When one thinks of the beers of France, it’s usually the Bières de Garde of the Northeast that come to mind—but in reality, there’s a whole thriving ecosystem of beer not just limited to one style or one region of the country. France may be best known for wine, but beer has a surprisingly large presence when you start looking for it.
This Seattle Beer Examiner article is a good primer, though the numbers it quotes for breweries is off by a large margin (more on that in a bit).
Brasseries Kronenbourg is France’s Anheuser-Busch in both style and popularity. Their Kronenbourg 1664, a European pale lager, pours straw yellow with a good amount of foam and trace lacing. There is not much aroma. There is not much flavor. What flavor there is tastes somewhat like cider, but mostly this is a beer of sensation, not taste: it is crisp with an ever-so-slightly bitter finish.
The French Beer Scene is a more comprehensive article which is an excerpt from The Beers of France published by Artisan Press. Though the latest updates on the pages of the site are from 2001 (the book was published in 1998), it’s a nice capsule history of brewing in France up to that point, and there’s a link to a Breweries page listing many breweries by region (many more than are quoted by the Examiner article).
At the start of the 20th century there were well over 1,000 breweries in France, but a series of events and trends between 1900 to 1950 had a major impact on the industry resulting in many bankruptcies, closures and mergers. Rural depopulation, two World Wars (both of which saw parts of France under occupation by the Germans) and lack of investment capital to replace old brewplant with equipment capable of brewing the ‘trendy’ pilsener-type beers of the 60s and 70s left the country with a small collection of huge beer combines. A handful of smaller regional breweries, some family-owned, managed to struggle through the hard times and were eventually joined by the first of a new generation of special beer brewers which started to appear in the late 70s.
The French beer revival is now in full flow to the point that around 20 breweries opened between 1997 and the summer of 1998 with a wide variety of beer styles and brewing techniques. Now it is possible to drink British-style real ale, German-style weizenbier, Belgian-style witbier and spiced beer along with the traditional Alsace and bière de garde styles. Even the UK-owned Firkin pub chain has three pubs in Paris, although at present only one brews beer on site. A handful of tiny rural breweries have found the trend towards organic produce in France a real benefit with a ready market for organically-accredited beers.
But what are we looking at for real numbers? The Examiner article cites Wikipedia’s paltry 10 entries, and the Beers of France data is almost 10 years old. So let’s turn to two up-to-date sources: BeerMapping and BeerAdvocate.
Click on the BeerMapping France Beer Map and you’ll be surprised by the number of breweries and brewpubs that show up (plus a few beer bars and stores): 269 total are currently listed! It lists five beer bars and 8 beer stores, leaving 256 breweries and brewpubs.
The numbers on BeerAdvocate are similar though tell a different story: 160 breweries and 42 brewpubs (for a total of 202), 66 beer bars and 46 beer stores. That’s a total of 314 listings.
Using the BeerMapping numbers, in a nation of just over 65 million people, that equals about one brewery for every 254,000 people—not bad for a nation most famous for its wine. (In comparison, the U.S. has one brewery for every 202,000 people approximately.)
That’s the good news. The bad news is, there’s still not a huge selection of French beers (generally) available in the United States. For some idea of what’s available, check out the BeerGeek French Beer store and Shelton Brothers’ French beer imports.
I get the sense that many of the (newer) breweries in France are of the small rural variety; for instance, clicking one at random in BeerMapping, I find La Ferme de Laubicherie, a farm-based brewery (based largely on agritourism, I think) that brews and bottles on-site, but won’t be exporting any time soon. Pity, because the Truffle Beer they list on their products page is definitely one I would want to try.