Eric Asimov, wine critic at the New York Times, once praised La Choulette Ambree for being "as complex as a good Burgundy, yet harmonious too." Never heard of it? That's probably because La Choulette is a beer, a drink the French are little known for despite a brewing tradition stretching back to the cervesia-guzzling Gauls. More than 3,000 breweries were scattered across France before two world wars and the expansion of industrial brewing pushed biere artisanale to the brink of extinction.
Thankfully, that's changing. La Cave a Bulles, recently opened in the heart of Paris, is one herald of a French microbrew revival. "In the last 10 years there has been a real bustle of activity in the French brewing world," says owner Simon Thillou, who carries 150 beers from among France's 250 or so microbreweries. They blend distinctive aromas Corsican chestnuts, Ardennes blueberries, Rhone-Alpes cepe mushrooms to create unique beers that reflect their terroir. For seasoned beerophiles and curious epicureans, here are some of the best places around Paris for the amber liquid.
For the rustic touch, go straight to the source. Many farmhouse breweries are open for tours and tastings, including Hugues Rabourdin's Ferme-Brasserie de Gaillon, an hour southeast of Paris. His cider-drinking, Brie-cheese-producing ancestors probably turned over in their graves when, in 2001, he started brewing beer in the barn and serving it in the stables. Now Rabourdin's 7.5% Biere de Brie Ambree malty sweet, with notes of cherry and plum is winning awards and the brewery brings in more than the family farm. At the Ferme-Brasserie du Vexin tel: (33-1) 30 39 28 23 northeast of Paris, Denis Sargeret brews the lighter but equally fragrant 5.5% Biere du Vexin Blonde and welcomes 150-200 devoted clients every weekend. "They come here proud of their region, because it's their beer," he says.
But there's no need to leave the city to get good French foam. Le Sous Bock tel: (33-1) 40 26 46 61, a Basque-country-themed tavern in Paris, boasts 40-plus French microbrews. Try an assortment of espelette-peppered meats accompanied by the Basque brew Oldarki, a smooth amber-colored beer with hints of sloe berry. At L'Academie de la Biere try mussels cooked in Gueuze beer and a rare Ardennes microbrew like Oubliette, a triple-fermented powerhouse of clove, pepper and oak. And at Graindorge, chef Bernard Broux makes an art of marrying beer to fine Flemish cuisine from northern France. After tasting his four-meat potjevleesch as it meets the caramel, citrus and spice flavor of a glass of Grain d'Orge, you'll never see beer or France the same way again.