Owen Ogletree's picture

Drinking Beer in the French Countryside

(Issue 26)

England, Belgium, Amsterdam, Germany and even the Czech Republic rank as noted European beer travel destinations, but what about France? Sure, some cities across France offer the occasional French bière de garde, pils, blonde, amber and witbier – along with ubiquitous Belgian-made brews, but beer trekkers who venture northward into the rural regions of Brittany and Normandy can discover entirely different drinking cultures.

Inspired by creative American, U.K. and Belgian craft brewers, independent breweries are popping up across the entire French region of Brittany. Just to the east, a bit closer to Paris, farmhouse cideries dot the idyllic landscape of Normandy.

Brittany – Eccentric and Isolated

Brittany seems like a completely independent country, quite different from any other district of France. Similar to Wales and Cornwall in the U.K., the citizens of Brittany (known as Bretons) even have their own baffling, multisyllabic, Celtic-based dialect. Many Breton brewers claim that Parisians see Brittany as a strange, backward, isolated countryside, filled with odd outsiders. Most Bretons accept this as a compliment.

The majority of small breweries in Brittany offer no regular tours or public tasting rooms, but with an advance email, many will welcome interested visitors. With a little research, seeking out the top beer pubs in Brittany makes it easy to sample an interesting range of local craft beers. However, don't expect to rent a car and see all of Brittany in a single day, as the region is close to the size of the entire country of Belgium.

Actually found just south of the actual Brittany border, the city of Nantes offers a few interesting beer bars such as Le Sur Mesure, Le Perrok, Le Coup de Pompe and a branch of Belgium's Delirium Café. Brasserie Will’s, a popular nano-brewery just north of Nantes, is run by Guillaume Certain who brews a range of traditional and experimental beers and offers craft beer workshops and public brewing sessions.

Just down the road from Will's sits La Brasserie du Bouffay where the owner Pierre started out seven years ago fermenting in milk tanks. Bouffay makes a wide array of unfiltered, classic, bottle-conditioned styles – all made stubbornly without spices or non-traditional ingredients. Pierre explains, "Selling craft beer here was a bit difficult when we started, but the past few years have been a nightmare – my son and I now struggle to keep up with demand. It's a good problem."


Brasserie de Bouffay makes a wide array of unfiltered, classic, bottle-conditioned styles.


On the Road in Brittany

The quaint lakeside hamlet of Huelgoat, near the center of Brittany just inside the expansive Armorique Natural Park region, makes a congenial base camp for exploring Brittany by rental car. Huelgoat is home to a variety of casual bistros and the friendly Le Brittany Pub where the owner and his daughter always pour one hand-pumped cask ale from a regional brewer.

Head ten minutes northeast from Huelgoat to hunt for L'Autre Rive pub – an enchanting beer pub and coffee shop that doubles as a local bookstore. L'Autre sits in the middle of a lush forest and pours the range of exceptional ales from the nearby Brasserie An Alarc'h. Also be certain to make the short drive east to the delightful Le Fous U.K.-style pub where Don, the friendly owner/brewer, serves his sessionable, cask-conditioned mild, bitter, porter and stout with deep pride. "My wife Trish and I have taken great joy in bringing a touch of English pub culture to Brittany," notes Don.

The town of Plouyé, just south of Huelgoat, is home to Tavarn Ty Elise – a Welsh-style pub with cask ales from the regional Coreff Brewery. Stop in for a pint and a chat with the crusty Welsh owner and the cast of eccentric locals, but note that anyone who says anything against Wales or Welsh football will be asked to leave.

Go online to set up a tour of the Warenghem Distillery in northern Brittany for a peek inside the impressive facility that turns out an expansive diversity of whiskey, beer and cider. Also in the north, seek out the delicious beers and ciders produced by Brasserie-Cidrerie Kerav'Ale near Saint-Pol-de-Léon. On another day, journey to the northern coastal town of Saint-Malo to explore the atmospheric streets of old town, sip local beers at the funky Bar L'Aviso and check out the quaint brewing system at Les Brassins de Saint Malo brewpub. From St-Malo, travel 30 minutes east to indulge in absolutely amazing seafood and fresh oysters in the seaside village of Cancale.

