Craft beer the toast of Paris
Sorachi Ace was the clue. The moment I started rhapsodising about Japanese hops, it was all over. I had become a beer nerd. What was more surprising, though, was that this had happened in Paris. The world capital of wine snobbery had turned this ale ignoramus into a craft-brew aficionado, one of those people who comment on the almond notes of an India pale ale or debate the merits of the sour trend. Just in a striped tee and scarf, rather than beard and tattoos.
That was how I found myself in a former textile warehouse on a tour of Brasserie Bapbap in the cool-as-ale 11th arrondissement. Having already explained how grain, yeast, hops and water are brewed into gold, Bordeaux native Edouard Minart, who co-founded the microbrewery in 2015, was talking our group of 20 through a tasting. We sniffed, we swilled, we made approving noises as we moved from the American-style Blanc Bec wheat beer – skipping the temptingly named Toast porter, I noted regretfully – to a black India pale ale (IPA), a chewy drop redolent of mango and lychee.
For me, this new-found taste for a bitter demi seems like a personal revelation, but in fact I’m just following the crowd. The craft beer scene has taken off in France in recent years, spilling from traditional northern brewing territories around Lille and Nancy down south to Montpellier and Saint Tropez, to Lyon and even to vin rouge heartland Bordeaux. All over the capital, la bière artisanale is appearing on bistro menus and cocktail lists, in festivals, speciality shops and microbrasseries, and lining supermarket aisles.
Last month, this amber wave carried me, galopin tasting glass in hand, to the grand final of Paris Beer Week, a city-wide festival of more than 150 events including samplings, tours, debates and workshops. In the basement of cultural centre Centquatre in the 19th arrondissement, while hip-hop crews rehearsed at street level, 73 French and international breweries were offering 200-odd brews in a bewildering variety of styles.
I flitted from the easy-drinking (O’Clock Brewing’s lemony pepper ale Tim-Ut) to the weird (Dutch outfit Oedipus’s Polyamorie sour pale ale with its pronounced mango flavour) to the seriously alcoholic (the 12.5 per cent thump of Piggy Brewing Company’s Monstruous Fat Pig Stout Maple Cookie). There was beer made from breakfast oats, fruit beers, brewers who plan to brew on a barge on the Seine, barley wine and, because this was Paris, a side room with cheese, charcuterie and baguettes. Cheese and beer matching. Who knew?
Few places spark a taste for local product better than La Cave à Bulles. When former journalist Simon Thillou opened his specialty beer cellar in 2006, there was, he said, no stout and very few IPAs or other similar top-fermented styles so loved by overseas craft brewers. These days, the store, in the historic Beaubourg quarter in the heart of Paris, stocks two-thirds French as well as Belgian, Dutch, American, Canadian, Danish and British drops.
We sat down at the long table in the centre of the shop and, in between advising a steady stream of customers, Thillou put out a selection to try – a beginner’s flight, if you will – including Cuvée des Jonquilles, a bière de garde from Brasserie au Baron, which has been brewing near the Belgian border since 1989, and blonde saison Étoile du Nord from Esquelbecq-based Brasserie Thiriez, a brewery that, Thillou said, sowed the seed for the current movement when it launched in 1996.
Thillou, who sports a wizard-like beard and encyclopaedic recall, got his own taste for artisanal beer at the age of 17 when he took his first sip of Trappistes Rochefort 10 at a bar in Liège, Belgium. “I’d never had anything like this in my life,” he said. “It was a shock.” After that, he went north two or three times a year to buy beer. Later, travelling around France as a journalist, he found la bière artisanale everywhere – everywhere, that is, except Paris. These days, the city’s tastes have evolved. An early in-store tasting sold no Étoile du Nord; four years later, the hoppy farmhouse ale flew out the door and the IPA sold out during a tasting from La Brasserie du Mont Salève. “That’s when we knew something was happening with bitterness and hops.”
So, I wondered, what’s the difference between artisanal and craft beer?
“Craft beer is more open, more international, more fun,” said Thillou.
I’d always thought of beer as, dare I say it, a one-dimensional thirst-quencher, utilitarian and social, yes, but nowhere near as nuanced as wine. Then I tried a Jenlain blonde at a rooftop bar overlooking the Sacré-Coeur. It was fruity and floral on the nose, with a yeasty, sweetly bitter finish and my curiosity was piqued. In exploring Planet Beer, I’ve acquired not only a better-educated palate but also an enriched vocabulary – saison (historically lower in alcohol), ambrée (malted and red in colour), bière de garde (a highly fermented brew that can be aged), alpha acids, proteolytic enzymes, chill haze, dry-hopping.
My new-found taste has even taken me beyond the Périphérique, into the suburbs. In Montreuil, to the east, and Saint-Denis, to the north, fledging breweries are setting up custom facilities. Philadelphia native Anthony Baraff and Breton Fabrice Le Goff started what would become Brasserie du Grand Paris in the latter’s fifth-floor home office in 2011. As demand grew, they had a “gypsy brewing” phase, making their beer at others’ facilities. Then, in February, they launched their own brasserie in an industrial park in riverside Saint-Denis.
The day I visited, the bottling line was still having teething problems but production was in full swing. In the cavernous 1000-square-metre space dominated by gleaming 4.5-metre tanks with the capacity to produce 350,000 litres a year, Le Goff was moving gas cylinders with a forklift. Baraff walked me through the process, from sacks of malted barley to unfermented wort to finished product. It’s fascinating how four basic ingredients can be turned into such an array of flavours. He patiently explained the chemistry, water quality, how spent grain is turned into biogas and animal feed, the challenges of a distribution system dominated by the major players, French drinking culture and hops. Turns out that, like wine, beer has terroir, according to where the hops are grown. Plant antipodean varieties in France, he said, and they lose their tropical-fruit characters.
Fresh beer is a true luxury, tasting as much of itself as it ever will.
There is a definite fashion element to this whole scene, in Paris as in San Francisco, London, Brooklyn and Melbourne, going hand in hand with Wagyu sliders and organic hot dogs. But if it seems like a rarefied world cut off from the average punter who just wants a cold 1664, the third staging of Planète Bière in March brought together 90 breweries and 500 beers, large-scale producers and microbrewers alike. It sold out.
I did eventually catch up with that Bapbap porter, at the inaugural Salon des Brasseries Artisanales Parisiennes. In the late March afternoon, after 30 minutes in the queue, I found the place heaving, punters lined up three deep to sip, sample and buy from 11 local craft brewers. At Artemus, I tried the Big Roo, a round, fruity Australian red ale, made with hops from Victoria and Tasmania, but only after the woman in charge had insisted I sample the Californian wheat beer which, true to her promise, was bright and crisp without being cloying.
The salon was so well subscribed that, about an hour before closing, one of the organisers took to the stage to ask that people not linger too long in order to allow others a chance to come in. I headed directly to the Bapbap stand. The porter’s burnt-toast bitterness, just the right side of cheek-sucking, was worth the wait and an excellent primer for a finale, the Féond at Brasserie de l’Être, dark, unctuous and as mediaeval as the beautiful illustration on the label. I swilled my glass, noted the burnished hue and inhaled the rich, smoky notes with satisfaction.
Just like a pro.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Learning the craft". Subscribe here.