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Western Europe - Beer from wine country
Although better associated with grape than grain, the nations of France, Spain, Italy and Portugal still have much to offer the beer lover. Richard Jones reports
It is a much maligned experience in some of the more hardcore beer circles bringing with it overtones of characterless, mass produced ‘Euro fizz’. Yet while the wine industries of France, Spain and Italy might be the envy of the world, a glass of Sancerre or Pinot Grigio doesn’t quite hit the spot after a summer’s day on the tourist trails of Paris, the olive groves of Tuscany or simply soaking up the rays on the Costa. There is simply nothing better than the sight of a draught beer in its own dedicated, branded glass when served in a traditional café at the end of a hard day’s holidaying. If there’s a better accompaniment to tired limbs, parched tastebuds and ‘watching the world go by’ then I’ve yet to experience it. However, while the beers of France, Spain and Italy certainly excel under these conditions, it would be a mistake to ignore them on occasions when the contents of your glass are required to take on more of a starring role.
It could be argued the beer industry in France bears a certain similarity to that of the United Kingdom in the early 1970s. Although the French have never been the world’s largest consumers of beer, at the beginning of the 20th century there were in excess of 1,000 breweries in the country. What followed was a lengthy period of closure, decline and consolidation leading to the situation today where the market is dominated by the brewing giants Scottish and Newcastle (owners of the best selling beer in France, Kronenbourg) and Heineken International. However in recent times there are signs of a revival in smaller scale French brewing. The number of microbreweries and brew pubs continues to increase, producing beers in a range of different (and sometimes original) styles. At the same time, sales in domestic consumption of premium French beers is on the increase. The country even has its own version of the UK’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), known as Les Amis de la Bière.
Although brewing is gradually spreading across the country, there are two main centres for French beer. Around 80 per cent of production comes from Alsace in the (north) east of the country on the border with Germany. The region is home to the giant Brasseries Kronenbourg brewery in Strasbourg and in general produces the bulk of the clean, crisp French lager eulogised at the beginning of this article, names such as Ancre and Kanterbräu (as well as, of course, Kronenbourg itself). More interesting brews are to be found from the family owned Meteor Brewery in Hochfelden, whose range includes the unpasteurised, pilsner style Meteor lager at 4.6% alcohol by volume (ABV) through to the highly distinctive Mortimer at 8% ABV, produced using peat smoked whisky malt. Similar smoky-style ‘whisky’ beers are produced by Brasserie Fischer in Schiltigheim, the amber-red Adelscott (6.4%) and Adelscott Noir at 6.6%. The company is also responsible for the impressive lager style Fischer Gold at 6.5%.
Kasteel Cru is a new lager produced in a joint venture between Coors Brewers and La Brasserie de Saverne in Alsace.
It is fermented using Champagne yeast to produce an intensely fresh, crisp beer (5.2%) with notes of citrus and butter. It could be auto suggestion, I know, but it appears to share a number of similarities to a sparkling wine including a palate cleansing acidity.
Perhaps not for everyone, but definitely an unusual brew.
Whilst dwarfed in terms of scale by Alsace, the most dynamic and noteworthy region for French beer is the Nord-Pas de Calais in the far north of the country abutting Belgium. The area has a long history of farmhouse brewing dating back many centuries but like much of the rest of the country, it had all but (with a few honourable exceptions) died out by the early 1970s. The industry today is centred around the city of Lille (well worth a visit if you fancy a more unusual beer trip) and, in keeping with this farmhouse tradition, is generally on the small-scale.
Stylistically the area owes much to its Belgian neighbour with strong, richly flavoured ales produced using a top fermentation. They are known as ‘bières de garde’ or ‘keeping beers’ in reference to the period of lagering they undergo. There are a large number of high quality breweries in the Nord-Pas de Calais region such as Castelain and its Ch’ti beers produced near Lens.
