Some weeks ago I decided to spruce up this blog with a gadget highlighting subjects mentioned in old posts. Soon after, one of the 2 or 3 people who actually reads these screeds (and, big surprise, a trombone player) pointed out that posts including dog shit outnumbered those of beer by margin of 6 to 1. So, in addition to disabling the subject counter, I've decided to address that disparity with this post. I should point out that, while enjoying a good lager, I am not one of these people who can tell you all about top and bottom fermentation (as opposed to all the way through, I guess), where the best hops come from or, in fact, discuss the subject from any perspective other than that of an enthusiastic, if limited, consumer. I'm aware of the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 only because it was printed on the labels of the Bitburger I used to buy and I wouldn't be caught dead drinking Budweiser. That fact alone qualifies me as more discriminating than most American hops heads.
Descended from coal miners and raised among factory workers in a city that made steel, beer is in my DNA. However, at some point, I developed an aversion to most mass-produced American beers. As a teenager, I wouldn't even steal Budweiser from any of my friends' fathers (mine didn't drink beer) if there was any other choice, although Iron City didn't exactly represent a cut above. The good news here is that almost every mass-produced French beer is better and "light" beer refers mainly to type, like pilsners and/or alcohol content. That Bud Light and Coor's Light are the best selling beers in America is a national disgrace on the magnitude of that reality show about Georgia white trash. But we're talking about France.
One of the down sides to beer in France is that it's not cheap and sometimes what's available doesn't offer a lot of variety, probably because the demand is limited. If you look at the rankings of the beer consuming nations of the world, France isn't even in the hunt. Their measly 30 liters per capita per year puts them at 64th place, next to last in Europe and way behind the world champ Czechs, at 132 liters. The good old US of A, at 12th, chugs almost 3 times as much St. Louis and Denver based swill. This isn't likely to change any since, at the risk of sounding like one of the anti-government, anti-tax shitheads at home, the Hollande government just upped the tax on beer by an outrageous 160 %. (To digress, there are real Socialists and Communists here, not the pretend ones that Newt Gingrich, Alan West and assorted demagogues at home manufacture - and nobody's all that worked up about it. Hollande has some of France's all-time lowest approval ratings but this has more to do with his perceived incompetence than the fact that he's a Socialist.) So where was I? Oh yeah, the beer tax. This is astonishing also in that beer represents only 16% of alcoholic beverages consumed in France, so they went with pissing off the fewest rather than gaining revenue. In fact most people you see drinking beer here are twenty-somethings, tourists and drunks in the street (Again I digress to express my amazement that here in the land of good cheap wine, the traditional wino is a beero). The good news, at least for me, is that, absent beer, one can develop a taste for good wine without being labeled a yuppie pussy.
Most mass-produced French beer comes, not surprisingly, from Alsace and Nord-Pas de Calais/French Flanders. The latter areas border Belgium, with its tradition of sudsy monks. As near as I can tell, the best selling beer here is Kronenbourg 1664, or possibly Fischer, both blondes (pilsners). Another big seller is Pelforth, which comes in a few varieties including blonde, brun (amber) and blanche (wheat) and is actually pretty good. The best that can be said for the other two is that they don't suck and the Fischer logo (above) (the Dutch Boy paint guy getting shit-faced) is one of my all time favorite corporate symbols.
Like the United States, there were once a lot more breweries in France. The traditional beer drinkers were farm workers and coal miners (there's a fucking surprise) so the decline of French brewing parallels that of the coal industry and rise of big ag. Two world wars didn't do it any good, either, despite having Germans all over the place. Also mirroring the U.S. is the growth of micro-brewing and a lot of good beer now comes from the aforementioned regions plus Brittany, in the west and the Pays-Basque, bordering Spain. However, it remains to be seen what effect the new tax law's going to have on them since beer sales were already declining and a lot of these small breweries work on narrow profit margins. In fact, the Belgians are pissed off about it, too, since they depend on exports and being right next door makes France one of their best customers. Which reminds me, you know how you pay extra in the U.S. for Stella Artois? Here it's one of the cheapest beers in my local supermarché. Oh, and Anheuser-Busch has to call their rotgut "Bud" in Europe because there's already the real thing from Budweis in the Czech Republic and it's actually pretty good.
|A Budweiser that doesn't suck|
My personal favorite, however, is from Brasserie de Saint-Sylvestre, (brasserie means brewery), a small outfit in Flanders. 3 Monts contains 8.5% alcohol, comes in a corked 750ml bottle like Champagne and is what's known as a bière de garde, a "beer for keeping". This is akin to a Belgian "saison", which the unimpeachable Wikipedia describes thusly: "The origin of 'saison' is Belgian farmhouse beers brewed in the autumn or winter for consumption during the summer for the farm workers, who were entitled to up to five litres each workday... The ale had to be strong to prevent spoilage during the long storage, but at the same time could not be so strong as to incapacitate the workers ..." Yeah, no shit. Anyway, doesn't this sound like a good idea for everyone worried about illegal immigration? A grog ration like that on California farms would have Mexicans stampeded out of jobs in a week.
Finally, the same unimpeachable source claims the existence in Franch of a Bière Amoureuse, beer containing supposedly "aphrodisiac herbs", which I looked for everywhere but can't find. Then again, I don't need it to work on me. But it must be every French woman's dream to be seduced by a beered-up Pépé LePew. Amstel thinks so, too.