A few things I learned that will make your beery trip to France even better:
1. If you haven’t already, learn to drive a stick. I rented the cheapest car I could- $100/week for a great little VW Up! (exclamation point is part of the car’s name.) The least expensive automatic was $500/week.
2. Don’t forget, in your rush to rent your car and fire up the GPS, to get Euros at the airport. Like me. The first road from the airport is a toll road, and it doesn’t take American cards.
3. There are wild boar warning signs on some highways- neat!
4. Listening to the radio on long stretches is a great way to work on your French. And implant the Carrefour jingle in your head forever.
5. It’s really fun to say “enchanté” when you meet people. I love that. No matter how much French I learn I still blush a little because it feels like I’m saying “enchanted to meet you.” Just try to say it without smiling. Impossible.
6. Bring beer presents from the US for people in the bars and breweries you’ll visit. They weigh a lot, but the room and weight will be displaced by the beer you bring back anyway.
7. Don’t shake hands. The French kiss- twice. (The Swiss three times.) It’s great!
8. Offer to ferry beer from one brewer to the next. It was fairly common for brewers I met to not have tasted the beers from their own country. Daniel Thiriez started my trip off with this idea and it quickly caught on.
9. Budget for serious tolls. My first two hours on an “A” road was €15; another stretch was almost €30. If you have time, take the “E” roads- they’re quite beautiful, if indirect, and free!
There are beer bars, and then there are beer destinations.
What’s the difference? For me- in addition to spectacular, well thought-out beer lists and passionate people, you always leave a beer destination with a good story.
Like in 2005 when Mike Gallagher of the Brick Store Pub in Decatur, Georgia pulled out a then-unknown, off menu, 2004 Abbaye de St. Bon-Chien to toast my next morning move to Boston. That bottle opened my eyes to what beer can be, and also began an odyssey (some say obsession) of travel and beer adventure. (And now I help blend it at the brewery!)
The stories aren’t always so happy. I went to the Kulminator in Antwerp and made the mistake of speaking French to the owner who apparently doesn’t care for the language being used in the Flanders part of Belgium. (Either that or I unknowingly swore at him- entirely possible given my language skills.) He huffed away and wouldn’t look at me the rest of the time. Even the cat hissed at me. I had to order my $100 bottle of off-menu 3 Fonteinen Hommage from his wife who was clearly embarrassed. It was delicious though!
There was a strange momentum building up to my visit to this special place. My GPS had died the day before and I still managed to drive directly into the city and get a parking spot right outside the place I would be staying. (I used a map. Crazy!) The lovely couple I stayed with turned out to live around the corner from the bar. Other friends converged in their flat where we drank all the beer I couldn’t fit into my suitcases, and we then brought a few beery presents with us and descended on La Fine Mousse.
There are many stories from that wonderful evening, my last stop on the French beer voyage- but the best one is this: Paris now has a beer destination!
Bravo and merci to the three owners pictured at the start of this for creating a world-class beer list, a truly special space to enjoy it in, and for generously providing fodder for fabulous beer stories: Laurent Cicurel, Cyril Lalloum, and Romain Thieffry.
Another sharp right turn from France brought me to Bruxelles to visit family, and two breweries in Belgium were added to the beer tour: Brasserie de la Senne and Rochefort.
When I was last here in 2010, brewer Yvan de Baets had just moved into this space. It wasn’t ready for brewing yet, there wasn’t a bottling line, the fermentation tanks hadn’t been delivered, and the tasting room was just an idea.
This time, Yvan was juggling mid-brew a 40+ person tour and a yeast crop, while also planning his brew taking place a few days later with Megan Parisi (former lead brewer at Cambridge Brewing Company and currently Brewmaster at Bluejacket, the brewing project of Church Key in Washington, DC).
It’s almost too small already!
