How to Win a Free Trip to France
This is a map of France, stitched and framed, on a classroom wall at the French Cultural Center of Boston. Where I’ve been taking French classes twice a week for nearly a year. It shows the products of each region- including- look closely! Beer.
I love wine. I do. But France has a long brewing history as well, and I’ve longed to investigate it.
So when my teacher, the lovely Swiss Eugénie, told me about an essay competition where I’d have to propose a project about spreading French culture- of course I thought of beer. And I won. Merci Rebecca Valette and the Alliance Française! Airfare and car for 16 days- prize money well spent. Daily installments of new French words de goût and French beer… Coming.
One of the things I adore about the language of Alain Ducasse is that to pronounce words properly, one must almost always smile or pucker. It’s so much fun for your face to speak French! Turns out though- there isn’t a direct translation for the word pucker. Expressions galore, bien sûr! But no direct word. Strange, eh-
for a culture known for its love of the kiss?
That’s the one English word I’ve found to trump the French. All other subtleties of sense the French win hands down. So it’s the word I leave the US on.
The photo is my planning map of breweries to visit. The gift-beer is packed, the CBC White Widow sipped, cat team assembled, new laces in Fleuvogs, Ratebeer Strasbourg consulted. Ready! Oh- but the brewery-on-a-sheep farm guy in Brittany just moved the date. Yikes. Well, that’s beer travel. Salut!
Le mot pour aujourd’hui est “équilibre”, as in “équilibre entre malte et houblon”. A few of brewer Daniel Thiriez’ beers are available in the US, so I asked if I could try some that are only sold in France. From these, the most refined balance between malt and hops (see word or the day) was the “Black Daniel’s” black IPA, made with Marjorie Jacobi of Brasserie Paradis. (A later visit). Unlike many American IPAs, the hops are strong, yet restrained- allowing for a soft lingering finish that keeps you wanting more.
Merci à Daniel et Marielle Paquet!
Un jeu de mots
Daniel Thiriez has revived a French brewing tradition called Brière de Garde. A close translation would be “saved beer”, a farmhouse style quite similar to a Belgian saison- which makes sense given the brewery’s location on the Belgian border.
And he makes other wonderful beer styles as well. This label is from a special beer he brewed for a local restaurant. The restaurant is called “2 Sous de Table” which is word play for “dessous de table”, or underneath the table! The beer is a Belgian triple with a lovely soft finish- elegant like all of his beers and fantastic with food.
I titled today with the French name (soft “g” please!) because English speakers tend to say “page twenty-four”. According to brewer and owner Stephane (along with brother Vincent) the name is a nod to their cycle of 24 hour brews- where they make several batches of the same beer around the clock to fill the fermenters, and the stop for a day or two.
Stephane is pictured here with my dear friend Yvan de Baets from Brasserie de la Senne who drove over from Brussels to join me on the tour.
The brewing set up is state-of-the-art, direct from Bamberg. All but the wheat beer is filtered, lagered for weeks, and then warm-conditioned after bottling. Hmmmm…
Afterwards, on to the famous La Capsule for a few beers in Lille. There were three French beers au fût, along with some stunning one-offs from around the world. Wow!
About five hours west of Lille in the farmland of Normandy is a tiny brewery called- um- Le Brewery. Former Brit school teacher Steve Skews moved here years ago to start a sheep farm. Now he has a brewery, horses, two pubs- and three sheep.
At the center of the dinner table my first night were three open bottles being liberally poured: a stout from this brewery, a local wine, and Talisker.
I love it here.
Steve brews exceptional traditional English real ales. I heard about his brewery from Swiss beer writer, teacher, and judge Laurent Mousson- and he was spot on. The brewery has a story you’d want to buy the movie rights to: he saved enough to bring his beer to Mondial de la Bière in Strasbourg a couple of years ago. He and his assistant lived in the tiny truck they drove there for the week- drinking their beer as meal replacements because they forgot to factor in spending money. After becoming quite “gamey” by the end of the week he found out his beer had earned one of only 10 gold medals out of hundreds of breweries! Suddenly he was the center of attention and demand- but his brewery is so small he was already at capacity.
Le Brewery is at a turning point. It is ready to grow, but now that Steve has put his last child through school he’s ready to slow down. One option is to sell it, the pubs, the farm- want to buy a dream life in France, anyone?
Secret Knight and Helpx
Tired of sitting at a desk all year and think working on a farm, a brewery, a winery- some kind of hands-on international experience might be fantastic? Allow me to introduce you to Helpx.
Steve Skews from Le Brewery in Normandy told me this site keeps his brewery going. He provides room and board, and people come from all over the world to provide labor. Brilliant! All ages participate- he had a woman in her 60s come and transform the gardens; a young Texan revitalized the website, an Australian couple did something else. I know I’ll be looking into this!
These photos are of the Secret Knight, one of Steve’s pubs in Normandy. And Steve himself, with his genius right hand Christine. They are never not smiling, so in the picture they are about to burst out laughing. She won, by the way.
Women Brew in France
Thanks to Stéphane Bogaert of Page 24, I learned that Julie Michard and her father have a brewpub and production facility in central France. The pub is right on the central circle of Limoges, an ideal location for watching the world walk by.
The brune was my favorite of those on tap, but the whiskey is what I shelled out euros to take home. I have a reputation to protect for bringing the can’t-get-it-here bottles to my friend’s annual whiskey tasting. A French single malt? Ding ding!
Wow. That’s what I kept saying beer after beer after beer. (Les échillons!) This young man, brewer at itty-bitty Brasserie du Mont Salève on the edge of Switzerland, has mastered hops.
In Michael’s hallway of a brewery, the bags of different hops take up a whole wall of shelf space. I thought he was just storing them until I tried the “black bitter”.
To call it a bitter, even an ESB, is a reach. Side-by-side with any American IPA, I’d rather finish this one. The hop maestro isn’t out to just up the IBUs- he orchestrates them. Another example? Mademoiselle IPA is both elegant and commanding. (As in, now you must have another…)
The man behind the beer there is Didier. About 45 minutes from Brasserie du Mont Salève is Au Bon Coin- worth the drive. And the plane ticket! Abbaye de St. Bon Chien au fût, and a beer list to make Dan Lanigan and Max Toste jealous.
Didier carries all the BFM beers (including some special off-menu bottles) and all the Mont Salève beers (au fût, aussi) just for starters. And you get to wake up in the beautiful village of Nernier!
Tour de France
Now you can understand why I had to rent a car for this trip instead of taking the train- these breweries are remote. As you can see from this sign, this brewery is closed on Tuesdays- the day I arrived.
But when I saw a car and the light on in the brewery, of course I knocked (bloody American tourist!) and a surprised but very friendly man stopped his brewing to greet me and pour me a beer. A really fantastic beer. A beer worth the two hour drive to try.
This is Jean Yves Nauroy of La Franche. He is not afraid of hops, and his beers are super. He has a quiet warmth that made me both happy and ashamed that I interrupted him. Le goût de la bière tipped the scale.
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!
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!
La Fine Fin
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.
Tips for your beery trip to France
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!