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.)
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.