The next day I visited Gumer Santos at Rochefort, one of six Trappist breweries in Belgium. (There is a seventh in The Netherlands.) There was at least a nod to France in this visit though- since the mark of “Trappist” is derived from the French Abbey of Notre-Dame de la Trappe in Soligny. (France)
A fire recently destroyed part of the brewery, and a few happy adjustments have been made while rebuilding, such as widening the entrance for today’s trucks and a sparkling high-tech lab.
Rochefort just started adding a back label for the US market because of too much required text crowding the front- see it here first before it hits our shelves!
Some people thought I wouldn’t be allowed in the brewhouse because I’m a woman, but it was no problem and Gumer even introduced me to a few of the monks. Super!
Gumer will be in the US next year as an advisor to the new Trappist brewery project at Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. That’s right- an American Trappist beer!
Quand j’ai commencé mon tour des bières françaises, j’ai cru que je parlerais assez bien la langue pour pouvoir discuter de presque tout. Mais trois jours après le début de mon voyage, j’ai réalisé que je ne comprenais presque rien. Donc j’ai décidé d’abondonner. Je suis trop âgée, c’est trop difficile, etc.
Puis j’ai rencontré Marjorie Jacobi. (Ici, avec Rémi, son assistant) Je savais avant notre rencontre qu’elle était une excellente brasseuse. Tous les autres brasseurs m’ont dit de très bonnes choses à son sujet, et les deux bières que j’ai goûtées étaient effectivement fabuleuses.
Après un jour de travail dans sa brasserie, Brasserie Paradis, Marjorie et moi-même, nous sommes assises dans sa cuisine cozy. Nous avons mangé dîner, et puis nous avons ouvert une bouteille de Mamouche Cantillon.
Quand j’ai humé les arômes et nos yeux se sont croisés, j’ai tout de suite vu qu’elle a adoré cette bière autant que moi.
Pendant les trois ou quatre heures suivantes nous avons discuté, en français, du goût si particulier de cette bière- le nez, l’arôme, le goût. Ainsi que de toutes les subtilités de goût que nous avions aimé.
C’était vraiment cela la raison originelle de mon voyage.
Grâce à cette soirée de dégustation de bière avec Marjorie, j’ai à nouveau envie de continuer les cours de français. Merci beaucoup Marjorie!
What I love most about beer travel is finding the people I am already inevitably connected to. Whenever I meet another craft beer person, we download (in conversation) the beers we prefer and the people we know in common. Then we excitedly go through beers we think the other would like, places we think the other should go, and new beer people for each to meet. And so the beer world tightens.
Meet Bernard- in my mind the beer mayor of Strasbourg.
But first, a quick drive-by shot of my approach. These are some of the kilometer after kilometer beautiful autumn-glowing vineyards of Alsace.
I found Les Berthom on RateBeer, which I use as a first stop whenever I plan a beer voyage. The last I checked, only 20% of the people posting reviews of places are American, so I trust the worldly perspective. Les Berthom is a fine beer destination with friendly, helpful staff. The beer list was quite good for France, but didn’t include anything I can’t get in the states. So- upon of texted advice once again of Laurent Mousson, I moved on to 12 Apôtres.
At first I thought I wouldn’t stay. There weren’t seats at the bar. It’s really just for service, which for a woman traveling alone is always a bummer- although common in Europe. I actually asked for directions to another bar- which Bernard gave by drawing a map. (A real beer map! Yes it is in the collection.) I struck out to essentially go around the corner and got caught up in the lovely streets of Strasbourg, the moon, a pretty scarf in a window that I had to have… and ended up back at the douze, as I like to call it.
As has become a well-adored ritual in my life, Bernard then began to tell me about his beer list, the beer I should try given my mission in France (the Perle, described on a full page of the menu as shown here by fellow customer Pierre-Jean), and then the people and places I should look for on the summer trip I’m planning to Bamburg. We discovered the beer people we knew in common. I recommended places in the US. In the business world this is called networking. In my world it’s the fun part!