Across Europe, there are legacy breweries that are as influential as they are historic. Until the U.S.’s craft beer revolution, these institutions were many Americans’ first introduction to “good beer.” In Germany, there are Paulaner and Weihenstephaner, among many others. In Belgium, you’ll find Westmalle, Orval, and Rochefort. The Czech Republic has Pilsner Urquell, and Austria has Stigel. Some of these breweries invented entire beer styles; others perfected them. All of them have been making the same great product for generations. All of them also have large market footprints and can be found with relative ease across the world. But France, a nation known for excellent food and drink, lacks a representative among these culturally significant breweries.

It’s easy to write France off as strictly a wine-adjacent country; globally, it’s s among the world’s top producers and consumers of the stuff. But given its proximity to brewing titans Belgium and Germany, it makes sense that France also has a rich — albeit overlooked — brewing history. Several world-renowned beers don French names: take Chimay Grande Reserve, Saison Dupont, and La Chouffe. The nation also produces the most barley in Europe. There are also a handful of historic breweries that have survived to this day. Given all this, France should, in theory, have a robust and influential modern beer culture of its own — so why doesn’t it?

To be clear, there is some great beer to be found throughout France, especially with the nation’s burgeoning craft beer renaissance. But that renaissance is largely influenced by the IPAs and stouts of the American craft beer movement. And in a country known for its refined palates, it’s Kronenbourg 1664 — a macro lager closer to Heinekin or Stella Artois than anything else — that dominates the national beer market. And for most American drinkers, it’s essentially the only available representation of French beer around.

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There are good reasons for that. French beer culture, as niche as it is today, has overcome many obstacles, from Roman conquest to the World Wars. All these events, and many more in between, have had a direct impact on the production and perception of beer within France, leading to the beverage’s relegated status among beverages. Here, we look to the past and the future to ask: Will the French ever cultivate a lasting brewing culture?

Back to the Farm

Brewing in France goes back over two millennia. Traces of malted barley dating to 2500 BC have even been found in an archaeological site in the Provence region. Despite these early beginnings, one of the first obstacles French beer had to overcome was Rome’s 1st-century conquest of Gaul, the region that encompassed most of Western Europe. It was under Roman influence when wine established its foothold in France with the assistance of Greek and Roman settlers. During this time, wine came to be associated with the upper classes. Concurrently, beer was becoming associated with barbaric behavior, with “beer-swiller” being a popular derogatory term for those who imbibed. Still, the two beverages managed to coexist within France for over a millenia.

So, despite being the home of the Trappist movement, there are no remaining Trappist breweries in France — though a close exception might be found in the Mont des Cats Abbey.

While beer itself was common, breweries were not. In pre-industrial France, farmhouse ales were the norm. As their name implies, farmhouse ales were not produced by commercial breweries but by individual farmers. They were brewed in the winter to be consumed by farm hands during the summer while they tended the fields, and were often considered partial payment for the work. As the beer was meant for seasonal workers, the term saison (or season, in French) entered the brewing vernacular.

From farmhouse brewing comes France’s most well-known (though still relatively obscure) historic style: bière de garde, which translates to “beer for keeping” as it was meant to last from winter until summer. Bière de garde is similar to traditional saisons, though stronger in alcohol and boasting a more prominent malt presence while still remaining dry.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Sans Brewery)

Another unexpected obstacle hindering the burgeoning French beer scene was the French Revolution and the secularization that followed. Historically, monks have been pioneers in brewing innovation, and many of the best breweries in the world today have monastic roots. The Trappist beer movement can even be traced back to Normandy’s La Trappe Abbey. Prior to the revolution, France was a widely Catholic nation, but in the years following, monastic orders were dissolved throughout France. In the aftermath, many monks fled to surrounding nations. Some of these dispersed monks went on to found Westmalle Abbey in Belgium, now famous for its beer. Others went on to found the Netherlands’ Koningshoeven Abbey, which has produced beer under the brand name La Trappe since 1884 — an homage to Normandy’s abbey.

So, despite being the home of the Trappist movement, there are no remaining Trappist breweries in France, though a close exception might be found in the Mont des Cats Abbey. Founded not long after the revolution, the Trappist abbey is known for its cheeses. It also used to produce beer until the abbey and its brewery were destroyed during the First World War. The brewery was never rebuilt, but in 2011, the monastery recovered its old brewing recipe. The historic beer is now produced on behalf of Mont des Cats by the monks of Belgium’s Scourmont Abbey, the same abbey that makes Chimay. The revived beer is an amber ale with a bread-like sweetness.

