France’s craft beer boom has been building slowly for several years, but the impact of this hops revolution really struck me one summer evening while meeting a friend for a glass of wine. We had sat on the terrace of a bar across from the Marché de Carmes in Toulouse and ordered two glasses of red wine.
As we waited for them to arrive, I noticed something odd as the waiter continued to take other orders. Young, old, middle age, they were all ordering beer. I craned my neck around and couldn’t see another glass or bottle of wine in sight across the 15 tables surrounding us. Even glancing down the street at others camped on the terraces of neighboring bars, it was beer as far as the eye could see. Somehow, I had become the tourist doing the thing that I thought one was supposed to do in France, while the French had moved on.
This was the summer of 2017, and I could still recall the reactions that the word “beer” would elicit when we first arrived three years earlier. The mere mention prompted a mildly embarrassed look from friends who would mumble something about needing to go to Belgium in order to find a decent ale. The supermarkets carried brands that I shall not single out by name, but whose claims to be “Belgium” in nature seemed tenuous and were in fact undrinkable. They seemed mainly targeted at college students whose thin budgets doomed them to guzzle mediocrity.
But no more. Friends were now asking if I wanted to “get a beer”. Wine, I assumed they meant, un verre. No. Increasingly, it really was a beer. And just like that, microbreweries and brewpubs began popping up around the neighborhood. My curiosity about this mania led to a story I wrote about France’s craft beer boom in the Los Angeles Times.
It was a remarkable turnaround that has since continued. By the start of 2019, the average French person was drinking 10% more beer than a decade ago. In just 2018, 500 microbreweries opened creating 600 jobs. Not seismic in terms of the economy, but this was the fifth consecutive year beer consumption had increased after falling for 30 straight years.
The good news is that many of these beers are also excellent. While France hasn’t really developed a distinctive beer on its own, it’s mastered the styles that define craft brews in such places as Belgium, the U.K., and the U.S.
In the past couple of years as I’ve given myself permission to drink more beer while not feeling guilty about cutting back on wine, I’ve indeed found some very rich beers. Keeping in mind that my tastes run more to blonds, whites, and IPA, here are 6 of my favorite breweries from across France.
Based in the Gers Departement town of Mauvez, La Brasserie L’Excuse was founded in 2013. Since then, this Gascony brewery has expanded it lineup to 8 beers. But my preferred one is their blonde, called “L’Exaequo.” Flavored very lightly with juniper berries, it also has hints of orange and lemon but without being sweet or overwhelming. We picked up several bottles during our latest trip to Gascony and it was the perfect balance to sip by the poolside at the end of a hot day.
We first discovered Britt while camping in Brittany. After long hikes left us sweaty and tired, we stopped at a bar for something refreshing. Too hot for red wine, and I am not typically a white wine drinker. So we gambled on a Britt Blonde.
The beer also had some accents of orange and lemon, but with a bit of caramel milk introduced. The brewery uses buckwheat flour which keeps it from being too bitter. Overall, it was super refreshing.
Founded in 1998, Britt now sells beer under six brand names, each having several varieties. Brittany has traditionally been more passionate about beer, so it is not surprising that it gave birth to this craft brew gem.
I first tasted l’Aoucataise when we were on a spring trip to the Pyrénées and staying in the village of Aulon in the Hautes-Pyrénées Departement. This started out as a hobby for the founder, selling beer out of a tourist shop. But it was such a hit, he transformed it into a company with its own brewery that makes 20 varieties of beer.
The blonde I drank was light tasting, but packs 7.2% alcohol. While it’s unpasteurized and unfiltered, the bit of grit that remains in the bottle isn’t noticeable, and there is only a slight bitter edge to it.
Brasseur Toulousain BBT
Closer to home, the Brasseur Toulousain BBT is located in a nearby suburb of Toulouse. The microbrew and brewpub was started by Simon Mabille, his wife, and his brother. With the help of a crowfunding campaign, they were able to purchase the equipment and get started just over two years ago.
BBT’s White Cliff (a wheat ale) and Blue Bay (a pale ale) are rich without being too bitter. They now make six versions, and it’s become one of the default beers I see around Toulouse bars and supermarkets.
Started by two buddies from a town about 30 minutes north, they set up in Toulouse and adopted the name of a branch of the Garonne river that used to run through part of the city center. Once upon a time, there was a brewery just along that branch of the same name, harkening back to a time when beer was much more popular. The name is still visible inside the garage of friends who bought an apartment on the former site. And outside is a relief of Gambrinus, who is sort of a European beer mascot.
As for their beers, the blonde and the Amber have both won awards. The blonde is particularly tasty, very lightly spicy and a bit of fruit.
Brasserie du Mont-Blanc
Though it’s listed last, the Brasserie du Mont Blanc was the first French beer I had where, upon taking a sip and expecting swill, I instead thought, “Wow.” The brewery is at the foot of the Alps, where we happened to be attending a Bluegrass festival. Yes, Bluegrass.
We were taking a break from the music and went to the concession stand for beers, and Mont Blanc was a festival sponsor. The history of the brand is pretty emblematic of France’s history with beer. The labels say “since 1830,” which is sorta true. Started by a German, the brewery used water from chunks of the glacier that employees carried down.
It closed in 1966, no doubt a victim of France’s waning interest in beer. But 20 years ago, local son Sylvain Chiron re-launched the name to, as he puts in one video on the site, to demonsrate that the French Alps were once home to quality beers that were as renowned as the region’s rich food and ski stations.
They make 10 varieties now, and we’re able to find some way back in Toulouse. But just in case, whenever we are back East for the festival, we often buy a case of the blonde to tide us over.