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France of course is known as the land of wine, cheese and the crusty baguette. But when it comes to beer, the country’s history has been anemic at best. But Jean Barthélemy, founder of La Brasserie Parisienne, is part of a new generation of brewers that is rebuilding the artisanal beer tradition in France.
Words/images: James Startt
In the late 19th century, the country had a strong and vibrant beer-making culture, especially in northern France with its historic affinity to Belgium and Germany. But with the groundbreaking research of Louis Pasteur, the fermentation process, so central to quality beer making, was greatly reduced and quickly gave the upper hand to industrial beer producers.
At the time when bike racing was in its formative years, virtually every village in northern France still had its own brewery. Over 1,300 existed on record in 1900, a number that grew to nearly 2,000 before World War I. But nearly half were destroyed in the Great War. Hundreds more were closed or destroyed during World War II. By 1950, barely 100 French breweries were still in activity and the downward spiral continued. By 1976 there were only 23 breweries still operating in France. But slowly, since the 1990s, the trend is reversing.
“I come from the world of wine,” Barthélemy says. “I grew up in that world as my family had vineyards in the South of France, in the Luberon, as well as in Champagne. I myself was a wine maker for nearly 15 years until my family sold the vineyards and I decided to invest in beer. Because of our family’s Champagne, I traveled a lot, particularly in the United States, where I saw all of the different varieties of beer—especially from the many microbreweries around the country. I really discovered beer in my travels and it was nothing short of a shock to my taste buds. In France, the beer culture was really underdeveloped. There was pretty much Kronenbourg and that was about it. It was very industrial. Sure, there were some beer companies up around the Belgian border that still existed, but they were real holdouts. And in Paris it just didn’t exist. So when my family sold the vineyards I thought: ‘Why not start a brewery?’”
“WHAT I LOVE ABOUT MAKING BEER IS THAT THERE ARE NO RULES.”
Barthélemy opened his first brewery, La Brasserie Artisinale du Luberon, in the shadows of his family’s vineyard in Provence in 2012, followed by the Brasserie Parisienne in 2014.
For this pioneering brewery in the country’s capital, Barthélemy opted for simplicity. La Brasserie Parisienne would be a fitting name. All nouns in the French language, of course, are given a gender, either masculine or feminine. And both “brasserie” and “bière” are feminine, like a Parisienne woman. Continuing this theme, Barthélemy explains, “As we were coming up with an image for our label I just thought, ‘What is a classic Parisienne?’ And when I think of a classic Parisienne, what comes to mind? Well, for me, the image is of a classy woman riding a bicycle. That was my starting point when it came to our label.” In addition, the bike was a fitting motif because most people in Paris ride a bike.
As the conversation thickens it becomes clear that Barthélemy is a competitive bike commuter and on occasion times his rides from his home around the Luxembourg Gardens to the brewery in Pantin, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris. “My best time is 19 minutes, but that is only when I hit all of the stoplights,” he says lightly. But he also admits that he has a 50-percent margin of error for his daily 10-kilometer journey. “I can take up to 28 minutes,” he admits.
For Barthélemy, beer making was nothing short of liberating, because he was free to experiment in ways he never thought possible. “What I love about making beer is that there are no rules,” he says. “The wine-making industry in France is very regulated. What you can do. How you age it. What kind of grapes you can use, especially when it comes to Champagne, is just so controlled. But in the world of beer there is an extraordinary creative liberty. In addition, the beer-making process is much faster than wine, so you can create a new beer very quickly. Within three or four weeks I can create a new beer. In the world of Champagne, the slightest modification takes a minimum of three to four years, and in reality, it is more like 10 years.
“In addition, grapes cost a lot more than the grains we use in beer, so that really limits one’s ability to experiment. A kilo of grapes costs around 6 euros, so it gets really expensive quite quickly. And if you make a mistake, it can really kill you.” In comparison, a similar experiment with a new beer is not cost prohibitive and La Brasserie Parisienne prides itself on its ability to change and evolve, constantly tweaking its standard beers or developing completely new ones.
Today, Barthélemy’s ever-expanding line includes beer stored in wine barrels—and a new beer, Le Lascar, even boasts a hint of Armagnac. Fittingly, the labels change too. The brewery’s Rousse beer has a redhead riding along on her town bike. The classic Blonde lager has a blonde woman sporting sunglasses and a summer hat, while the Blanche beer sports a woman with a classic French poodle sitting in the front basket.
While the Brasserie Parisienne has fun making beer, everyone at the brewery clearly takes pride in their product. “I worked in a brewery in Belgium before,” say Jacques-Olivier Dasini, one of the brewery’s three brewers. “But what I love about the Brasserie Parisienne is that we are all part of the entire process from A to Z. From getting the cereals and other raw materials to the making of the final product, we are all part of it. Sure, the days can be long. Sometimes we start at 6:30 a.m. and don’t finish until 8:30 in the evening, but we have a great team and we work together well. And we all feel that we are part of the process.”
All of cereals are stored and ground on the premises and go directly into brew houses as the different recipes call for them. From the brews, the beer is then transferred to the fermenters, where the levure [brewer’s yeast] is added. Specializing in low fermentation, La Parisienne generally counts up to three weeks for the fermentation process. Once bottled, the beer then sits in a controlled environment for another three weeks. All told, it is a comparatively long process for a brewery. But the Brasserie Parisienne is not pressed for time.
While Dasini clearly loves his daily grind, he says that the most satisfying part of his job comes not in the brewery itself, but when he gets a chance to participate in a beer festival or beer-tasting event. “Nothing pleases me more than to see somebody taste our beer and say, ‘Oh that is some good beer!’ To be able to share what we make with others and see them respond, that’s just amazing.”
Success has come quickly to this microbrewery with the eye-catching labels. In the three modest years of its existence, annual production has increased from 200,000 bottles to nearly 500,000 this year. And as the volume grows, so does the market. “Because of my connections in Champagne, I still work a lot with the U.S. market, and in 2018 we will be exporting to the U.S. for the first time, particularly to the Chicago area and California,” says Barthélemy, who hopes that his classic Parisienne will be riding around the world in the near future.
From issue 70. Buy it here.