Cultivating a Sense of Place in France

Beer Without Borders by | Dec 2014 | Issue #95

Florent Deneubourg and Jérôme Martinez of La Montreuilloise

In May 2014, Paris hosted its first annual beer week, inviting brewers from abroad as well as Paris-based producers to showcase their beers in an otherwise wine-dominated drinking culture. The success of the event, which saw packed tastings at neighborhood bars, was a testament to the growing beer scene in the French capital. “It felt like a real movement was starting and that we managed to build a community which was one of the main goals,” says Paris Beer Week organizer Romain Lebel.

Local beer communities are popping up across the rest of the country, as well. In a nation that is known for, and takes great pride in, its tradition and terroir, a new wave of brewers is creating a culture of “bieroir” that embraces locally sourced ingredients. Malteurs Echos, an independent malthouse that opened in France’s Rhone-Alps region in 2011 and began producing two years later, provides malt made from locally grown grains to over 50 breweries. Inspired by visits to area brewers who expressed frustration about not having time to produce their own malt, the team decided to take things into their own hands. “It was a big surprise our first year,” says quality and commercial director Baptiste François. “The response to our product was incredibly positive.”

In southwest France, a similar effort to introduce barley into local agriculture is also beginning to develop. “The Basque country is very proud of local products and beer is obviously a part of that,” explains Bob Worboys, a brewer and advocate of recent initiatives to help the region’s small farmers cultivate ingredients—like the winter barley sown by a local agricultural school—for beer. In the spirit of keeping things local, Worboys sells the majority of his beers within 75 kilometers (46.6 miles) of his brewery in Hasparren.

While a deeper commitment is required to establish the agricultural and infrastructural foundation for local malt and hops, some brewers welcome the challenge. “I think it’s just as interesting that there isn’t as much of a beer tradition in France… wine has always been more of the focus here,” says Michael Novo of Brasserie du Mont Salève. Novo produces a variety of beers using English, American and New Zealand hops, but he also brews La Mademoiselle, a single-hop IPA that relies on Alsatian Aramis for its aroma and bitterness.

And yet, for Novo, all of Mont Salève’s beers have a sense of place. “A beer is 95 percent water, that’s its terroir,” he declares. Located in the mountainous Haute-Savoie region, Brasserie du Mont Salève is near some of the purest water in France. “I’ve decided not to touch the water, I don’t add any minerals,” Novo says, which explains the crisp taste of his mountain spring sourced beers.

Back in Paris, brewers in and around the city stand at the forefront of this quest for bieroir. The suburb of Montreuil is arguably most emblematic of the movement. Here, in a formerly agriculturally rich region, La Montreuilloise brewer Jérôme Martinez has started growing his own hops. A few short kilometers away, Thomas Deck and Mike Donohue of Deck and Donohue recently brewed their first wet hop beer using fresh cones they harvested from an Alsatian farm. “We hope to do a different hop variety each harvest year,” explains Donohue, “but wanted to select the most traditional French variety of hops, Strisselspalt, for this year’s. We expect this to translate to a subtle but grassy finished product.”

This fall, as France prepared for the annual grape harvests, Deck and Donohue also eagerly awaited the changing seasons. A nearby farm had agreed to provide them with pumpkins for an autumn ale, which were roasted using a local restaurant’s ovens. For two young entrepreneurs, the prospect of distinguishing themselves from mass-produced lager was exciting, invigorating even. And so, little by little, the dedicated brewers that have brought beer back to the French table are putting a little bit of France back in their brews, too.