From One War to Another

Mont des Cats’ brewery was just one of the many breweries destroyed during World War I. France was one of the most devastated countries during the conflict. Some breweries were destroyed by artillery fire, others were scrapped for materials, and many more were occupied, never to reopen. The worst damage took place in northern France, where most of the breweries were concentrated. ​​According to beer historian Pierre-André Dubois, there were nearly 2,500 breweries in the north alone before World War I. Following the war, that number was slashed to less than 1,400. The destruction and closures persisted during World War II.

Following both wars, industrialization and corporations proved to be the coup de grâce for many remaining small, independent French breweries. An increasingly urban lifestyle rendered the tradition of French farmhouse brewing obsolete, and small breweries began being bought out by an emerging macro-beer industry. Some breweries merged, and others were acquired by the likes of Stella Artois, Heinekin, and, of course, Kronenbourg. Shortly after World War II, there were only around a hundred breweries left in all of France.

Vive la (Bière de) France

Despite the adversity, a small number of historic French breweries remain, preserving France’s connection to its brewing past. Among them are breweries such as La Choulette, which has been in operation since 1895. There’s also Brasserie Castelain, founded in 1926. One of country’s most notable historic breweries is 3 Monts in the small northeastern village of St. Sylvestre. Today, the brewery is run by fourth-generation owner Pierre Marchica.

“The brewery has been in the family since 1920,” Marchia recounts. Miraculously, St. Sylvestre escaped the First World War unscathed. This sparing made the foundation of the brewery possible.

Initially, the brewery focused on producing low-ABV table beer and ale meant for everyday consumption. In 1950, Merchica’s grandfather began working in the brewery. Having studied brewing in college, he sought to modernize the brewery. In the following years, a new brewhouse was built and they shifted to brewing bottom-fermented lagers and pilsners. In the ’80s, the family decided to revive their ale-driven roots, developing a recipe for their top-fermenting flagship ale, 3 Monts Bière de Flandre, a golden, 8.5-percent-ABV farmhouse-style ale. It was an immediate hit, and the recipe remains unchanged to this day.

3 Monts’ marketing director, Charline Peruexu, credits the embrace of traditional farmhouse-style ales as a part of the brewery’s longevity. “Between the 1960s and the 1990s, a lot of breweries closed in France, and here in St. Sylvestre we were the only ones who stayed alive. We almost closed, but because we relaunched a [farmhouse] ale, that’s why we’re still here today.”

“To the French people 15 years ago, beer was not a product for the table. It was a product for poor people.”

Merchica notes that while bière de garde is “in the books” in the U.S. — meaning it’s covered in the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines, which has led to an increased demand for exports — the style still isn’t well known outside the north of France. Perhaps this is because of the general dismissal of beer by many French people, which means the names of individual styles hold little importance for the public. What does matter is the taste, Merchita says, and in that regard, the French love it. “Breweries like Castelain, Jenlain, and 3 Monts still exist today because we are focused on the quality of our beers,” he says.

When asked what makes for a distinctly French beer, Merchica doesn’t name any specific style, but rather insists it all goes back to “a connection to the region where the beer was brewed.” In northern France, that means taking advantage of the region’s excellent condition for growing hops. Elsewhere, breweries like Corsica’s Pietra embrace its regionality through the island’s chestnut production by incorporating chestnut flour into its beer.

Until recently, lovers of high-end beer across France had no option but to seek out international selections. “Here in France you can find great beers from all over the world. It’s really common to drink beers from everywhere,” notes Peureux. (“We’re open-minded!” Merchica agrees.) But now, traditional French beer is being taken more seriously by French brewers and drinkers alike. Even breweries from France’s new wave of craft beer like BAPBAP, a well-regarded brewery in Paris primarily known for its IPAs, have embraced styles connected to France’s brewing history. Among its recent releases are table beers, farmhouse saisons, and, of course, bière de garde.

“To the French people 15 years ago, beer was not a product for the table,” explains Merchica. “It was a product for poor people. But everything has changed. We are not English or German or American, but now, people in France are beginning to love beer and allow it a space on the table.”