Grape based drinks receive a lot of attention in France, and rightfully so. However, a good percentage of France’s terrain is not suitable for grape cultivation. As a result of the climate, regions of France such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Bretagne and Alsace are well-placed to produce beer.
Many people outside of France (and even some that reside within French borders) do not know that it is the home of some excellent beer.
Brewing dates back to at least the 11th century in the north of France, and to the time of the Gauls in Alsace. The Romans brought wine with them to Eastern France, and beer then became the drink of the working class. The monasteries in both regions became the most reputable brewers during the Middle Ages and through to the late 18th century. Outside of wintertime, they were the only ones who were allowed to produce it.
The French style bière de garde was produced in the wintertime by farmers in Northern France, to be kept for the summer months, as a result of this law. The French Revolution put an end to this particular regulation, and brewing then flourished in Northern and Eastern France.
There were roughly 2,000 breweries in France at the turn of the 20th century, though this number has now dwindled to approximately a tenth of this.
Unfortunately, most of the local beer that people know in France is produced in enormous quantities and is rather bland. In Paris, it is surprisingly difficult to find quality beer, as many bars serve only Kronenbourg and Heineken products.
This is beginning to change as beer increasingly becomes the beverage of choice. This has led to bars putting higher quality beers on tap. In addition, two breweries in Paris were reopened, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, after both had been closed for 40 years.
For those who live outside France, other than mass produced lagers (which aren’t really worth the extra money to begin with), it is difficult to obtain high quality French craft beer.
Even when it can be found, it may have suffered from the long voyage and have lost a lot of its character.
All the more reason to come to France and try some high quality beer!
(Certain facts from the article were obtained from Culinaria France by André Dominé and the Eyewitness Companions Guide to Beer by Michael Jackson).
1 Cuvée des Jonquilles, an excellent bière de garde (with lots of sediment) from Nord-Pas-de-Calais
2 An almost endless selection of beer in a supermarket in Lille