By: Tobias Coughlin-Bogue

 

France, a country more known for its Bordeaux than its breweries, is experiencing a craft beer renaissance. Of all the things Paris is known for—carafes of inexpensive and delicious wine, incessant smoking, couples kissing in the park, the best restaurant you’ve ever been to every three blocks, thick slabs of foie gras, man purses, rare steaks, and so on—craft beer hasn’t typically been one of them; now, that’s changing.

Where the country was, until recently, dominated by a handful of industrial breweries, it now boasts about 700 craft breweries and counting, according to Simon Thillon, proprietor of Paris craft beer emporium/gathering place La Cave á Bulles. Of those 700, “about 200 are good,” he joked. His beer shop, one of the three that were operating in the Paris area nine years ago, is now one of twenty, and is joined by three new ones every year. As of last year, for example, Paris has an annual beer week. Perhaps these developments are minor compared to the plethora of kickass craft breweries and bottle shops and brewfests and beer weeks and naked beer-fueled bike rides in the U.S., but they represent a sea change for France. If “Foster’s” is Australian for beer, “1664”—a thin, unremarkable, and mass-produced lager in cone-shaped green bottles—is the French word for it. Or rather, was.

Simon Thillon, proprietor of Paris craft beer emporium/gathering place La Cave á Bulles

As Thillon tells it, artisan brewing in France was robust in the late 1800’s, but died out during the World Wars. The advent of industrialization saw all brewing in France consolidated into about twelve major producers, making mass-produced lagers synonymous with beer. Beer, which has never enjoyed the revered place in the French culinary consciousness that wine does, was relegated to the realm of the aperitif, valued more for its ability to quench thirst on a hot afternoon than for its flavor. After decades in this position, the idea that beer could be as important to gastronomy as wine became almost subversive.

I was a bit shocked, actually, that a country that is so deeply in love with gastronomy is only just now discovering the world of craft beer. But obviously, deep-rooted tradition has played a role in the late blooming of the craft beer movement in France –but bloom it has. “There is a very conservative idea of gastronomy here: that we French—because we were born French—know everything about gastronomy and the rest of the world knows nothing about this. But after five years things are changing. Five years ago it was like you were not a good patriot if you were vegetarian, vegan, or you liked beer. You were a good patriot if you ate foie gras and paired good wine with it,” explained Thillon. “But,” he continued, “things are changing fast: now, craft beer is fashionable. More people are getting into craft beer. We just need to get people to try new things. People try craft beer and they are like, ‘Oh! This is beer? Oh my God, I can’t drink any more beer from the supermarket. I’m done with 1664.'”

He then regaled me with the story of a foie gras producer who found him listed as a bottle shop and called to pitch an in-store display of foie gras. After listening to his pitch for awhile, complete with a long bit about the best wines to promote along with the foie gras, Thillon asked him what beer he would recommend with foie gras. His answer? “That’s not possible, you are not drinking any beer with foie gras!”

Thillon laughs, saying, “He thought for a second and then just hung up the phone. I imagined he was sitting next to the telephone repeating, ‘This never happened. This never happened…'” (If you’re curious, Thillon pointed out a bottle of wheat beer with quince on his shelves that he thought would go nicely with foie gras. Failing that, he recommended a nice saison, not too bitter, and with enough sweetness to balance out the fat).

The two bottles I took home, one from each of Thillon’s favorite Parisian breweries, were delightful. Etoile du Nord, a hoppy saison from Brasserie Thiriez, married the best aspects of a hoppy, slightly bitter American pale with the subtle sweetness and bright fruit of a classic continental saison. Get Radical, a session ale that Thillon brewed in collaboration with La Brasserie du Mont Saleve, was bursting with passionfruit and guava and eminently quaffable.

It was perfect for an afternoon spent watching soccer and hiding out from the Paris heat in my hotel room.