Drinking France: We're only here for the biÿre

It's not only champagne that draws connoisseurs of drink to rural France. Don't turn your nose up at the breweries, says Margaret Campbell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

We are what we drink, or so the stereotypes would have us believe. Champagne drinkers are traditionally thought of as classy and rich, while beer drinkers are more down-to-earth types. But how does this translate into the tours offered by champagne houses and breweries? I visited one of each, a champagne house in Reims and a well-known brewery in Strasbourg, both more or less randomly selected, to put the clichés to the test.

First, a warm July day and the Champagne region's principal city. Reims's attractions include the airy cathedral of Notre-Dame and a museum where the Axis powers officially conceded defeat in 1945. However, our destination was the Piper-Heidsieck cave, almost a mile south-east of the centre. Tattinger, Mumm and Pommery also offer guided tours nearby, but since we had time to visit only one cellar, our choice was made by the simple method of asking three local people which champagne house they would recommend.

Piper-Heidsieck won the day, so we passed through the imposing wrought iron gates, paid our entrance fee (no reservation required), and descended a flight of stairs to a chilly stone cellar, lined with row upon row of empty champagne bottles – all very atmospheric. Around 16km of tunnels have been carved out 20m below ground level, holding countless bottles and casks of champagne. Here, our chariot was waiting – a four-seater trolley, already holding two other English-speaking tourists and fitted with an automated commentary system.

We set off along the dark tunnels, which were regularly lit up by holographs of key figures in the company's history since its foundation in 1875 and illustrations of the lengthy champagne-making process. The images were accompanied by a laudatory account of the company's history and a slightly more realistic description of the producteur's art. The sides of the tunnel were lined with ageing bottles, some of which certainly looked full. Above our heads, illuminated as we trundled beneath, hung huge grey bunches of grapes, one of which was unfortunately peeling to reveal its plastic frame. We saw no employees, and had to take it on trust that the contents of the bottles on display would eventually be marketed.

The tour lasted just over 20 minutes, about 10 minutes too long for me, and we emerged into a bright hall whose walls were covered in photographs of show-business stars providing (somewhat dubious) celebrity endorsement for Piper-Heidsieck's bubbly. Most of the pictures had been taken at film festivals sponsored by the company, and the only genuine enthusiasm was a touching signed photograph of Marilyn Monroe. Oh well, free glasses of bubbly were waiting for us at the bar. No complaints there, good champagne is always welcome, but we resisted the elegantly packaged bottles in the factory shop.

Fast forward to September, and another cathedral city in north-east France. Alsace is better known as a wine-making region, but much of French beer production is also concentrated here.

Beer-drinkers rarely get enthusiastic about French brews; indeed, two of the nations's most popular "beers", named Adelscott and Desperados, are tainted with malt whisky and tequila respectively. But Kronenbourg has a good name – and offers free, 90-minute English-language brewery tours (book in advance, but on the day if you like). We joined a cheerful group of Swedish tourists, for whom this visit was but one more component of a gastronomic tour of Alsace.

Downstairs, past wooden vats and old brewing equipment, we gathered in a large brick cellar for an introductory talk and promotional film outlining the firm's history since the first barrel of beer was rolled out in 1664. A quick history of beer-making and the processes involved was followed by a brief question and answer session, before we headed up to the production area. Hygiene regulations meant we couldn't watch the malting process, so we were taken to see the massive copper tanks in which water, malt and hops mixtures were being brewed. Of course, the shiny containers were sealed, but the distinctive, comforting smell of beer-making was already in the air.

Various types of hops, responsible for the finesse of the final product, were passed around for us to examine. We then moved on to the fermentation rooms, where yeast is added and alcohol formed. Fluent commentary was provided by Amand Stroh, who has been working at Kronenbourg for 30 years, most of it on the shop-floor: increased use of technology means that fewer people are directly employed in production, and can be re-trained as tour guides. His hands-on familiarity with beer-making made him an excellent guide. The packing and bottling areaswere off limits , so it was back to the bar to sample a few of the brewery's many brands (1664, Kronenbourg, Maitre Kanter) and muse on what a difference the personal touch makes. The shop (selling glasses and T-shirts rather than alcohol) was easily avoided, but we left after a genuinely enjoyable time.

Of course, I only visited one champagne cellar, perhaps unrepresentative of Reims' other caves or the houses in Epernay. But whatever the relative merits of the drinks, the brewery beat the champagne house hands down for welcome, interest and value. Champagne may have social cachet, but beer-drinkers get better days out.

Both locations are easily reached by taking Eurostar to Paris, and then a train from Gare de l'Est. Piper-Heidsieck, 51 Boulevard Henry Vasnier, Reims, 00 33 3 26 84 43 44. Open daily, admission €6.50. Brasseries Kronenbourg, 68 Route d'Oberhausbergen, Strasbourg. (00 33 3 88 27 41 59 (open Monday-Saturday). Take a tram from town centre to the Cronenbourg stop

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