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The rise of French craft beers

Every edition we assess an aspect of the French zeitgeist. This month: what’s brewing in France’s beer scene, by Jane Hanks

Beer will probably never replace wine as the number one preferred alcoholic beverage in France, but there is no doubt that there is an increasing interest in a drink which has seen an explosion in the number of different varieties on offer and the number of new breweries in recent years.

You can now buy walnut, cherry or rosé beers, shop from a growing number of caves à bières instead of caves à vin, drink in bars à bière, opt for one of the increasing number of non-alcoholic beers if you are driving, and drink beers brewed by an increasing number of micro-breweries.

The figures from Brasseurs de France, which represents breweries, back this growing trend for drinks based on grain rather than grape. “The number of breweries has doubled in the past five years”, says spokesperson, Elise Sequalino. “There are now 4,000 different types of beer produced on 1,200 sites, putting France in third place for the number of breweries in Europe. In 2017, around a hundred new breweries were created.”

Even with the increase in production sites, France is still low down the list of consumers at 27th place in Europe out of 28 countries, with people drinking on average 32 litres a year per inhabitant. This compares to 104 litres per year per person in Germany, at the head of the list and 67 litres/year/person for the British behind Holland and Belgium at 69 and 68 litres/year/person respectively.

However, the growing variety of beers is attracting more drinkers: “The fruity flavours have attracted new female drinkers,” says Mrs Sequalino. “In supermarkets, 50% of sales are in speciality beers including bitter and India Pale Ale which have increased in popularity. Non-alcohol beers are also selling well and their sales went up by 21% in 2017. It is also true that artisanal beers are on the increase and now make up 5-6% of the market.”

Many beers are made by small-scale breweries which sell limited ranges and numbers. They offer new and specialist tastes which makes tasting from different producers all the more interesting.

Martin and Samuel Vanlerberghe are twins who opened their brewery on their family farm just three years ago at Montagny-Sainte-Félicité, in the Oise. They call themselves Brasserie Félicité  after the name of the church in their village and for the moment produce three beers; Ambrée, Blonde and Blanche. Samuel Vanlerberghe says they chose beer because they needed to diversify production on the family farm: “We already produce barley, but cannot make our living from that alone. So after studying at agricultural college we came back to our farm and converted the old barn into a modern brewery. Last year we produced 35,000 litres and our aim is eventually to produce 100,000 litres.”

He says their beers are light, with a hint of bitterness and spice and highlighted with the taste of the cereals they are made from. Their blonde beer is 6% in strength, which is more than industrial beer, but they say, not strong for an artisanal beer.

“Drinking beer is popular and in particular young working people enjoy drinking beers like ours which are thirst quenching and not too alcoholic.”

The twins sell locally and in Paris and say they are confident they can find clients even though there are so many new producers. For them the hardest task is to make it in quantity as Samuel Vanlerberghe says it is very hard work:
“It involves a great deal of man hours. Each batch of beer takes two months with several different stages before it can be bottled. Then we have to label them, package them up and market them, a lot of work for two people. But yes, we love what we produce, of course.”

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