Wine may be king in France, but beer is just as much, if not more, the everyday alcoholic drink of the French. As explained by Alain Levy, a Frenchman, professional chef and Associate Professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY, "Not everyone can afford good wine, so rather than drink a cheap or bad wine, people wait and save their money for that special bottle. In the meantime, they drink beer."
A Little History
The French, like most Europeans, have been making beer for centuries. The invading Romans found the Gauls drinking a fermented gram beverage that the Romans named cervisia. The Gauls called it cervoise. Charlemagne (Charles the Great, a.k.a. Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 800-814) brought a French brewer from Normandy to his brewery in Westphalia in Germany to teach his German subjects how to make beer. Under the reign of Louis IX, in 1250, the first French brewers' guild incorporated and the government passed laws to regulate the brewing and selling of beer. An Englishman, Humphrey Parson, brought the first English stouts to France when he presented them to the court of Louis XV in the 1700s. The French called the beer "Black Champagne." Before the French Revolution, at the end of the 18th Century, thousands of people brewed their own beer in Paris. But restrictive guild laws placed the commercial brewing and selling of beer in the hands of a few government appointed brewers. All this changed after the Revolution when these "official" brewers either fled the country or lost their heads to the guillotine. The "people" abolished the brewer's guilds. The mid-1800s saw a great technological advance in brewing throughout the world, thanks to the work of French scientist Louis Pasteur. His publication, "Etudes sur la Biere," taught brewers how to properly handle yeast to avoid contamination and the method for propagating pure yeast strains.
At the turn of the last century there were approximately 3,000 breweries in France. Today there are less than 50. Large brewing groups such as Heineken and Interbrew bought most of the French breweries, although there is currently a rise in the opening of independent brewpubs. Kronenbourg and Heineken alone control about 75% of the French beer market.
Where French Beer Comes From
The main brewing regions in France are located in Alsace-Lorraine (in the northeast, on the border with Germany) and Nord-Pas de Calais-French Flanders (in the northwest, including the French lowlands on the Belgian border).
Alsace-Lorraine produces the vast majority of French beer (80%) and one statistic reports that Alsatians drink twice the amount of beer as Germans. The area is heavily influenced by all things German, having passed back and forth between Germany and France for centuries, depending on who won the last war, and this influence applies to beer. Blonde lagers, usually sweeter, less hoppy and lighter in body than their German cousins across the border, predominate in this region. France's other brewing region is much more exciting for the beer drinker looking for full-flavored, full-bodied beers. Although lagers are also brewed here, along with the odd porter, Scotch ale, Vienna-style ale or white beer, the dominant style is one called biere de garde.
Biere de Garde
Biere de Garde is often called a farmhouse ale since it was historically brewed by farmers in late winter or early spring and then stored (garder means to preserve or keep) for summer when the weather was too hot for brewing. (It used to be that brewers were unable to control the temperature of fermentation or the effects of wild yeast in the air. One French law prohibited brewing between St. George Day [April 23] and St. Michael Day [September 29.]) The aged beer became the drink for thirsty field workers and miners. Additionally, townspeople would come to the farmhouse breweries with any old bottles lying around their homes and fill up from the casks, since there were no bottling facilities on the farm.
A biere de garde is considered an ale (although some brewers now use lager yeasts), fermented at warm temperatures but stored at cooler temperatures for a month or longer. The style is more sweetly malty, spicy and yeasty than hoppy and is usually full-bodied. The color ranges from gold to dark brown and bieres de garde are strong beers, finishing between 6-8% abv. Most contemporary brewers filter their biere de garde, but do not pasteurize the beer. Bottling is usually in 750-ml, corked Champagne-style bottles. Modern technology allows the "farmers" to produce bieres de garde year-round, but the reality is that the brewers are no longer farmers; they are full-time, professional brewers operating, often, from a family farm location. Biere de garde has become the most popular French imported beer style in the U.S., a favorite with craft and specialty beer drinkers.
U.S. Importers of French Beers: Vanberg & DeWulf
Brasserie Castelain - Castelain (blonde biere de garde); St. Amand (copper-colored biere de garde); Jade (the only certified organic beer in France) Fischer Beverages International Brasserie Duyck - Jenlain Blonde and Amber (bibres de garde) Brasserie Fischer (Pecheur) - Fischer Bitter, Amber and La Belle (lagers) World Shippers Brasserie St. Sylvestre - St. Sylvestre and Trois Monts (bieres de garde) and Gayroche (arriving later this year)