‘French beer is unknown. We must change that’
Stereotypes die hard. ‘The Very Hungry Frenchman’, the BBC’s current television series following chef Raymond Blanc as he scoffs his way around his native land, demonstrates just how committed the British are to thinking of France in a certain way: good food, joie de vivre, Citroen 2CVs. This is the land where everyone appreciates a fine Burgundy with their smelly cheese – and no-one drinks beer, at least not in public. “In France the image of beer is not very good,” sighs French brewer Raymond Duyck, “and overseas, French beer is completely unknown. France is the country of wine, of champagne, of cheese, of gastronomy – not the country of beer.”
Perhaps it is time that perception changed; Duyck (right), president at Brasserie Duyck, certainly thinks so. He was the driving force behind the recent foundation of French Craft Brewers, an organisation designed to improve the parlous reputation of French beer overseas. To listen to Duyck, though, you might think there’s enough work at home to be getting on with. “The French are not really very knowledgeable about their beer,” he says. “For a long time in France, breweries were closing down, the tradition was being lost. This was because of the big brewers, the standardisation – more and more beers which are very light but not very good. They’re beers for slaking your thirst.”
The tradition that Duyck speaks of is strongest in Nord Pas de Calais, where his brewery can be found. Their most famous beer – Jenlain (right), named after the brewery’s home village – is an example of the region’s native style, Bière de Garde; it is in many ways the Bière de Garde. It is a beer that rose to popularity in France during the 1960s, a beer that sparked a minor revival in the style – not that many French drinkers noticed. Bière de Garde – a strong, complex, sweetish brew – is in ruder health than for a long time (not least because a host of American craft brewers now produce their own versions) but it’s still a long way from its heyday, which came at the start of the 20th century.
“100 years ago, in the Nord, and the areas close to Belgium, there were 2000 breweries,” say Duyck. “They were tiny breweries, farmhouse breweries, who brewed as a sideline to their normal work. They brewed during the winter. This beer was fermented in wood and kept in the cellar during the whole season.” Brasserie Duyck was founded in 1922. “My grandfather, between the wars, created an amber beer – which is now called Jenlain,” says Duyck. “After the Second World War, he decided to put it in a champagne bottle. This beer and this bottle made Bière de Garde popular. It became known as Jenlain after 1968. Before then, it was just known very locally – it has no name, no branding, it was just known as Bière de Garde.”
The success of Jenlain in the 1970s led other brewers to try to make more interesting beers. Nonetheless, the years since have not seen the sort of revival that kept real ale alive in England, for example. “There has been a great concentration of breweries in France; after the Second World War, lots closed,” says Duyck. “During the 1960s, ’70s and even still in the ’80s, lots closed. At the time, it looked like we were watching the end of this beer. We became one of the last independent family brewers in France.
“There are a number of breweries in this region who, at the start of the 1980s, did the same thing as us – created a product that was different to differentiate themselves and to survive. They were historic breweries with many years of history, but which had survived. Lots of others disappeared. Now, for a good 10 years, there has been a revival of little breweries – microbreweries. They want to bring novelty and variety to French beer, which has become too standardised.”
Brasserie Duyck (right), in particular, is on something of a high. They sell more beer now than ever (“We’re still a small brewery compared to the big international operations in the French market,” says Duyck, “but we’re big compared to the little craft brewers in France”) and since Raymond took over from his father Robert in 1990, they have expanded their portfolio. “At the end of the 1980s we were practically making only one beer – the ambrée,” he says. “Since then, I have created some new products – for example, a blonde, the little sister of the ambrée. You have to be different from the big breweries because if you’re the same, you’ve already lost.”
Duyck’s current focus, though, is on changing the perception of French beer overseas. He is clearly envious of the success his Belgian counterparts have had in selling their beer in the USA. “French beer is very misunderstood abroad,” he says. “The idea [of French Craft Brewers] is to group together to show that France can make great beer. We have nothing to envy our Belgian neighbours in terms of quality.”
He believes selling French beer to foreigners will be the focus of the next generation. Duyck, now in his mid-fifties, is currently preparing the fifth generation of his family to take over the brewery. For all of the challenges ahead, he remains positive. “I am always optimistic!” he says. “I’m preparing my succession – I’m the fourth generation – I’m preparing my son. There’s no question of selling, we will remain independent and continue the tradition of good beer. The market is evolving – I think the big job of the next generation will be to sell our product overseas. It is important that we sell more beer overseas, like our Belgian friends. We need to send more beer overseas to assure our development. We send just three per cent send overseas. The little Belgian brewers send more like 50 per cent overseas.”
To match that, though, a key stereotype has to be challenged. “The first thing is to change the image of French beer overseas because at the moment it has no image,” Duyck says. “French beer – and it doesn’t matter which country – is unknown.”
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