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A Guide to French Beer

Brasserie Thiriez

A Guide to French Beer

Today, we’re taking a break from heaping praise on the fascinating and delicious world of French wine and turning our attention to beer! We’ll delve into the vibrant world of French beers, which may not be as commonly known as their German or Belgian counterparts but are still no less diverse and enjoyable.

The landscape of French beer is as rich and varied as the country’s cuisine. From the elegant Bière de Garde of Northern France to the refreshing Saisons of Wallonia, French beers are a testament to the country’s innovative spirit and respect for tradition. 

But beer isn’t just about the drink itself; it’s also about the culinary harmony that can be achieved when paired with the right food. 

Join us as we explore the exciting world of French beer just in time for the Rugby World Cup 2023 in France (to learn more about Rugby in Toulouse and to read Toulouse’s World Cup fixtures, read our Complete Rugby Fan’s Guide to Visiting Toulouse). 

Meteor Brewery exterior

(Brasserie Meteor, France’s oldest operating brewery)

A Brief History of French Beer

To fully appreciate the nuances of French beer, we must first turn back the pages of history. Though wine has been the poster child of French beverages for centuries, beer has an equally ancient history in the country.

The Gauls, the Celtic ancestors of the French, were brewing beer even before the Romans introduced viticulture. These ancient brews were likely rudimentary, made from barley and fermented with wild yeast.

Beer brewing evolved with the arrival of Christianity in the middle ages, as monks in monasteries started brewing more refined versions of beer, both for their own consumption and as a source of income.

The French beer industry saw a significant shift during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, with advancements in technology leading to improved brewing processes.

Regions like Alsace-Lorraine, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and Picardy became major beer-producing areas due to their proximity to prime barley-growing regions and their access to trade routes.

However, the two World Wars had a severe impact on the French beer industry. Many breweries were destroyed, leading to a decline in the beer culture that lasted until the late 20th century. Thankfully, the 21st century has brought with it a craft beer renaissance in France.

Inspired by the global craft beer movement, new breweries sprouted up all over France, experimenting with beer styles and challenging the dominance of wine.

Today, French beer has reclaimed its place at the table (or the bar, as the case may be), reflecting the creativity and diversity of modern French gastronomy. From traditional farmhouse ales to contemporary craft brews, there’s truly a French beer for every palate and every plate. 

Taproom La Débauche

(Taproom La Débauche, producers of some of France’s tastiest stouts)

Understanding Different Types of French Beers

The beauty of French beers lies in their diversity, reflecting the unique terroir, culture, and history of different regions. Here are some key beer styles that form the backbone of French brewing.

  • Bière de Garde: Translated as ‘beer for keeping’, Bière de Garde originates from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. It’s traditionally brewed in winter or early spring, then cellared for consumption later in the year. These beers are known for their rich, malty character, with flavor notes ranging from caramel to toffee and dark fruits. Bière de Garde can be blond, amber, or brown.
  • Saison: Born in the French-speaking region of Wallonia in Belgium, Saison has also made a home in France. Brewed traditionally in the colder months for summer consumption, Saisons are crisp and refreshing and often exhibit a pleasant citrusy tartness. They are typically dry and highly carbonated, with a spicy, fruity, and even peppery character derived from the yeast.
  • French Pale Ale: Pale Ales…the number one in the international craft beer scene. French Pale Ales are often amber in color, with a balanced profile of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. They frequently feature local ingredients, reflecting the terroir of their specific region. An excellent choice for travelers who want to begin exploring French beer with something familiar. 
  • Lambic & Gueuze: While these sour, funky beers are most associated with Belgium, several French breweries, especially those near the Belgian border, have started producing their own renditions. Lambics are naturally fermented with wild yeasts, resulting in a tart, complex beer. Gueuze is a blend of young and old Lambics, re-fermented in the bottle. These can be an acquired taste, so try to sample the beverage before ordering yourself a large glass! 
Brasserie Thiriez

(Brasserie Thiriez, brewers famous for using the French Saison yeast strain)

The Art of Pairing French Beer with Food

The harmony of beer and food is a culinary delight that enhances the dining experience. French beers offer myriad pairing possibilities with their diverse flavor profiles. Using the French beer styles we’ve already touched upon, we’ll outline some delectable pairing options. 

