When my brother and I booked tickets for the Euro 2016 football championships back in July of last year, good beer wasn’t really on the agenda. The location of the tournament seemed an obvious obstacle; previous trips to France having been dominated by the grape rather than the hop. Nonetheless, with a little help from some beery friends and everyone’s favourite search engine, we head out armed with a list of venues large enough to surely find at least one good place to drink beer. Much to my surprise, however, we find that the beer scene in France has been vastly misrepresented, and that nearly every venue we visit has a good selection and variety of local and international beers on offer. Our trip takes us to three different cities, within all of which we find bars and bottle shops selling beer that wouldn’t have been out of place in bars and pubs in London, Brussels, Prague or anywhere else on the continent.
France’s capital city is our first destination, and in my mind was surely the place we were most likely to find good beer, being the hugely diverse and multicultural city that it is. After finding our feet and getting our bearings, our first venture is to take a walk along the Seine to the south-east of the city, where we find L’express de Lyon, a small bar located on the corner between the Boulevard Diderot and Rue de Lyon, less than two minutes walk from the Gare de Lyon. The exterior is very similar to that of any other train station bar-come-cafe, but upon stepping inside, it becomes clear that it is anything but. On the day of our visit there are 14 beers on tap, with regular faces such as Punk IPA, La Chouffe and Chimay Tripel alongside some other French, Danish and Belgian beers. Josh and I opt for two of the French beers – HopHopHop Sorachi Ace from Brasserie Correzienne and IPA Sous Senart by Brasserie Parisis. Both are absolutely excellent. L’express de Lyon also has a (fairly limited) selection of bottles including Tripel Karmeleit and Orval, and we leave the bar feeling increasingly optimistic for what the rest of the bars on our list have in store.
Next up is a trip to slightly gritty but colourful part of 11th arrondissement and a visit to La Fine Mousse. This fashionable bar, and restaurant of the same name across the road, wouldn’t look out of place in the hippest areas of London or Berlin, and it boasts twenty taps dispensing beers from all the corners of Europe, from Tiny Rebel and Moor in the UK, to Belgium’s De Ranke and Evil Twin from Denmark. The bar staff are friendly and helpful, recommending the Italian Elav brewery’s Accoustic Indie Lager after I feebly ask for something “houblonnée” (hoppy) in broken French. With Charcuterie and Cheese boards being served as light snacks, and bearded bartenders aplenty, La Fine Mousse is probably the closest thing to a British craft beer bar as you’re likely to find in Paris.
For a slightly more authentic Parisienne experience, however, I recommend Les Trois 8, our next port of call, located just five minutes away on Rue Victor Letalle. The decor could hardly be further from the slightly shiny and minimalist nature of La Fine Mousse, with beer mats, pump clips and other paraphernalia dotted across the walls. The bar front is shabby and inside it is slightly dingy. The beer, however, is fantastic, with 8 taps and a bottle list that includes some extremely rare Lambics I’ve not seen anywhere outside of Belgium before. We get chatting to two friendly Swedish blokes in the bar, who let us try some of their Lambic (which is unfortunately slightly out of our price range at €33 a bottle) and recommend we visit Paname Brewing Company on the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement in the north-east of the city. We head out there on our last day in Paris, arriving greatly in need of a beer after underestimating the length of the walk from our apartment. Luckily, they are well equipped to deal with our needs, with eight of their own beers (brewed on-site) and four guest beers on tap. Their black IPA, Bête Noire, and their IPA, Barge du Canal, are particular highlights. The food is also excellent, if a little on the British gasto-pub side.
Fully refreshed and stuffed with burger, we make tracks for the fanzone to watch the England vs Wales game, but are thwarted by a bout of torrential rain and instead make the tactical decision to pop into Frog Revolution near the Bastille. The bar is part of a chain of English pubs in Paris, Toulouse and Bordeaux that sell exclusively their own beer. The service is good and the game is being shown in English, but the beer is distinctly disappointing. I get the impression that FrogBeer are the kind of company attempting to jump on the “craft beer” hype in the hope of making a quick buck, rather than out of any love for the product itself. Nonetheless, the nearby La Moustache Blanche is an excellent independent bottle-shop, with a mixture of English, Belgian, French, Scandinavian and American beers. I pick up a bottle of Pankot Palace, a Chai Milk Stout brewed by Weird Beard and French brewery La Débauche, and we leave Paris extremely content but significantly lighter of pocket.
Our visit to Lille is but a brief one, spending just 13 hours in the city for the Russia vs Slovakia game before heading back to Paris that evening. We almost decide against going to the town in the North-East of France on account of the crowd trouble at the England vs Russia game earlier in the week, but in the end just vow to be extra careful to avoid any possible clashes between the fans. On reflection this was a fantastic decision, as Lille proves to be a brilliant city, both in terms of its quaint charm and beauty, and also its great selection of bars, pubs and bottle-shops. For lunch, we stop at Estaminet Chez La Vieille; a rustic and extremely authentic restaurant that is popular with locals and tourists alike. The restaurant specialises in local cuisine and regional dishes at very reasonable prices, with a three course lunch menu for just €12.50. I choose the famous Fricadelle, a regional speciality sausage Belgium and the north of France, whilst Josh opts for a Pork shoulder in a cheesy sauce. The food is both wholesome and delicious, and great value for money. The proximity of Lille to the Belgian border is evident in the selection of beer on offer at the restaurant. “We don’t do wine here… Beer, beer, beer!” explains the jovial waitress to a confused looking group of Russians sat next to us. We enjoy an Amber and a Tripel from Saint Landelin with our meals, whilst our Russian neighbours struggle to comprehend the bottle of Cuvée des Janquilles they’ve ordered by accident.
