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ALE Winter/Spring 2005 No. 316 : Next section

ALE Winter/Spring 2005 No. 316

Think of France, think of drink and you think automatically of wine. However, there's a part of France where beer was traditionally the booze of choice and where a beer culture remains strong. Better still, it's the part nearest to England - the area of northern France known as the Nord-Pas de Calais. Having visited three times last year, I've developed considerable affection for both the area and its beers.

It is no coincidence, of course, that the Nord-Pas de Calais butts onto that great brewing nation, Belgium. Many of the beers share similar characteristics to Belgian beer, especially in terms of strength, but they're sufficiently different to be worthy of separate investigation. The story of brewing in this part of the world is a familiar one. As late as 1939 it had nearly a thousand breweries and now there are just over twenty, many of them recently established "micros". Three multi-nationals control 90% of the French beer market, an even worse position than here in Britain. What's more, nearly everything they produce is wishy-washy eurofizz. Fortunately, as with Britain, there has been a revival of interest in properly crafted beer and France even has its equivalent of CAMRA - Les Amis De La Biere.

If you're visiting the area for the first time then Lille is as good a base as any. It's a vibrant, attractive city in its own right and quick and easy to get to by Eurostar. From a drinking perspective, the best "place" to start is the Place de la Gare, about 10 minutes walk into town from the international station. Les 3 Brasseurs was the first brewpub in France and offers four beers of which the wheat-beer, La Blanche de Lille, is the best. A few doors away is La Taverne Flamande which has a large selection of bottled beers, mostly Belgian but including some locals. La Palais de la Biere next door doesn't really live up to its name unfortunately.

Heading into town down Rue Faidherbe you pass Vinotheque Rohart, an off-licence with a comprehensive selection of Northern French beers. Elsewhere in the city centre you'll find another brewpub, La Taverne de l'Ecu, a vast place with three frankly average own-brews. Highly recommended is Le Hochepot (Rue de Nouveau Siecle) which is a brilliant place to eat as well as having loads of local beers both on draught and in bottle.

What of the beers then?

My personal favourite, by some distance, is 3 Monts from Brasserie Saint-Sylvestre. This golden ale is significantly hoppier than most French beers and has a lovely bitter-sweet finish. For an 8.5% beer it's dangerously easy to drink. Like most French beers it come in large (75cl) bottles with a cork, though this one also has a metal staple which I've yet to get the hang of removing easily. L'Angelus, from Brasserie d'Anneullin, is another cracking beer, distinctly spicy but refreshing and just the right side of sweet. Grain D'Orge (Brasserie Jeanne D'Arc) certainly is sweet but also has lots of fruit and a good hoppy aftertaste - at 8% it's a real heavyweight. The Ch'Ti beers from Brasserie Castelain seem to be on sale in most bars and cafes and are very well made. Jenlain is probably the best known "biere de garde" and can often be found in British supermarkets - it's perfectly pleasant but not in the same class as the beers listed above, nor many others from the smaller producers. (The only other Northern French beer I've seen on regular sale over here is Ch'Ti Ambree which you might come across in Asda). My next challenge is to work on our Beer Festival Foreign Beer Manager to get some of these brilliant beers on sale alongside the usual Belgian and German classics. Come along in May and see if I've succeeded - or go to France and find them for yourself.

Jerry Brown


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