The French craft beer movement – frothing at the mouth
The craft beer boom is taking Paris by storm – stopping some oenophiles in their tannin-soaked tracks.
While Belgium and the Netherlands dominate Western Europe’s beer production, a new, and unexpected, European sibling has recently joined rank.
Rosy-cheeked France – the original Old World wine country.
While craft beers, both domestic and export, are still somewhat of a rarity in Parisian cafés, restaurants, and bars, they are now carving out a niche few thought possible. Crowd-pleasing stalwarts Kronenbourg and Chimay are still front and center, but newcomers are slowly – and surely – filtering in. In fact, no fewer than 11 breweries are now operating within the wider Île-de-France Parisian region.
What switch has flipped?
In French society, beer has historically been outshone by a libation of supposedly greater national importance – wine. Good wine has won wars (and peace), enthralled kings, seduced damsels, and been a staple of French gastronomy for centuries. In France, the art of wine tasting can be as important as the wine itself. This art, embodied by the sommelier, has achieved virtual cult status. A good sommelier who can judge wine is about as important as a diplomat able to negotiate a treaty. For what would a treaty be without a good wine to celebrate its arbitration? This art is rooted in the very fiber of French culture.
An upstart beverage, typically associated with drunken revelry at pubs and soccer matches. Indeed, in France, beer consumption has never seemingly required “art” – until now. The art lies in the eye of the beholder – or, today, the craft beermaker and consumer.
Prompted by the bold craft beer crusade in America, small French brewers are venturing beyond classic lagers and making innovative beers – imbuing art (and taste) into an undervalued profession. The American influence is striking. Expat brewers, such as Mike Donohue of Deck & Donohue and Anthony Baraff of Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris, have brought their craft beer culture from abroad and infused the Paris scene with new sensibilities and flavors. Hops are welcome, as is bravery in brewing.
And yet, the art has never been absent. Prominent French breweries such as Brasserie Duyck, Brasserie Castelain, and Corsican Brasserie Pietra have produced delicious offerings for years. What separates this nascent movement from its predecessors is its willingness to break convention – and “Frenchness” itself. By merging international and French techniques and recipes, exciting new brews have surfaced. The “art” has emerged. With art comes respect. With respect (and taste) comes consumer demand. And today, demand is spiking.
Yet it all had to start somewhere.
La Fine Mousse, a craft beer bar trailblazer, launched in 2012 with an impressive 20 brews on tap, a first for Paris.
Also in 2012, the first craft brewery in Paris, Brasserie de la Goutte d’Or, opened its doors. Owner Thierry Roche brews original beers telling the story of the people and places of his brewery’s home, the working-class 18th arrondissement. Named after the district’s streets – Léon, Chateau Rouge, Myrha, Charbonière – his beers are 100% organic, non-filtered, and non-pasteurized. Roche has made the cultural diversity of his neighborhood come, and taste, alive.
Other breweries have followed in its footsteps, including Deck & Donohue located in Montreuil at the eastern border of Paris. Opened in February 2014, the business is helmed by Frenchman Thomas Deck and American Mike Donohue. Their Mission Pale Ale is the best selling of their six beers: not too malty or hoppy, both different and accessible. Yet, demand for their Indigo IPA, higher in alcohol content at 6.5%, has also soared. In such a small industry, Donahue appreciates the ongoing exchange among craft brewers, specifically in Paris. Though competitors, a culture of mutual help exists – to raise the industry as a whole and its individual parts.
Another standout is French-American duo, Fabrice Le Goff and Anthony Baraff of Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris. Starting as homebrewers, they created My Beer Company in 2011 in a tiny apartment in Levallois-Perret. Outgrowing this site, they discovered “gypsy brewing” (i.e. cult gypsy brewers Mikkeller and Evil Twin Brewing) – renting unused fermentation space from established breweries. Partnering with two host breweries, la Brasserie de la Vallée de la Chevreuse and la Brasserie Parisis, Le Goff and Baraff have thrived in this unique partnership. Crafting heady elixirs such as American Pale Ale La Levalloise and IPA Citra Galactique, the pioneering pair hopes to set up a brewery of their own just outside of Paris.
With nearly 20 craft beer stores peppered throughout Paris, the retail market is likewise booming. Simon Thillou, owner of La Cave à Bulles, the second oldest beer store in Paris, sees the burgeoning craft beer trend as permanent – demand is climbing, and brewers are constantly out of stock.
Perhaps most significantly, craft beer festivals are popping up.
From April 16 to 19, the first-ever Paris Craft Beer Show regaled beer lovers, featuring 130 breweries from over 30 countries and more than 600 beers for sampling.
Meanwhile, Paris hosted its second annual Beer Week from May 22 through May 31. Festival organizer Bières et Papilles hoped to expose a wider audience to the craft beer movement and challenge beer’s second-rate reputation. The 2015 edition was ambitious in scope: 30 breweries (both French and foreign), bars, and bottle shops held more than 100 events throughout Paris and the Île-de-France region. Participants ranged from microbrewery Brasserie Outland and beer bar Les Trois 8 to beer retailer Bières Cultes and beer website HappyBeerTime.com. Events included beer seminars, tastings, and pairings as well as a homebrewing competition.
What started as a trickle has turned into a torrent.
But the question remains: will consumer demand continue to surge? All signs point to yes, starting with the numbers.
Craft beer statistics in France are hard to find, as no official organization supporting independent brewers exists. However, 2014 estimates suggest that craft beer represents 2.5% of the total beer market. From blueberry to calvados-based beer, local craft breweries are lighting up the marketplace.
According to a Le Monde article, France ranks third in Europe in number of breweries, with approximately 700. Although beer consumption is feeble (30 liters per capita per year, ranking third to last in Europe and 67th worldwide), consumer interest in craft beer is igniting. While behemoths Heineken and Kronenbourg dominate sales, 100 new breweries opened in France in 2014 – proof that such interest exists.
In 2014, total beer sales by volume jumped 2.8% (offsetting the 3% decrease in 2013 when beer taxes skyrocketed 160%). Nice weather coupled with the World Cup partially spurred this bounce back. Yet the expansion in supply – an abundance of new craft breweries – has helped as well.
Paradoxically, as their German and British counterparts drink more overall, the French are driving the exploding craft beer market. Why? They are drinking less big beer brands, while turning their attention to artisanal craft brews. Indeed, while mainstream beer sales have dropped 2% annually in France, small producers are seeing sales growth of 8% per year. Estimates predict that, by 2020, craft beer will attain 6% of the entire beer market.
Interestingly, as French craft brewers have begun exporting across the Channel and Rhine, the amount of microbreweries in the United Kingdom and Germany has swelled. In other words, France’s presumed weakness – beer – has now become an enviable asset.
A French proverb matter-of-factly states, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” Yet today, France’s craft brewers might disagree. For them, life is too short to drink bad beer any longer.
In France – and Paris especially – the craft beer revolution is frothing at the mouth.