After the game, we head back from the Stadium and into town, finding a superb bottle-shop called L’Abbaye des Saveurs, not far from the Notre Dame de la Treille. With over 220 bottles, mostly from Belgium and France, we are soon cursing our lack of hold luggage for the return flight back to England, but pick up a 75cl bottle of Lindeman’s Cuvée René Gueuze for under €6 to enjoy later that evening. The prices were, on the whole, definitely cheaper than Paris and indeed many places in Britain, and with Lille being just an hour and a half or so on the Eurostar from England, a return visit will almost certainly be on the cards in the future. Our final port of call before hopping on the train back to Paris was La Capsule, a speciality craft beer bar just around the corner from L’Abbaye des Saveurs, and owned by the same person. The bar is almost empty when we arrive, around five minutes after it opens, but within half an hour is heaving with punters. La Capsule is probably my favourite out of all the bars we visit over the course of the week, due mainly to the sheer delight of finding a pub that serves Cantillon on hand-pump. I foolishly decide to have two halves (one of the Rhubarb and one of the Rose de Gambrinus) in my over-stimulated state, and spend the entirety of the return journey to Paris unable to feel my tongue, much to Josh’s amusement.
The final destination of our trip was two nights spent deep in wine country in the South-Western city of Bordeaux. Arriving mid-morning and unable to get into our hotel until 3pm, we do the thing any reasonable person would do, and head in search of a place to drink. Unfortunately for us, we make the mistake of thinking L’Amirale Bière is a bar and not a bottle-shop, as turns out to be the case. Even worse, it isn’t even open until 3pm, which is a huge shame as the selection looks excellent and we neglect to return before the end of the weekend. Just up the road and thankfully open is La Cave des Moines, another bottle-shop with a great selection particularly of locality beers. I buy a locally produced American pale ale and proceed to forget all about it until the flight home, by which point I am too hungover and tired to even consider drinking it. Shame, it looked very tasty. Increasingly desperate to find somewhere that actually sold beer to be drunk immediately, we pop into Apollo, a cafe in a square near L’Amirale Bière, and sup on some Vedette IPA whilst waiting for our room and for two of our friends to arrive.
When our friends appear, we wander off in search of lunch and stumble across Jaqen Craft Beer Bar on Rue Beaubadat. The bar opened in December of last year, and is run by two young beer fanatics Benjamin and Cédric, both of whom are in the bar when we arrive and happily chat to us about the football and the beers on draft, of which there are six. The bar is deserted at 3pm on a Friday, but when we return on Saturday night, it is heaving, with young hip punters pouring out and drinking on the street outside. The beer is absolutely smashing as well, with a heavy focus on French beers from breweries such as Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris, La Débauche and Brasserie Correzienne. There are also a significant number of bottles for sale to drink in or take away, including beers from Magic Rock, Beavertown, Siren and even Anspach & Hobday, who are a very long way from home! Trendy, cool and English-friendly, it is hard find a bar I would recommend visiting more than Jaqen in Bordeaux.
After a quick trip back to the hotel, we begrudgingly head to The Frog & Rasbif, another FrogBeer bar, for some happy hour beers and to watch some of the football. Again, the beer is disappointing, but at least it is fairly cheap at €4.50 a pint. After a spot to eat at Padang Padang, a lovely Oriental restaurant with Affligem Blond on tap, we head for Café De Moins, a vibrant student-style bar near to the Pont de Pierre and just off the Cours Victor Hugo. There are silver taps all along the front of the bar, and a good selection of Wheat beers, IPAs and a couple of stouts too, mostly from Belgium or France. The atmosphere in the bar on the Saturday night is electric, despite Ireland’s heavy defeat to Belgium earlier in the day, and a foosball table keeps us entertained whilst we sup on our beers. It isn’t a speciality craft beer bar, but Café De Moins is a great pub in its own right, with pool, darts, and live music all on offer. My only criticism would be that the beer is a tad on the expensive side, with the exception of the Pilsner, which costs only €10 for a pitcher, but is fairly bland and uninspiring. Before long, however, we are too inebriated to care and happily slurp on pitcher after pitcher until we find ourselves shirtless and singing the Irish national anthem with a mass group of fans in the middle of the pub at gone 2am…
We all have dreadful hangovers the next day.
On the whole, despite France still perhaps being a little bit behind the major players in Europe when it comes to beer, this trip showed that if you know where to look, you really can get good beer in almost any city in the world. We drank excellent beers and found fantastic bars in all three cities we visited, and even managed to sneak in a couple of Kronenbourg’s on the tram to the football match in Bordeaux, just for good measure.