Although France is better known for its wine and food products, it also has some really good beer. Although the beer industry went through a massive decline during the first part of the 20th Century, over the last thirty years or so it has come to life again, and many young people in France drink beer more often than wine or spirits. The region known as the Nord-Pas de Calais is where French beer is at its most popular, mainly due to its proximity to Belgium. In fact, most of the best French beers are similar to their Belgian counterparts in terms of style and taste.
The Impact of Large Breweries
Although French beer is improving, it is hindered by the fact that the major breweries control 90% of the market. This situation is worse than virtually all other European countries, and means that much of the beer available is mass-produced and generic. Having said that, the major breweries in France are of somewhat better quality than in other countries, with Kronenbourg being the most famous example. Their main product, Kronenbourg 1664, is an above-average tasting lager beer with a good malty taste. Other products include a stronger version of 1664 known as Grand Cru, which is 6% ABV, and a spicy wheat beer known as Kronenbourg Blanc. Despite the fact that these beers are relatively good, they hinder the progression of the far better but less well-known French beers that are on offer.
Bieres De Garde
In contrast to the huge breweries like Kronenbourg and the lagers they produce are the beers produced in the style known as biere de garde. This style has been around for a few hundred years, and combines Belgian brewing techniques with the distinctively French finesse. These beers undergo a second fermentation phase at very low temperatures, meaning they are more like Belgian ales than lager beers. Of these beers, the most famous is surely 3 Monts, which is produced by the Brasserie Saint-Sylvestre. It is a beautiful golden ale with a strong hoppy flavour and a lovely bittersweet finish. Despite its 8.5% ABV, it is extremely easy to drink and suitable for every season. Other popular beers of this style include Ch'Ti beers from Brasserie Castelain and Jenlain. Both of these beers are quite readily available in the UK and other European countries, and are extremely well made.
French Beer Overlooked
Although the bieres de garde stand up to many of the best beers in the world, they are often overlooked because of their proximity to Belgium and the problems of competing with large breweries. Many French people still see beer as a common drink that does not sit well with their gourmet food, whilst others see them as inferior to their Belgian counterparts. Although the range of beers on offer in France is much smaller than in Belgium, the best examples of French beer are as good as any beers in Europe. In fact, the biere de garde style is probably the most under appreciated beer style in Europe. If you are someone who thinks that French beer begins and ends with Kronenbourg, then you should definitely try some of the bieres de garde and see what you are missing out on.