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...