Paris with lots of bottle
A new rise in beer tax won't quench the French capital's newfound thirst for craft brews
The middle-aged American in the green anorak is clearly thrilled. He's just started to peruse the bottles on sale at Cave à Bulles, a beer shop close to the Centre Pompidou in the heart of Paris. "So many of these aren't on my list!" he exclaims, waving a thick wad of carefully annotated A4 paper at the beer bottles – all of them French – on the shelf in front of him.
You don't have to be quite such an aficionado, though, to enjoy beer in Paris. Despite the French government's introduction of a punitive 160 per cent tax rise on beer (which could increase the price of a small beer by a quarter), Parisians are increasingly interested in the quality of the beer they drink. Good beer has arrived in Paris.
That much is clear from just five minutes spent nosing around Cave à Bulles. Although some of the labels may be distinctly homemade – this is bière artisanale, after all – it's clear there's a real passion for beer in France now. The beer itself is increasingly good, too, says the shop's owner Simon Thillou. "The quality and consistency of the beers keeps on improving," he says.
Those searching for a Parisian beer among the 100 or so French breweries represented at Cave à Bulles will be disappointed, however. France may have more than 400 breweries now, but the capital could, until recently, boast only a selection of fairly uninspiring brewpubs and a handful of breweries (most notably Outland in Bagnolet) just outside the city. The reality is that Paris – constrained as it is by the Boulevard Périphérique – is too expensive for most brewers.
That hasn't stopped Thierry Roche, who has recently opened Paris's first real craft brewery in La Goutte D'Or, one of the city's working-class neighbourhoods. The brewery itself (named after the area, which can be found to the north of Gare du Nord) is housed in a former restaurant and doubles as a shop where you can buy the beer – and it's well worth doing so. Roche's brews are inspired by the area around him (and named after nearby streets, such as Château Rouge and Charbonnière), so expect beers flavoured with ingredients popular with La Goutte D'Or's African and Arabic inhabitants, such as peppers, dates and ginger.
Roche, 40, says he makes the beer he wants rather than the beer that he knows Parisians will drink. The problem in France is that too few people recognise that beer can be a sophisticated, complex drink. "For most people here, beer is just for slaking your thirst," he bemoans. The uninitiated might think this has always been the case in Paris, but the city once had a vibrant beer culture. Brasseries are now mainly known for their magnificent interiors and so-so renditions of classic dishes such as choucroute garni and coq au vin, but the name brasserie gives away their original intent: it means brewery.
The first brasseries were opened towards the end of the 19th century by Alsatian immigrants, who brought their love for beer to the capital. At some stage, though, this tradition was lost and it's clear that some Parisians feel the lack of a brewing tradition deeply. Two beers have recently been launched onto the French market bearing the names of long-gone Parisian breweries: Gallia and Demory. Neither of them are brewed in the city, although both producers have plans to do so.
To add insult to injury, the handful of mediocre beers that are available tend to be eye-wateringly expensive: it is not unusual to pay €4.50 for half a pint of beer in Paris. The upside of this, of course, is that a place like La Fine Mousse (a craft-beer bar on Avenue Jean Aicard, which served its first beer in the summer) can afford to compete on price with their rivals despite offering a far superior product.
The bar is owned by four friends, three of whom have hosted an irregular beer event called Les Soirées Maltées on a boat on the Seine for the past few years (the other is Thillou). It boasts what is almost certainly Paris' biggest craft-beer range (another new bar, Le Supercoin, on Rue Baudelique, has a much smaller selection while Brewberry, which opened in 2010 on the Rue du Pot de Fer, concentrates on bottles), with 20 taps and more than 150 bottles on offer. Pleasingly, many of the beers available are French – in stark contrast to most of Paris's longer-established beer venues, which are Belgian beer-focused.
This focus on Belgian beer has led to a fair bit of confusion, says Romain Thieffry, one of La Fine Mousse's owners. "'There are a lot of men who think they know beer because they know a little about Belgian beer, and women who think they don't like beer," he says. "It's enjoyable to challenge their preconceptions: 'Oh, OK, I didn't know beer', or 'I do like beer.'"
Some beers (which are served in 25cl glasses, and mostly cost €3.50 – although that may soon increase given the rise in taxes) at La Fine Mousse will challenge, or perhaps reinforce, a few preconceptions, too. Volceleste Blonde, a beer made not far from Paris at the Brasserie de la Vallée de Chevreuse, is nothing like your average bland French lager: it's certainly refreshing, but there's an elegance, a balance of honey and citrus about it, that seems totally natural for a French beer.
La Fine Mousse ("the delicate foam") may be focused on promoting excellent French beer, but its ambiance is different from the classic bar-brasserie. Thieffry says that the beer taps were deliberately placed on the back wall in order not to put a barrier between the customer and the server, while the room is arranged to encourage more interaction. Every little helps in the battle to convince Paris that beer is not just for quenching your thirst.
Will Hawkes is the author of 'Craft Beer London' (Vespertine Press, £10)
Will Hawkes travelled as a guest of Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) which operates daily services from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Returns from £69.
Cave a Bulles, 45 rue Quincampoix (00 33 1 40 29 03 69; caveabulles.fr).
Brasserie de la Goutte D'Or, 28 rue de la Goute d'Or (00 33 6 18 53 77 70; brasserie lagouttedor.com).
La Fine Mousse, 6 avenue Jean Aicard (00 33 9 80 45 94 64; lafinemousse.fr).
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