Wine-loving France used to be a beer haven too, before shrinking to just 22 breweries three decades ago. Today it's up to more than 700 microbreweries, even if industrialists continue to dominate.
PARIS — Biotechnology Professor Frédéric Sannier is almost disconcerted by the success of the university degree he created at the University of La Rochelle in 2007. That's because the university has to refuse dozens of candidates every year, just one sign of the incredible resurrection of a practice that seemed destined to die out in the 1980s: the production of craft beer.
In 1985, there were just 22 breweries left in France, compared with more than 1,000 in 1926. Twenty of the country's 22 regions no longer had brewers, and there was little chance they'd find new ones, because the Minister of National Education had removed brewer degrees from university offerings.
Twenty years later, France has 700 breweries, and a new one opens on average every three days. They are microbreweries with virtually secret production, often integrated into hotels or large regional brands that produce between 1,000 and 10,000 hectoliters per year (a hectoliter is equivalent to 100 liters). It's a rebirth explained both by the success of small American breweries and French enthusiasm for regional products.
"The resurrection of breweries is especially linked to the regional sphere," says Pascal Chèvremont, executive director of the Association of French Brewers. "It actually started in regions with strong identities, such as Corsica or Brittany. New brewers integrated flavors such as chestnut, nougat or cranberry. And regional structures that promote specialties helped them."
It's a breakthrough taking place under the watchful eye of the 19 major French brewers, which the small operators aren't threatening. "The major brewers alone concentrate 98.6% of the production," says Robert Dutin, author of The Guide for Brewers and Beers in France.
They're not even in the same league. Kronenbourg produces an average of 6.7 million hectoliters per year, as opposed to just a few thousand for regional brewers. "It's benefiting the major brewers because these microbreweries, which convey an image of authenticity and quality, bring new people to drink beer," Frédéric Sannier says.
The "specialty" beer sector is especially thriving. This enthusiasm came along at just the right time, when the industry was looking to move upmarket. "We want to show people that France is also a beer country," says Chèvremont.
Traditions and history
The industry received recognition last fall as part of an agricultural bill, which basically acknowledged that breweries are part of French cultural heritage. But there's still a long way to go. With 18.5 million hectoliters produced and 20 million consumed every year, France still ranks a lowly No. 26 in the 28-country European Union. Not surprisingly, people drink more beer in northern and eastern France, where there is also more production. But the weight of tradition and history don't explain everything. For example, the Rhône-Alpes region (near the French Alps) is an unexpected heartland for microbreweries.
Will they stand the test of time? "We haven't noted many faults in these microbreweries," Chèvremont says.
Many are launched virtually overnight by experienced enthusiasts now going through training. Surprisingly, no degree is currently required in France to set up a business. But acquiring the necessary equipment costs between 100,000 and 250,000 euros, and bankers will often only grant the seed money to those who have undergone training.
Hence the enthusiasm for the La Rochelle university degree, for which students study chemistry, physics, marketing and process engineering. It's an intensive course of study to produce, at the end of the year, the school's own beer.