Category Archives: France

La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice

That’s actually the name of the brewery, not a description — a clear benefit of being one of the first ‘craft’ breweries in your region.

We were tipped off to the existence of Nice’s answer to The Kernel by Ratebeer. We tried to find the beers on sale in a bar or restaurant but didn’t have any luck and so visited the brewery to buy takeaway bottles during the brief daily window between 17:00-19:00.

It operates out of a retail unit on literally the wrong side of the tracks, beyond the main station, away from the sea and the historic tourist district, and is the kind of place that you think mustn’t actually exist until you go just one block further and, yes, there it is across the road from a seedy cafe near a boarded-up supermarket.

The owner seemed delighted to see us and wanted to know how we’d found out about the brewery; he’d never heard of Ratebeer but wrote down the URL. When we said, ‘This isn’t really beer territory, is it?’ he gave a long, bitter laugh and rolled his eyes. ‘You can say that again!’

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Good Beer in Marseille Pt 2: Big Menu Bars

There are two bars in Marseille with large beer ranges, both out of the centre of the city: La Cane Bière near the Parc Longchamp, and Bar Fietje, in the shadow of the cathedral of Notre-Dame Du Mont.

Fietje (143 rue Sainte) is a relatively new venture that opened (we think) in June this year as a spin-off from a well established bottle shop in La Plaine. It is on a fairly quiet, mostly residential back street and would look more like a shop or showroom than a bar if it was not for the crowd of smokers sipping beer from Teku glasses around the front door. Inside, the decor is ‘craft industrial’ — bare brick, wooden beer crates re-purposed as shelves, stripped boards, wipe clean tiles and steel and, yes, the obligatory Edison lightbulbs.

The beers — around 80 in total — were listed on Perspex boards on the walls, with those on draught also being displayed, with prices per 250ml, above the row of taps on the wall behind the bar.

Fietje taps.

There wasn’t much to excite the hardened ticker other than a couple of local beers that, when pressed, the barman told us he could not wholeheartedly recommend, but we didn’t go short of good stuff to drink, from BrewDog IPAs to Belgian classics. The only beers that were expensive were the British imports — everything else was priced on a par with standard lagers available elsewhere in the city, at €3 to €4 per serving.

The atmosphere was a touch quiet and scholarly — you have to be a real geek to be into beer in Provence, it seems — but certainly friendly enough, and we felt quite comfortable spending a couple of hours revisiting old favourites. We especially enjoyed some of the (relatively speaking) bargain-priced bottles: it’s been a while since we bought Rochefort 10 for anything like €5 (about £3.70), on- or off-premises.

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La Cane Bière’s (32 Boulevard Philippon) name is a bit confusing: La Canebière, some distance away from this bar, is also the name of Marseille’s answer to Oxford Street, famous in the 19th century for its many swanky bars and cafes, and something of a symbol of the city. Though we had intended to visit we actually stumbled across it by mistake, our eyes drawn by the sight of people swigging Saison de Dottignies from the bottle around a table on the pavement outside, and swerved in.

Inside, we found a wall of bottles on shelves, a selection of bottles chilling in a freezer, and a single unlabelled beer on tap that we think was the increasingly ubiquitous La Chouffe. Though we could have enjoyed beers from BrewDog, Thornbridge or Fuller’s, we went for 375ml bottles of Saison Dupont 2015 Dry Hop (6.5%) — a limited edition beer we’ve struggled to get hold of in the UK and which tasted all the better at a mere €3.90 ( £2.90) a pop.

If Fietje was a touch uptight, La Cane Bière was a party waiting to happen: the entirely local crowd on the pavement, especially a tipsy bloke with dreadlocks, made space for us on one of the tiny tables and was generally welcoming. No-one was taking tasting notes or sniffing their pints and most weren’t even bothering with glasses for their Guinness Foreign Extra or saison. At one point, a dog sat on the pavement with its arse in front of a passing tram and there was a collective holding of breath; when the tram passed by within inches of the hapless hound, which barely blinked, we all cheered together. It sounds  a bit silly but it was one of those moments that reminds us of why its nice to get merry with strangers.

