Montreuil (next to Paris)
It's been barely a year that two young craft brewers opened shop at the door of Paris in former industrial workshops that have been renovated for startup companies, and their beers are already selling fine in Paris. Craft beer is slowing taking off in France, if of course still far behind hot markets like the one in the United States.
To rewind back to when it all started, Thomas Deck who is originally from Alsace was studying at Sciences-Po in Strasbourg and he had at that time an opportunity to do a student exchange with an American university. He thus spent a year in Washington D.C. and one of his roommates there in Georgetown (or rather from the next room) was Mike Donohue and the two became friends. Mike at the time had already made beer at home and they both dug into the beer field, doing tastings and so on. This was in 2002-2003 and the craft-beer scene was aready active including in D.C.
After a year they began to think that they could do something together in beer, and in 2005 Mike took a brewer job in San Francisco at 21st Amendment, an artisanal brewery named in reference to the 21st amendment of the U.S. constitution which in 1933 repealed the prohibition. Mike who had enlisted in foreign languages (Spanish & Japanese) and also in environmental studies had taken thus another direction and he learned more on beermaking in San Francisco for a year, doing the basic job at the brewery. Thomas who had come back to France then, visited him occasionally and he himself became a trainee in a small artisanal brewery in Alsace, Uberach, which began to operate in 1999 using the pure water of the northern Vosges mountains for unfiltered and unpasteurized beers.
At one point Mike moved to Japan where he lived for a while and back in the U.S. he worked for 5 years at Flying Fish near Philadelphia PA. (from where he's originally), another award-winning craft brewery. Thomas on his side was keeping brewing at home in Paris, and it's been 1 year 1/2 or 2 years now that they decided to work full time on a common project to set up an artisanal brewery together here in Paris.
With the tools they bought they can produce 400 liters a day but in the early days they'd brew twice a week while now they brew 4 times a week as they adapt the production to the demand. They have a bit of potential to increasethe output but not that much as they also have the bottling and others tasks to do and they do it all by themselves. Their bottling size is 33 cl and 50 cl, the former being very common in France (I kind of regret that our sizes are not as generous as the ones in America where many of the craft beers I had during my beer adventures were routinely like 1 pint 6 fl.oz. or 65 cl...
Asked about how they found their first customers for their beers, Mike Donohue says that of course they did premilinary scouting to know the venues that could order their beers in the beginning, then they brought samples of the beers as soon as they began making them so that the bars owners could evaluate by themselves if they fit their expectations. Now with some media attention the beer are selling better than in the beginning but they still bring samples to new places that are open to craft beer. The prices are higher in France for craft beer compared to what you find typically in the United States or Germany, here at the brewery they sell direct to individual customers at 3 € a 33cl bottle, but there's still a demand because of the quality of the product compared to generic beers, and you get a discount if you buy in volume.
When I visited there was this vat that had been put to heat and boil since 2 hours and a half earlier, the malt bathing in hot water (60 to 70 ° C) with the aim to convert starch (amidon in French) in sugar,
which will later be needed for the fermentation. They'd let the malt hang for a few minutes over the mash tun so that the juice drops almost completely (you don't press, here, as it would bring harsh notes, like pressing a tea bag).
At one point later they take out the malt which they will give to a farm where it will be used as feed for their animals (pigs, hens and sheep), the rest being used as compost. When I look at this malt (pic on right) I can't but think to what we call if I remember the solid remains of the pressed apples which I saw when visiting a mobile cider press in Burgundy a few years ago, same color and texture, just that this malt has not been pressed.
The farm that gets this pomace is part of an AMAP, a group of organic farmers who sell directly to organic-food shops in Paris and the farm is located near Orly, a woman from the farm regularly drives here to take the heavy bags back on the way back to her farm after delivering her vegetables. Then, Mike and Thomas have the remaining liquid, the wort (moût in French), slowly boil and they'll add the hops along the following stage.
The boiling hops with yield an isomerisation which will produce a sought-after bitterness in the beer. Thomas says that the whole idea of beer is to balance the sugary side of the cereal with a bit of bitterness, which was made in a remote past with all types of dry herbs (like for the cervoise or cerevisia in the Gauls until the Middle Ages) and since the 11th century it was discovered by Hildegard von Bingen that hops were very adapted for this purpose and its use was generalized.
Thomas explains that after the cereal/malt has been taken out they'll boil the liquid for about one hour, adding small quantities of hops from time to time aftyer it begins to boil, the quantity depending of the character of the beer they want to make. What will be added at the end of this boiling stage will be decisive in the final taste of the beer.
What counts overall for the beer is what type of malt they use, the degree of drying and toasting, caramelization of this malt, the volume of the malt (a factor which will change the alcohol content), and in the second part of the process, which type of hops they use and in which quantity.
Asked about where they source the raw material, Mike says that right now they have a contract with Malteries Souflet, a French malters group that also caters for small organic breweries. As for hops, Mike says that this ingredient has really a terroir sense, so depending of the beer they want to make they have to buy certain hops coming from far away, like the United States which makes great hops from what I understand.
There's by the way a problem of rising prices for the hops as the production line doesn't follow immediately the demand and for example China has been buying more hops in the last years. You don't decide overnight to plant hops and pick the following months,; so there's a race between the farmside and the buyers, the prices tending to rise, especially that you don't grow good hops anywhere, the West Coast of the U.S. still being the prime region for this commodity.