Ch’ti comes in blonde, brune and amber varieties which are uniformly good. Saint Sylvestre in Hazebrouck produces the excellent 3 Monts, a bottle-conditioned golden pale ale at 8.5%, as well as a range of seasonal brews. Jenlain from the Duyck Brewery is probably the most widely available in the UK market. Duyck has been brewing bières de garde since 1922 and its Jenlain Bières Ambrée (Amber) is intensely aromatic with spicy caramel flavours. The pilsner style Jenlain No. Six 6%) is also recommended.
There is life outside the two main brewing centres in France, although what remains is understandably thinner on the ground. One of the more unusual outposts is Pietra from the Island of Corsica. Its Pietra Amber Beer is brewed to an unusual recipe that includes chestnuts and, in the style of Nord-Pas de Calais, receives a lengthy period of lagering and is sold bottle-conditioned.
No other country in the Mediterranean enjoys its beer as much as Spain. Annual consumption ranks the country 12th on the world stage placing it comfortably ahead of its nearest challenger (and neighbour), Portugal. Despite a strong domestic market, however, the brewing industry in Spain is relatively static. The country is dominated by large scale breweries which, although responsible for a number of excellent beers, tends to restrict choice in the country. The classic Spanish beer style is a crisp, pale lager at around 5% often with an attractive sweet cereal quality. Particularly successful examples include Estrella Damn and Moritz from Barcelona, and Alhambra Premium, Aguila Pilsner and San Miguel Premium. ‘Especial’ is often used for slightly richer, stronger lager style brews such as Zaragozana Especial at 5.2%, Alhambra Especial at 5.4% and Nostrum de San Miguel at 6.2%.
More recently, producers have developed a number of stronger, more ambitious lager style brews including the stunning Voll-Damm 7.2% Dortmunder style lager (winner of the World’s Best Strong Lager in our own Beers of the World awards this year), Zaragozana Export 7% and Alhambra Reserva 1925 at 6.4%. The later is a rich, golden beer with intense caramel and malty flavours. Alhambra in Granada also produces the superb Alhambra Negra (5.4%), a dark lager style beer with attractive liquorice and citrus notes.
Beer is a relatively recent newcomer to the Italian market. The first large-scale breweries did not appear in the country until the early 19th century and some of the country’s most iconic beer brands are comparatively recent creations. Peroni Nastro Azzuro, for example, was only produced for the first time in the 1960s, albeit from the Birra Peroni brewery established in 1846. Today, the Italians are relatively moderate drinkers of beer (with the northern part of the country consuming more than the south), but the market is forecast to grow significantly in the years to come.
Major beer brands continue to be important in the Italian market, Peroni and Moretti in particular. The mainstay of both companies is their light, pilsner style brews (Birra Moretti at 4.6%, Nastro Azzuro at 5.2%), although they also produce a number of more specialist beers.
Peroni has its Gran Reserva, a powerful deep coloured lager at 6.6%, as well as draught beers such as Crystal Red (5.6%) and Crystal Speciale.
Moretti produces the distinctive Rossa which, as its name suggests, is a distinctive red-coloured (double boch) beer with powerful roasted malt and caramel notes.
Outside the two ‘big two’, there are a number of smaller breweries in Italy making a range of interesting beers. Forst is an independentlyowned brewery situated in the mountains of Merano in the Italian Alps. It produces a range of different beer styles, but is best known for its pilsner style lagers such as Forst Premium.
Although it has yet to reach the scale of the French model, there is also a growing smallscale brewing movement in Italy. The Birre Italia Annuario Directory lists in excess of 100 microbreweries and brewpubs in the country, largely situated in the north of the country.
Major cities such as Milan and Turin are fertile hunting grounds for the beer lover.
While they may lack the brewing gravitas of many of their northern European neighbours, the beers of France, Spain and Italy should certainly not be ignored. The revival of Nord- Pas de Calais in particular illustrates the speed with which a region can be transformed into something genuinely world class. The Spanish and Italian beer markets might lack this diversity and dynamism at the moment, but larger breweries are still responsible for a number of characterful brews.
And don’t be afraid to order one of their ubiquitous ‘pression’ (draught) lagers from the traditional café during the holiday season. A classic case of the right beer for the right occasion if ever there was one.