amber
- Bière à la pression: Draft beer
- Bière anglaise: Ale
- Bière blanche: White beer, wheat beer
- Bière blonde: Lager, pale ale
- Bière brune: Dark ale, stout (literally: brown)
- Bière brune: Red beer (ale)
- La bouteille: Bottle
- Brasserie: Brewery (can also mean restaurant)
- Brasseur: Brewer
- Le blé: Wheat
- Le froment: Wheat (also called blé tendre, another type of wheat)
- Le houblon: Hops
- Le verre: Glass