The French are known for their pride in French cuisine and French wines. Most people would not associate beer drinking with France, though they might refer to it as a wine country. In fact, one would probably first think of Germany when it comes to drinking large amounts of beer. However, France is also a place for beer lovers and drinkers of different tastes and personalities. Craft beers are readily available in bars or cafes all over France and especially in Paris.
In fact, beer brewing has a long and interesting history in this part of the world. Even if someone isn‘t a beer drinker themselves, it could be a fascinating history lesson if we look at the history of beer in France.
Looking at this development might also allow us to draw parallels between this and the history of American Beer or the history of Canadian beer. Without further ado, though, let’s have a peek at how the concept and production of beer have changed through the ages in France:
Before the industrial period, a large number of breweries were successfully operating in urban areas within France. The French enjoyed the diversity of beer available in the country, but most of the beers produced in the rural areas were only available locally.
The Middle Ages
At the turn of the 9th century, brewing started gaining momentum. The main reason for this was that private production was replaced by larger public breweries that were emerging all over. Monasteries also began brewing on their own mainly for self-consumption. Until the 14th century, monks were said to be the biggest producer of beer with the continued support of Emperor Charlemagne.
The Renaissance Period
During the Renaissance period, a new law was enacted in Paris in 1489. This regulated breweries and started imposing taxes on them. It was during this period that the usage of the term “beer” became popular. Beer makers only used water, grain, and hops to make their brew. This recipe was introduced earlier by the monks as a replacement for spices and herbs as the main ingredients.
The Industrial Revolution
The dawn of the 19th century heralded many technological breakthroughs, especially in industries including fermentation. The beer that we now know as Pils is a product of low-temperature brewing in the range of 7 to 12 degrees Celsius. Pils, also called Lager, became popular with drinkers because of its lightness. Eventually, Pils quickly become a standard in the production of other kinds of beer by the turn of the 20th century.
Such rapid technological advancements started to negatively impact the local production of beer in France. This led to a loss of a cultural aspect, as there were previously long traditions of local brewing, especially in Alsace or in the Northern region.
Due to a rising demand caused by massive industrialization, companies merged with their competitors or were acquired by bigger breweries in order to supply the growing market. This meant that the actual number of breweries in France located in villages dwindled by almost 90%. The initial number of local breweries was around 3,000; after the decrease, it became closer to a mere 300.
The Effects of the World War
In the early 20th century, a big portion of the French Flanders region was heavily devastated. The two World Wars destroyed many of the breweries in the region, as most of the equipment was repurposed to make ammunition and bombs. This led to the obvious result of seriously dampening beer production.
Bière de Garde
Most people don’t realize that the French have a distinctive type of beer called Bière de Garde. This term literally means “keeping beer”. This name was due to the fact that this particular beer was a stronger kind of brew. It was specifically made during the winter in order to store away for the hot summer months. In the warm French summer, conditions were likely not ideal for beer brewing. It would have been good for them to have refrigerators back then! Take a look at the history of refrigerating beer to see when that practice came about.
Some beer aficionados believe that Bière de Garde is similar to various Belgium beers. In reality, the French Bière de Garde is unique and is a top-fermented beer that is often compared to a type of Belgian beer called Saison.
Bière de Garde has colors that include golds, light browns, and copper. Some might say that it’s more like a strong pale ale. Most versions have a medium body, though you might be able to find different versions if you look closely enough. Some of the more well-known brands include Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, Trois Monts and Brasserie Castelain.
Since the 1940s, there haven’t been any significant new breweries on the horizon. Existing ones keep evolving and improving, adapting to the needs of the present time. The farmhouses where Bière de Garde was originally brewed have now been commercialized, although the majority of brewers are still fairly small businesses.
Other than the Bière de Garde, there are many other types of specialty beers in France. Monastic brewing continues, but most such brewers are located in Northern France. There are also many organic beers in production, such as the seasonal beers for March and Christmas. All in all, over 2,000 kinds of beers are brewed in France, but the biggest portion of beers consumed come from commercial producers. Microbreweries have also sprouted up and are called microbrasseries.
The history of beer in France could explain a lot about the status of this drink in the country today. Since beer is quite a popular drink there, the industry seems to be slowly recovering from the effects of the world wars. There’s even a Paris Beer Week, though most of the craft beers in France are a well-kept secret.
There’s probably a lot about the history of beer than we don’t know. Even though it a highly popular option in the United States, many folks might not know about the stories behind their bottles. If the history of beer in certain countries interests you, the history of Guinness beer might also be worthy of your attention.