While tooling around the region, seek out scrumptious Breton beers from Bieres Artisanales de Saint-Brieuc, Brasserie de Launay, Microbrasserie Da Bep Lec'h Toutes Directions, Brasserie Philomenn, Brasserie St. Georges, An Alarc'h and the death metal-oriented Brasserie Les Radicaux Libres.


The Brittany region is home to some terrific local breweries, such as Brasserie de Launay.


Storming the Ciders of Normandy

A four-hour drive east from the center of Brittany lies the somewhat modern city of Caen that's situated in the heart of Normandy. From a Caen hotel, it's an easy drive to the main sites of Normandy that include historic Omaha and Utah beaches, World War II museums, the American and Germany war cemeteries, the stunning Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and the 70-meter, medieval Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the events of the Norman conquest of England. Caen offers interesting restaurants and a handful of fine spots to enjoy a beer – including La Case à Bières store and tasting room, Le Trappist pub and Les 3 Brasseurs brewpub.

Any craft beer aficionado visiting Normandy should be willing to branch out and try the world-renown Normandy farmhouse ciders and calvados-distilled ciders that are produced at about 18 cideries located on or near the circular, signposted Cider Route pastoral drive just to the east of Caen.

Far from the multitude of overly sweet, soulless, mass-produced fermented apple beverages available in the USA, Normandy's ciders boast complex, slightly bitter, robust apple and fruit notes – all backed by a somewhat dry finish that includes complex esters, phenol hints and other pleasant fermentation by-products. Expect a cidery to offer tastes of three main ciders: Doux (sweet and around 3% ABV), Demi-Sec (medium-sweet at 3-5% ABV) and Brut (dry with an ABV of 4.5+%). Most producers also distill a calvados cider brandy and offer a sweet aperitif pommeau, which is a blend of cider and calvados. Many also include a dry pear cider known as poiré.

"La Route du Cidre"

Normandy's Cider Route production facilities range from humble farmhouses to imposing chateaus, and most encourage walk-in public visits and tastings. There's never a charge for tastes, but it's polite to at least make a small purchase before departing. This is not usually a problem, as 750-ml bottles of Normandy ciders are quite easy on the pocketbook by American standards.

With a history of cider production dating back to 1887 and its own 50 acres of on-site orchards, the polished prize apple of the Normandy cider route has to be Famille Dupont. Master cider and calvados producer Etienne Dupont recently passed on control to his son Jerome, who shares the family's passion for cider. Jerome relates, "Cider is still considered a peasant drink by many in the area, but our new traditions and world-class ciders are changing minds. We've even hired a full-time sommelier to help alter perceptions about cider and show people how to pair it with food."


Jerome Dupont helms the cider-making at the revered Famille Dupont, "the polished prize apple of the Normandy cider route."


Many Dupont ciders are available in the USA, and Jerome works with American importers B. United in several innovative projects such as utilizing Champagne techniques for sparkling cider, experimenting with a variety of apple blends and aging cider in calvados barrels. Visitors to Normandy should be sure to stop into Dupont's bright and welcoming gift shop/tasting room and inquire about a tour.

In utter contrast to the grandeur of Famille Dupont, the nearby François Helie cidery functions on an old family farm. One must drive up, toot the car horn, fend off the overly friendly dogs and let the elderly owner know that a tasting is in order. He will then lead visitors across the backyard to sit at the family's kitchen table to sip his delightful assortment of ciders.

Marvelous restaurants in the area offer ridiculously affordable three-course French meals to pair with a variety of local ciders, and no trip to the area would be complete without a drive south to the tiny village of Camembert for a visit to the Maison du Camembert museum to check out the history of the remarkable cheese and sample three varieties of Camembert alongside a wide selection of ciders. The pairing is a "mariage parfait" (perfect marriage), as the locals would say.


At the Maison du Camembert museum, "three varieties of Camembert alongside a wide selection of ciders is a 'mariage parfait.'"


Photos Courtesy of Owen Ogletree

Comments

brewtopia1701's picture
This was a phenomenal journey. I hope readers will head to France to experience these beverages first-hand!
Sinvibeer's picture
This sounds awesome. Planning now.

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Comments

brewtopia1701's picture
This was a phenomenal journey. I hope readers will head to France to experience these beverages first-hand!
Sinvibeer's picture
This sounds awesome. Planning now.

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