History of beer in France

Antiquity

The first known writings about beer go back more than 5 000 years BC, originating in Mesopotamia. We know that beer arrived in Europe in 5 000 – 4 800 BC, following two geographical currents: along the Danube (Eastern Europe) and along the Mediterranean coast (Southern France).

Contrary to what is widely believed, beer was produced and consumed very early on in Greece and in the Roman Empire, before being partially replaced by wine. The Romans had indeed created breweries all along the Mediterranean coast line.

The Germanic people and the Gauls adopted beer a century before our era, and brewed it using malted barley, wheat and oat, as well as honey and spices such as ginger.

At the time, beer was referred to as cervoise or barley beer. This term referred to the legend that Cérès, goddess of harvest and cereals, had discovered cervoise and had passed on its secret to the people whose land was unfit for viticulture.

Its growing popularity was due, amongst other things, to the fact that safe water supplies were scarce, while those available usually contained germs.

Roman Amphora

Beer Amphoras

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Brewery in the Middle Age

Middle Age

The production of cervoise did not change until the 9th century, and it remained a household staple until then.

Brewing then started to evolve as household production gradually ceased while public breweries were being built in every village. Monasteries also started producing beer for their own consumption.

It is monasteries who introduced hops around the year 1000, thus slowly replacing all the other herbs and spices used until then to flavor beer.

By improving and lengthening beer conservation, the introduction of hops also allowed for its transport which in turn would boost its sales and broaden its appeal.

The emperor Charlemagne had in fact given monasteries a monopoly over the production of beer: from the 9th to the 14th century, beer was mainly produced by monks. Those laics who wished to brew had to pay monasteries a levy called « the Gruyt » tax.

The Renaissance

The production of beer was regulated and taxed in France: a Paris brewing charter came into law in 1489, with the term « beer » being specifically used. Beer could only be produced by brew masters using the following ingredients: grain, water and hops.

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Brewmaster Monks

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The Industrial Revolution

The early 19th century saw a series of rapid scientific discoveries followed by technological breakthroughs. While the more traditional high fermentation beers are brewed between 15 and 20 C°, the Czechs of Pilsen invented a clear golden colored low fermentation beer, brewed between 7 and 12 c°, that was to become known as Pils.

This new process required important refrigeration means, made possible by the development of modern transport that enabled brewers to have ice and snow brought from the mountains to their ice cellars.

The new Pils (also called Lager) rapidly established itself with drinkers: light and fresh, it was easier to drink than other beers and quickly became the worldwide benchmark for beer in the 20th century, replacing most traditional beer styles and easing the way for the coming extreme consolidation and standardization of the brewing industry.

Although centuries old and solidly anchored in some regions such as the Lyonnais, Alsace or in the North, the French brewing culture has indeed diminished considerably since the early 20th century.

Under the effect of continuous mergers & acquisitions, ever larger breweries have been producing standard and bland beers, designed to supply the expanding number of supermarkets. In the space of a century, the number of French breweries went from more than 3 000 to under fifty…

Paris itself was home to more than 60 breweries at the end of the 19th century, and to more than 30 breweries between 1920 and 1940, mostly located in the 13th and 14th arrondissements.

The French brewing industry lost most of its know-how and found itself limited to the mass production of standard beers, with no link to local grain production, losing its recipes and regional styles along the way.

The Rebirth of Craft Breweries

The momentum has however turned in the past 20 years, and the craft brewing industry has blossomed as people are looking for local produce with character, produced in an environmentally friendly way.

While they had been no new breweries since the 1940s, numerous units have been popping up during the last few years. They are now over 400 breweries, spread all over France.

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