Posted on | February 8, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
When you can’t produce top-quality wines in France, as in the far north, “you still do something to ferment something.” That’s how Gianni Cavicchi, Beer Director for the Tour de France restaurant group in New York City, explains French beer and cider. Production of both has indeed been focused in the north, cider in Normandy and beer in the Nord-Pays-de-Calais and Alsace.
Both of the latter are also hop-growing areas; Cavicchi says native varieties like Alsace’s Strisselspalt have a character similar to German and Czech varieties. Alsatian beer, as one would expect given the region’s border with Germany, leans toward lagers; the area produces 70% of France’s beer, but mostly it’s mass-produced brands like Kronenbourg.
The Nord-Pays-du-Calais has a different history. “Bière de Garde is the main style,” says B.R. Rolya, New York Sales Manager for Shelton Bros., which imports several French beers. “They’re originally just confined to north, and traditionally weren’t sold commercially.” Bieres de Garde tend to be more “malt forward” than Saisons, their equivalent across the Belgian border. A classic producer like Brasserie Theillier produces a blonde and an amber; other breweries like Brasserie Au Baron produce darker, spiced holiday seasonals. Blanche styles like Braseurs de Gayant’s Amadeus, brewed, like Belgium’s popular Witbiers, with wheat and spices, are also common.
Craft beer has taken off in other parts of France, generally following the Biere de Garde template. Pietra, for example, in Corsica, features local Corsican ingredients in their brewing; their eponymous beer is brewed with a portion of chestnut flour, and the Colomba is a Blanche spiced with herbes du maquis. “Recently we’ve seen some more experimental things,” says Cavicchi,” but they’re definitely a little behind.”
Pommes de Terroir
French cider, on the other hand, comes with no such caveats. “Nowhere in the world is there a better growing region for cider,” says Jon Lundbom, Division Manager for importer B. United International. “It’s terroir; the soil is perfect for cider apples. And compared to other regions, the quality of the local yeasts; they give a balance of cleanliness and funk.”
The Norman ciders are known for complexity, elegance and a Champagne-like texture. There are in fact AOCs for two cider regions in Normandy, Pays d’Auge and Cornouaille, with varietal and production requirements. Many producers such as Eric Bordelet and Etienne Dupont work outside the AOC requirements, and there are also cideries in other areas like Burgundy and the French Basque country.
In France, cider is traditionally paired with crepes, but Cavicchi says Americans are happy to have French cider anytime. “Ciders do very well here. It’s not a hard sell at all.” In New York Lundbom says their French ciders move well in venues with no French connection, especially bars; they even offer kegged cider occasionally. Outside the city they tend to be more popular off-premise.
Similarly, Rolya says that beer-focused venues are catching on to French beers, too, well before French restaurants: “They don’t have a lot of luck in French places. Americans are way more interested than the French. It’s great beer; it’s just not known yet.”