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Both bars were quite different even though their ranges overlapped. There is probably room for a few more such bars in a city as big and as cool as Marseille, though it might be nice to see a bit more beer from the area, or at least from France, on offer. But if it’s crap, it’s crap — there’s no point stocking it for the sake of it.

It’s interesting, we think, that both bars were self-service, contributing to a feeling of informality, signalling their difference — the distinctly un-French ‘global’ vibe — and presumably also helps to keep the price of the beer down.

Good Beer in Marseille Pt 1: La Plaine

Marseille is a rough-edged city where the default thirst-quencher is rosé wine but, with the gentrification of previously dodgy areas, there has come the beginnings of a beer scene.

Though we generally like to find places to eat and drink organically in the course of exploring, this time we did check Ratebeer’s local listings before we went, which told us there was a brewery with the whiff of ‘craft’ about it, along with a couple of specialist bars and bottle shops.

First, we sought out the brewery tap of Brasserie de la Plaine in the hip Cours Julien/La Plaine district where students, hippies, street drinkers and the bourgeois hang out in and around overlapping cafes, bars and public spaces, surrounded by graffiti, poodle crap and parked scooters. If you visited Hoxton in the 1990s, or Bristol about ten years ago, you’ll get the idea — not yet posh, exactly, but the grot is beginning to look a bit like window dressing.

The Bar de la Plaine (57 Place Jean Jaurès) is a tiny space on a corner where two draught beers and a selection of seasonal bottles are dispensed. We found a crowd of locals, many with children in tow, engaged in post-work debriefing as they knocked back small glasses of beer and scooped chunks from a liquid-ripe wheel of blue cheese on the counter.

La Plaine beers (Blanche, Blonde).
Blanche, left, and Blonde.

We didn’t expect much so were pleasantly surprised to find that neither of the draught beers was downright dirty — there was no unplanned sourness, and no floating grit between the teeth. Blanche (wheat beer, 6% ABV, €3 for a generous 250ml measure) was light-bodied to the point of wateriness, like lemon barley water. A heavy hand with the orange peel gave it most of its character. Though it didn’t reward concentrated pondering, as a refresher on a hot evening, it was quite welcome, and probably almost on a par with Hoegaarden.

Blonde (5%, €3 for 250ml) was a golden ale rather than lager, and clearer than the photo above makes it look. Served almost freezing cold, it seemed at first bland, gruel-like and yeasty but, as it warmed, it became more likeable with loaf-crust maltiness and a whisper of savoury-herbal hops. It’s not a complex beer but we’d certainly choose it over Heineken, if not over such commonly available Belgian beers such as La Chouffe.

We didn’t try the bottled beers — no-one else was drinking them either — but on our visit the range included an amber beer and one infused (we think) with essence of violets. An IPA advertised on the menu, and which we were keen to taste, was not available, being the seasonal special for October.

This is a solid contemporary community brewery making decent draught beer just about as adventurous as (we suspect) the local market will tolerate, for now. If we lived in Marseille, we we would certainly aim to make regulars of ourselves.

Serve Yourself in Nice

We’d been in Nice a couple of days before we took the right combination of turns in the pleasingly confusing old town and stumbled across Au Fût et à Mesure.

Discreet as it is, we noticed it because it wasn’t a bistro a cafe or a Bar Tabac, being less formal than the first, boozier than the second and smarter than the last. Then we noticed the beer list on display outside:

Au Fut et a Mesure, Nice: beer list, summer 2015.

Lots of places in Nice call themselves ‘Cave à Bières’ because they have Guinness and Kronenbourg, but this looked like a really decent range, and competitively priced at that (€3.90 for 250ml — cheaper than basic lager in many places we’d found ourselves). But we scratched our heads over ‘Nos bieres pression en self’ — was it a clever way of referring to bottles, or did they genuinely have all of these on tap? There was, of course, only one way to find out.

