Tastings School - Parisian style

Tastings School

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Parisian style

Adrian Tierney-Jones scouts out the best beers and the best bars in the French capital

At the start of the 1990s I was a guest in the house of a well-known French writer, an octogenarian intellectual who reputedly drank two bottles of wine a day.

Neither of us could speak each other’s language so communication was a bit limited. However, when I asked for a beer his response was perfectly clear even if I wasn’t too sure of the exact sequence or words: ‘‘bière, le nord; vin, le sud,” he growled at me, sounding like something out of a Jean-Paul Belmundo new wave movie.

His response was perfectly understandable given that we were in the south west of France, but it was also symbolic of the divide that remains in that country whenever we turn to drink. Brewing has a hold in the bière de garde region of the north, the far west outpost of Brittany and the eastern side of Alsace and Lorraine. In the warmer climes of the south, the vines run wild (though the odd micro comes and goes).

So where does that leave Paris? The city has always lived up to its reputation as a crossroads where all the people of Europe and beyond meet and mingle, and the same goes for its beer.

Belgian, British, German and French beers are available but there is nothing specifically Parisian. Any brewing traditions that one of the world’s greatest cities once had are long gone.

You might come across a bottle of Lutèce Bière De Paris, apparently based on an old Parisian style, but it is brewed by Gayant in the north, so that gives you an idea of its lack of provenance.

And sadly I have never heard of Hemingway or Joyce getting the ales down during their stint in Paris, though Toulouse Lautrec famously put a bottle of Bass in one of his pictures.

You could argue that Paris is the dividing line between the beer lands of northern France and the southern vineyards. It is also a tourist city, a cultural and historical icon and a place of shiny flashy bars with strange cocktails, heady perfumed wines, international beers and that French staple Kronenbourg. However, for those willing to look, it also has its speciality beer bars as well as a handful of ‘Frog’ brewpubs, which are just about the sole representatives of Parisian brewing these days.

The first of them, the Frog & Rosbif, emerged in 1993, influenced by the Firkin pubs in the United Kingdom. English-style beers were brewed on-site and given wincingly punning names, reflecting the Anglo-French rivalry of the pub’s name. How about a pint of Inseine, a 4.4% crisp, refreshing and fruity bitter? Or a 5% stout called Darktagnan, which is so popular that the Frog pubs don’t sell anyone else’s stout?

There are currently four Frog pubs in Paris — the Frog & Princess, The Frog at Bercy Village, the Frog & British Library and of course the original Frog & Rosbif. All of them have their own on-site brewing kit and a variety of beer styles are brewed, including stouts, bitters, lagers, a wheat beer and seasonal ales, including a summer beer made with ginger. To be honest, the beers were not great when the chain started brewing, but they have got better over the years and for the beer fan in search of something other than pression, they are a welcome change.

Frog & Rosbif is situated on rue St Denis, a street in the second arrondissement that used to be notorious for its pneumatic prostitutes hanging around in doorways, but like a lot of Paris has been cleaned up considerably in the last 20 years.

“We brew our beers on site with a micro brewery,” I am told by a barman called Fred. “We also brew in every pub. In the winter there are seven beers while in the summer we settle for six.

Because we are in the centre of the city we get a lot of English, while the Frog & Princess gets students and the Frog & Bercy and British Library get the businessmen. They all like the idea of beer being brewed on the premises.” Over at Paris’ other brewpub O’Neil, which is situated on the south bank in a back street that is a brief stroll from the Jardin du Luxembourg where the Luftwaffe had their HQ in World War II, the woman I talk to is not so enthusiastic. When I ask her what styles the brewer produces for consumption in the cosy woodpanelled interior of the bar, she poohpoohs me in a traditionally rude Parisian manner and says that it is just beer, before conceding that there is a brune, blonde, wheat and amber.

A selection of the brewpub’s beers can be ordered in 15ml sample glasses, while if you’re hungry O’Neil’s flatbread pizzas called Flammekeuches are much recommended. Otherwise that is it for the brewing scene in Paris, apart from the brewpub Malkehr, which can be found at Bagnolet, just outside the eastern side of the periphique circling Paris.

However, beer fans in search of something inspirational to accompany their visit to the City of Light can still discover a good selection of bars where the standard issue of Stella, Guinness, Leffe and Kronenbourg can be given a rest. Given the proximity and reputation of its neighbour’s beers, it’s no surprise that Belgian beers get a good airing. At La Cervoise, a small bar close to the Champs-Elysées, the likes of Kwak and Chimay are joined by a multi-national alliance of Dwyck’s Jenlain, Brittany beer Cervoise du Lancelot and Gayant’s notoriously strong beer Demon. Also expect to find selections from Québec’s Unibroue, including its wonderful Fin du Monde.

Britain might have the Beer Academy, but Paris has the Academie de la Bière, a vigorous, busy and, it must be said, smoky bar that has 10 draught beers and lots of bottles. Once again the brewers from across the border take centre stage at the bar with taps serving Lindeman’s Faro, St Feuillen, Chimay White plus the occasional French beer. There’s also a lot of choice in the bottled section with beers coming from France, Belgium (the excellent St Bernardus is one favourite), Germany and the UK, though it seems a bit daft to travel across the Channel to drink Bass or Boddingtons. This bar can be found south of the Latin Quarter, near the Denfert Rochereau metro.

Even though it is on the same side of the river, the Bière Academy lies in the shadow of the Pantheon where French greats such as Émile Zola, Victor Hugo and Voltaire are buried. Toast their memory in this comfy if slightly cramped bar with a glass of Castelain’s Ch’ti, the stupendous Trois Mont from St-Sylvestre’s, or the Ardennoise blonde La Chouffe, all served in their own glasses. Food includes the inevitable moules or a rich and dark carbonade. If you can’t live without your pint of ale, nearby is the Bombardier, which as the name suggests has links with Charles Wells and supplies its beers.

Back on the north bank, not far from Boulevard Haussman, named after the city planner who cleared the old crammed streets of Paris and replaced them with wide boulevards down which artillery could fire on the revolting locals, there’s a small bit of Germanic beer culture that is making its name. From the outside, Brasserie Munichoise looks as it would be more at home in the Black Forest, rather than the urban cool of Paris. Naturally, German beer is king (or should that be König?) here, with the likes of Erdinger, Ayinger and Köstritzer Schwarzbier on display. The restaurant features the kind of heavy food that Bavarians enjoy, so skip the diet and tuck in.

The Graindorge is not a bar but a restaurant which is unmissable for anyone who wants to try good food with beer, especially French beers such as the divine L’Angelus, Grain d’Orge (of course) and Daniel Thiriez’s excellent Rouge Flamande — this is truly a place for the beer connoisseur. A short distance from the Arc de Triumphe, this is an upmarket but not intimidating and comfortable place where Flemish-accented beer and food rule the place.

This is just a short selection of bars where the atmosphere of Paris can be savoured, though the likes of the Tavernes Republic and St-Germain and Au Trappist are also recommended.

Meanwhile, if you want to take some beer home then La Soif du malt (formerly known as Bières Speciales) near the Père Lachaise cemetery (home for the likes of Proust and Jim Morrison) is the place, with its excellent selection of beer from French micros and massive list of Belgian.

However, eccentric opening hours mean that you should check before going out.