I found La Cave a Bulles on the medieval Rue Quincampoix, a narrow cobblestone passage cutting through the Beaubourg neighborhood, near the Centre Georges Pompidou. One of several craft beer bottle shops that have opened in Paris the past six or seven years, it features a few American micro labels, and most of the to-be-expected Belgian ales. For the most part, however, this shop tends to specialize in an increasingly impressive selection brewed by local brasseries artisinales — what we ‘Mericans would call craft breweries. Enter the shop any given afternoon, and you’re likely to find bearded, bespectacled young men meticulously scanning the shelves for a hard to find favorite.
Yes, the ranks of craft beer geeks are rising in the land of wine and cheese. Not only as spectators, but producers and purveyors. In fact, this May witnessed the launch of Paris’s first ever craft beer festival, La Paris Beer Week, which sponsored a series of events all over town celebrating how much progress Paris has made in its efforts to become a bona fide beer town.
Now let’s back up a little bit. Cave a Bulles roughly translates to “Bubbles Cellar”, a play off cave à vin, or wine cellar. Of course, fermented grape juice is still very much the number one in hearts and minds of the French. In fact, most of Paris still doesn’t give much thought to beer at all. The people I encountered were more likely to be caught up on the latest Game of Thrones episode than have any awareness craft beer even exists.
If they’re drinking beer at all it’s probably Heineken or Leffe, or they might sit on the concrete banks of Canal St. Martin sipping a tallboy of 1664, a light-on-flavor lager from the German border town of Strasbourg that’s the closest thing the French have to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
They don’t exactly assign a lot of value to these beers either. Say, for example, an average café drink menu lists a bottle of Evian for 5 Euros. A can of Coke, will cost the same ludicrous amount (roughly 7 dollars US). That bottle of Leffe on the other hand? 4.50. They literally charge more for a soft drink.
There’s also still a sense that beers aren’t meant to be taken alone, but only tasted alongside an appropriate food pairing. Referring to one beer I didn’t enjoy very much, Cave a Bulles owner Simon Thillou suggested drinking it with a meal of foie gras. I took his advice and voila!, the brew’s bizarre top notes suddenly made sense. Plus, I felt like an outlaw; foie gras has been banned in California on ethical grounds. Since I don’t tend to eat heavy, gamey meats when I drink, I would need to find some French beer that tasted great on its own merits.
My La Paris Beer Week started at Le Supercoin, a divey taphouse in the 18th Arrondissment, in the north of Paris. It happened to be Morrissey’s birthday, and I arrived to find the place packed with 30-somethings singing along to every Smiths tune in the catalog. Only two of the bar’s three handles were still going, but I found what I was looking for: a special issue beer simply called “11”. Released specifically for the inaugural beer week, 11 (actually pronounced a sufficiently nasal Onze) was named for the 11 local brewers who had a hand in its recipe, which features eleven varieties of houblons, aka hops. It didn’t taste as much a mess as you might expect, though not so clean on the finish.
It quickly became apparent that French beer drunks are as sloppy friendly as Americans, and along with learning that “Yec’hed mat” is Brittany’s answer to “cheers”, I was encouraged to try a bottle of Cuvée d’Oscar, a highly regarded wheat ale by local brewer Craig Allan. The fruity ale invoked baking spices and handled its malty complexity well—I’d found my first objectively good French beer. Well, I say French because Allan lives and brews in nearby Picardy, though most of his brewing background may be attributed to his native Scotland.
Of course, such outside influences play a huge role in what the French are brewing, and as telling as the beer they make is the beer they have access to. If you think finding Three Floyds west of the Mississippi is a challenge, imagine searching for the highest rated, hard to come by American micros across the Atlantic. Consequently, most of the go-to craft labels here are Scotland’s BrewDog and Denmark’s Mikeller, each well distributed.
I did find hints of my hometown, San Diego, turning up occasional bottles of AleSmith and a few outdated Green Flash releases. But when I ran into a couple of San Diego expats at Supercoin, they were at a loss to find any reliable source of beers from home. When I mentioned Oregon’s Rogue Ales had scheduled a beer week event across town, I believe they even got a little emotional about it.
For whatever reason, of the myriad American craft breweries we take for granted, Rogue seems most likely to show up on draft around Paris, and I occasionally stumbled upon some Flying Dog and Anderson Valley as well. But I was a bit surprised at Paris’s most prevalent American beer: I have not seen so much Brooklyn Lager since stumbling my way across Manhattan a few years back. It’s everywhere. I don’t know whether these guys are making a bold investment into a growing market, or simply have the right distribution to make it work. Think what you will, but Rogue and Brooklyn appear to be the Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada of the nascent Parisian craft beer palate.
Of course, better American beers do show up from time to time for those in the know. They just don’t last long. At Cave à Bulles a clerk wearing a t-shirt proclaiming “Craft beer is not a crime” did his best to explain to me that he finds Pliny the Elder to be overrated (he’s a Heady Topper man, apparently). I’m guessing neither bottles or cans of these respective brews make it onto the shelves long enough for customers to find on accident. At another bottle shop called Biere Cultes (beer worship), a lanky Parisian in a UCLA sweatshirt popped open a Goose Island IPA while describing a fondly remembered California adventure involving crisp hoppy beers and tall busty blond women. So clearly they’ve got an accurate idea what American craft beer culture is really like.
The most direct American influence I discovered was at a small but fantastic taphouse called Les Trois 8 (pronounced twah-wheat, meaning “three eight”). If I lived in Paris, I would probably spend most of my time drinking at Les Trois 8, equally home to hipsters and hobos, bikers in denim cuts, people with multiple face piercings and for some reason an elderly lady knitting in the corner.
For beer week, most of the eight taps at Trois 8 featured limited releases from Outland, a brewery just east of the city whose brewer honed his skills in California working with guys from Firestone and Russian River.
I tried an Outland brew called Morning Coffee Juice, that rare coffee-infused stout I would actually like to drink again—it was refreshing, like a beery Kyoto-drip. I moved on to the less-creatively named Double IPA, brewed special for the occasion and easily the best French beer I tried. Better even than Outland’s aptly named West Coast IPA. Each could hold its own alongside the hoppy So Cal ales I’d been growing homesick for.
Which isn’t to say I suffered through this experience. Along with Outland I found some fairly good IPA’s by local brew companies like Mont Saleve and Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris, with some of the same robust Citra, Nelson, Simcoe and Amarillo hop profiles I’m accustomed to. If the success of La Paris Beer Week is any indication, finding good beers like these should eventually become the norm in Paris.
And not just Paris. Cramming myself into the tiny taphouse L’Express de Lyon to attend the week’s greatest and most crowded event—a 15 tap Mikeller takeover—I even met a couple who’d traveled three hours to attend the beer week. It seems they’re opening their own cave à biere in Bordeaux, the first of its kind there. In other words, craft beer will soon have a home base right in the heart of French wine country. Which means it’s only a matter of time before French beer geeks supplant Americans as the world’s snobbiest. After all, we already know they have the palates for it.