Artisan ales: How France became a nation of beer lovers

It may be famous for its wine, but France is also the country with the largest number of breweries in Europe. This is how French beer changed its image from a "man's drink" to a refined beverage worthy of an apéro.

Artisan ales: How France became a nation of beer lovers
President Emmanuel Macron drinking beer during the Salon de l'Agriculture in 2020. Photo: Christophe PETIT TESSON / POOL / AFP.

France’s Anosteké blonde beer was crowned the “world’s best pale beer” at the 2021 World Beer Awards, proving once again that French brewers can mix it with the best.

The beer was created by the Brasserie du Pays Flamand brewery in Merville, close to Lille, but it wasn’t the only French beer to receive an award. The Goudale Printemps came out on top in the “world’s best pale seasonal” sub-category, and the Mascaret, Vexin, and Cap d’Ona breweries also collected prizes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see French producers doing well on the international stage. The number of microbreweries here has exploded over the past decade. The country went from having 442 active breweries in 2011, to 2,300 today, meaning no country in Europe has more breweries than France, according to the trade union Brasseurs de France. 

“In France, twenty years ago, beer had a completely different image,” Jacqueline Lariven, the association’s director of communications told The Local. “It was a very standardised product, usually a low-alcohol lager. It was a man’s drink, and not very refined.”

While there is a long tradition of beer in eastern and northern France, due to proximity with Germany and Belgium, the drink is now gaining ground all over the country. Today, the region with the largest number of breweries is Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, in southeastern France.

“The creation of breweries is an urban just as much as a rural phenomenon. We have rediscovered beer in all spaces, and all age groups,” Elisabeth Pierre, author and creator of Bières & Mets magazine, told The Local.

READ ALSO French monks bring back ancient beer brewing tradition

So how did we get here? Well, firstly, many French entrepreneurs took inspiration from American craft beers, or experimented with new or updated recipes. In time, the wider population began to develop a greater appreciation for beer.

Education drive

According to Lariven: “All of these breweries, when they opened, did brewery visits, because the French had no beer culture. They thought of beer as a drink to quench your thirst in the summer.

“Bringing new recipes, they opened their doors to show what beer is, how it’s made, why there are different colours, which food pairings go well with a white beer or an amber beer.”

For Mathieu Duyck, who runs the northern brewery which makes the Jenlain beers, this was crucial. “The beer boom we’re seeing today is exclusively linked to the educating we’ve managed to do around it,” he told Europe 1 back in 2018.

Julien Gondard, co-founder of the Sulauze craft brewery, brews organic beer in Miramas, southern France, in 2016. Photo: BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP

New recipes also helped to attract different demographics, including increasing numbers of women. Starting with the arrival of more sour “abbey beers” and white beers from Belgium in the early 2000s, followed by sweeter, fruity beers in the 2010s, with popular flavours including cherry and peach.

These were all more palatable to people who weren’t already fans of beer, but today that trend has been replaced by different types of beer, including IPAs and brown ales, while non-alcoholic beer is also growing in popularity.

Changing habits

An additional factor has been beer’s successful integration into another cherished French tradition – the apéro.

“Today it seems unremarkable, but 20 years ago, people didn’t drink beer as an apéritif, except in Alsace or the north,” said Lariven.

According to Pierre, the way people in France consume beer has changed in two fundamental ways.

“First of all there are more and more bars specialising in beer, and brewpubs, therefore people are drinking more pints.

“The consumption of pintes (pints) was practically nonexistent, there was just the demi (25cl or roughly half a pint) before.

“Secondly restaurants are starting to have beer menus, and menus with pairings associated with beers.”

Indeed, Lariven says beer has now become acceptable in settings where it was once unthinkable – when eating oysters, for example, or cheese, which are traditionally paired with white and red wine respectively.

What is French beer anyway?

For many people in other countries, the first thing that will come to mind when they hear “France” and “beer” is Kronenbourg. And, possibly by extension, Eric Cantona.

With 2,300 breweries, French beer today is much more than 1664. But do these new beers have anything in common? Is it possible to define the ultimate “French beer”?

Pierre explains there are two types of beer which are typically French – the cervoise, and the bière de garde, which, similar to stock ale, was kept in cellars until the summer.

But in very recent years, there has been a return of bières de terroir – beers deeply rooted in the local area, with hops and barley harvested on the farm each year and brewed on site. 

Then there are also brewers who work alongside wine-growers. “There are so many beers aged in French wine barrels that it has to be considered typically French,” added Pierre.

More generally, it is common for French beers to make use of local ingredients.

“If you’re in Brittany you might use buckwheat; if you’re in Lorraine, mirabelle plum country, you have mirabelle beers,” Lariven added.

Making up for lost time

However, in terms of consumption habits, France is still lagging behind its neighbours when it comes to beer.

They may have the most breweries, but the French drink less beer than every other European country, according to Brewers of Europe. The French came in last in 2019 with 33 litres per capita, far behind the Czechs who drank 142 litres each, and Austrians who consumed 107 litres.

“We’re coming from a long way behind,” Pierre said. “The fall in consumption began in the 1980s, because in 1980 we were drinking more than 40 litres each per year.” By 2013, she said, this had fallen below 30 litres.

According to the beer expert, the French lost their taste for beer as a consequence of the concentration of production – the number of breweries fell from between 3,500 and 4,000 in 1900, to just 40 in 1980. Now, she said, people are returning to beer because there is such a wide variety on offer. “There is an offer of beers in France which has diversified in a phenomenal way.”

But while France may have even more breweries than the UK, Pierre says there’s no comparison, since most French breweries are “very small and new”.

And while beer has made great strides in giving wine a run for its money, some areas are more resistant than others. According to Brasseurs de France, twice as much beer is consumed north of the Loire river than to the south, where vineyards are more present.

Even so, France as a whole has clearly discovered a passion for bière. Or, rediscovered, because, as Lariven reminds us: “The cervoise in Asterix is a beer. France is as much a country of beer as a country of wine.”

Useful vocabulary

Une brasserie – a brewery

Bière artisanale – craft ale

Bière blonde – lager / pale ale

Bière ambrée – amber ale

Bière brune – stout

Une bière houblonnée – a hoppy beer

Amertume – bitterness

Une pinte – a pint (50cl)

Un demi – a half (25cl)

Une bière pression – a draught beer

Member comments

  1. But nearly all are brewed using citra hops (agrumey, like Brewdog), and absolutely all that I’ve ever encountered are fizzy as fxxxx, sorry anything. Real Ale remains unknown. A shame.

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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?