  • Bière de Garde: With its malty richness and varying flavor notes, Bière de Garde pairs wonderfully with a wide range of foods. The light and fruity Blonde style go well with white meats like chicken or fish, while the darker Amber and Brown styles can harmonize with richer dishes. Try an Amber Bière de Garde with a traditional Coq au Vin or a Brown with a hearty Beef Bourguignon.
  • Saison: Known for its effervescence and fruity profile, Saison is a versatile food beer. Its light, dry character can help cut through rich, creamy dishes, while its spiciness complements flavorful herbs and spices. A classic Saison will pair well with moules-frites (mussels and fries) or pizza.
  • French Pale Ale: Balancing sweetness and bitterness, a French Pale Ale can handle a variety of flavors. It pairs well with a range of cheeses. For example, try it with a nutty Comté or a creamy Camembert. It can also complement dishes like roast pork or grilled sausages.
  •  Lambic & Gueuze: These sour beers are excellent palate cleansers, making them great for pairing with rich, fatty foods. A fruity Lambic can be a great match for a decadent dessert, while a dry, tart Gueuze can cut through the richness of dishes like foie gras or pâté.

The best thing about pairing food and beer is experimenting. What matters most is your personal preference. So try different combinations and discover what works best for you.

(To further your tasting vocabulary and confidence in identifying different wines and cheeses, consider joining us for Cheese & Wine Tasting in Toulouse.) 

Brasserie Caporal

(Brasserie Caporal: Beer with a frothy head, Toulouse)

How to Properly Taste and Enjoy French Beer

The enjoyment of beer extends beyond just drinking it. By following a few steps, you can heighten your appreciation of French beers and unlock a world of diverse flavors.

(In this sense, beer is just like wine. If you also want to explore the world of wine tasting while in France, consider booking a place on our Wine Bar Tour of Toulouse.)

  • Temperature: Serving beer at the right temperature is crucial to experience all its nuances. Generally, lighter styles like Saisons are best-served cooler, between 6-8°C, while heavier beers like Bière de Garde benefit from slightly warmer temperatures, around 10-12°C.
  • Pouring: Pour the beer slowly into a clean glass, ideally one that complements the beer style, to create a head of foam. This head releases the beer’s aroma and enhances the overall tasting experience.
  • Observation: Take a moment to observe the beer’s color, clarity, and persistency of its foam. Color forms a huge part of how we enjoy food – take time to admire the golden glow of hazy ale or the ruby color of a fruit lambic. The color will also give clues about the beer’s ingredients, brewing method, and potential flavors.
  • Aroma: Swirl the beer gently in your glass to release the aromas, then sniff deeply. Look for familiar scents like fruits, grains, or spices.
  • Taste: Take a sip and let it linger in your mouth before swallowing. Notice the initial flavors on your palate (sweet, sour, bitter, etc.) and how they evolve. Pay attention to the beer’s body (how it feels in your mouth) and carbonation.
  • Finish: Notice the aftertaste once you swallow. Good beers often have a pleasing finish that lingers in the mouth.

Exploring French Beer Culture

French beer culture, while not as globally famous as Belgium, Germany, or the Czech Republic, offers a distinct charm. It’s closely tied to local customs, ingredients, and gastronomy, making it a unique part of French heritage.

  • Brewing Traditions: Many French breweries are committed to traditional brewing techniques while infusing innovation and creativity, contributing to a dynamic beer scene.
  • Beer Events: France hosts numerous beer festivals in various cities that celebrate the country’s beer heritage and innovative young craft producers. They offer great opportunities to taste various beers and interact with brewers – show your support and sample an array of delicious beers! 
  • Social Experience: Just like wine, beer is often enjoyed in social settings, whether at a pub, during a meal, or at festivals. Tasting and discussing beer is a communal experience, bringing people together.
  • Education: Many breweries offer tours and tasting sessions to educate visitors about their brewing processes, types of beers, and the history behind their creations.

Begin Your Exploration of French Beer

French beer is often overshadowed by the country’s famous wines, but there is a wealth of flavors and styles waiting to be discovered. From the history-steeped Bière de Garde to the refreshing Saison, the beer landscape in France is as diverse as it is enchanting.

Whether sampling a classic French Pale Ale with a cheese platter or savoring a complex Lambic, remember that beer tasting is a personal journey, and the more you travel, the more developed your tasting abilities will become. 

When we explore the world of beer, we partake in a centuries-old tradition. Get out and explore an aspect of food culture that is becoming more diverse and interesting with every passing year! 

If you have any questions, please get in touch

Looking for more Toulouse sightseeing ideas and travel tips? Read all about the 5 Best Food and Drink Tours in Toulouse.

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