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Beer and Pretzels in Strasbourg

Meteor beer advertising sign, Strasbourg, France.

Beer has a greater prominence in Strasbourg than in any other French city we’ve visited, except perhaps Lille.

‘Well, that’s hardly a surprise,’ you might say, ‘given that it was part of Germany until 1918.’ And, yes, though it is more complicated than that, street signs are in Alsatian as well as French (Grand Rue is translated as Langstross, for example); and, alongside croissant and pain au chocolat, all the bakers sell excellent pretzels.

The beer culture, though, doesn’t feel like a reminder of old Strassberg, but as if it came as part of the package with the European Parliament. As in other French cities, or Spanish ones, for that matter, there are local pilsners of varying degrees of blandness, lots of imported beer at high prices, several brewpubs, and a handful of small ‘artisanal’ brewers making hazy, vaguely saison-like bottled beers.

Though we were initially excited at the sight of two branches of the Beer Academy and another specialist Belgian beer bar, the fact that they weren’t selling much we couldn’t buy in most UK supermarkets, and a general sense of exploitative tackiness, caused us to swerve away at the threshold. We did note, however, the ready availability of a rare British beer: Brewdog Punk IPA, which is conquering the world alongside Guinness and Leffe.

The most famous local brewery is Kronenbourg, but most of the locals, as far as we could see, seemed to prefer Meteor. Of their two flagship beers, Pils is the more characterful (their website says 5% ABV; the cafe where we first tried it said 4.6%). A touch brassy in colour, it is hardly big or complex, but we found it a decent, tasty beer with just enough bitterness. It seemed generally to be reasonably priced, too, at around €5 for 500ml. (Compare that to €8+ for 330ml of Heineken in Paris.)

Lanterne beer label.La Lanterne (5 Rue de Lanterne) is a student pub (Jäeger bombs!) which just happens to make its own beer, and sells it very cheaply by French standards.

The blonde, an intended Leffe clone at 6.4%, was just a tiny bit sour (oops!), Christmas spicy, and with a solid malt character — not at all soupy or yeasty despite the customary brewpub haze. The wheat beer (we didn’t note the ABV — sorry!) was similarly pleasing, though it showed evidence of too much sweet orange peel, and it too was a little sour. Finally, we braved a 330ml bottle of a seasonal beer called simply Lanterne (6.4%), which was on deep discount at €3.50. It tasted like scrumpy cider. Clearly, something had gone wrong, and yet… we sort of enjoyed it. After all, aren’t sour, fruit-accented hybrid beers all the rage in the UK right now?

Au Brasseur (22 Rue de Veaux) was an altogether hilarious experience. Overworked and frantic waiters ignored us and everyone else, only stopping to take orders when physically arrested by frustrated customers. The seasonal special was (supposedly) an English-style bitter at 6.8%, but, despite its strength and sticky-sweet treacly maltiness, it was actually rather bland. Both their Blonde (a weaker, less spicy Leffe clone at 5%) and wheat beer (4.6%) were perfectly decent — clean, at least, if not exciting.

We had to hunt a little harder for the local bières artisanales, but eventually found a few trendily-designed bottles of beer from Uberach in a late night cake shop. (France, eh?) Juliette (4.8 %) was a farmhouse beer flavoured with peach, ginger and rose. We found it hard going — brash and artifical-tasting, like fruit tea rather than beer. Having said that, with a little refinement, the underlying idea could go down well in the UK. La Klintz (also 4.8%), a wheaty-tasting hazy blonde Belgian-style beer from the same brewery, was just fine but seemed to be lacking a dimension or two, and was ultimately too sweet for us.

So, there is plenty of beer in Strasbourg, but nothing worth going out of your way for, at least not that we had chance to try during our brief visit.

There’s a gallery with more pictures on our Facebook page.