While I was speaking to Mike, Thomas had to take care of a customer who walked in (the front of the facility is where they sell the bottles, using a plain table).Here on the picture above Mike is taking a sample in the boiling container to check the progress of the liquid, this is important he says, to make consistent beers along time. He checks the sugar level and may adjust with adding water if needed. They do also trials, test batches, they use 20-liter fermenters/tanks for that. They usually make 1 or 2 tries (sometimes 3) on small batches when they prepare to make a new beer. They make about 6 beers in total right now including the seasonal but they'll keep making new beers in order not to stay in the routine.
Mike Donohue settled in Paris himself at the turn of January/february 2014, he just came a few times before, shortly, to prepare the details and see the workshop for the facility. He came over here from Philadelphia with his Japanese wife, she had been three years in Philadelphia with him, she liked the town back there but still adapted to Paris in spited (my remark) the squeezed housing conditions here compared to America. They live in the 12th arrondissement which is close to Montreuil and he cycles to get here every morning, it takes 15 minutes. They'd had liked to find an appartment here too but it is difficuklt to find one, and even in Paris they found it through a well-connected intermediary [in spite of the huge part of subsidized housing in Paris __ or because of it__ it's almost impossible for the middle class to find an appartment to rent here].
The brewing tools they have here are kind of unique in the sense that they were designed to ptimize the lack of room, this mash tun is something in between a lauter tun (used for filtration) and a mash tun. The good side is that it is not only compact but easy to move around. Here as the malt solid part has been taken away you can see the beginning of the boiling.
In some ways there are things that look similar to what happens in a chai, like when Mike takes out the malt, just that this is not grapes or pomace but malt. Mike is using a shovel to fill large plastic bags that the woman from the farm will take into her car.
Asked what beers sells the best in France among their 6 beers, Mike says that right now the Mission Pale Ale sells best, possibly because it's not to malty, not to hoppy and not too high in alcohol, it does have a bif American hop presence and character, it's both accessible and different and people like that. But now they're selling more and more the other beers too, the average alcohol is 5 % in their beers, which makes them very convenient for me, most of the bbers I really like are in this range of alcohol.
They make an IPA (which is a bit higher in alcohol : 6,5 %), Mike says everybody likes it and more and more people walk in and ask for the IPA. Ask if there's a hype factor for this demand, he says yes, that plays a role, with the American trend tu use more hops and get a drier beer. Americans usually choose yeast strains that yield very dry beers. You see more sour beers and barrel-aged beers over there too, and the influence from American craft breweries is noticeable.
Asked which type of beer he likes in the U.S, Mike says for example Troegs, which is in Pennsylvania too, and also Victory, samely located in Pennsylvania. On the small size breweries he likes the beers of Earth Bread & Brewery (PA again), and Tired Hands (ditto...) which are brew pubs, great beer spots. Never had any of these myself but it seems Pennsylvania rocks...
On the picture at right you can see the hand-bottling tool, we're really in an artisanal brewery here and they do all the work by themselves, which is quite heavy as for example they can't brew when they do some bottling because it's by itself too time consuming to do anything else at the same time.
Here you can see Mike Donohue adding a precise amount of hops into the boiling mash tun. He beforehand weighed precisely the quantity of hops he wanted to add (picture on right), and he'd do it several times. The hops bags are smaller than what I expected but a full bag can cost quite a lot of money.
Asked he they sell draft beer too, he says yes, the kegs making about 20 % of the total volume, which is quite a good share it seems to me.
Mike says at one point that what he likes in the beer industry is that there's a lot of exchange between the craft brewers, including between the craft breweries in/around Paris, so it is very enriching and friendly, they tend to help each other, like for example if one of them in short of yeast and so on. This makes me think to what happens in the artisan-wine field where there's also lots of mutual help and sharing, much more it seems to me than in the conventional/commercial businesses.He is friend for example with the people of La Goutte d'Or, another young craft brewery (based in Paris).
Speaking of the environmental rules to disposed of the unused fluids, Mike says the rules aren't written down yet, most breweries being very small. They get some help from the city council of Montreuil when they have a question, like when they first looked at how dispose of the malt (this was before they met the farm people) and the city helped to see how to use the malt as compost for the city gardens. Mike and Thomas know for example a bigger brewery located south of Paris and named Parisis and they give their malt to a breeder with lots of cows as feed.
On the picture on left you can see where the brewing will take place, this looks much more what we're used to see in the wineries.
A craft brewery a rather intensive work, they work on average 6 days a week and didn't take any vacation apart from a week (not enough time to visit the U.S.) but they begin to have trainees/interns and this might make it easier one day, espeially that they also do the bottling by hand, and the labelling.. They have their own mill too, upstairs in the bottom of the brewery, they use it to crush the cereals the way they want, it allows them to have in continuum freshly-milled raw material.
Speaking of preservatives or other protection of the beer like SO2 in wines, there's nothing added here in that regard, the beers are unfiltered, and you still have remaining yeast in the beer, possibly wild yeast too, so the beer is living and as it is thought to be consumed fresh, in a relatively-short time window, they don't really want to alter the quality of the beer with any special protective process. The large breweries usually protect the beers because they ship far and don't know until when the beer will be consumed. Sometimes these breweries use gelatin as some sort of fining.
Now this beer was welcome, Thomas poured me this Trouble 6, a cuvée names which means turbid in French, and it was indeed suavely turbid an refreshing,
like for real wine you can't make these colors like that, they just come by themselves...
This beer has some connection to Alsace, Thomas' Heimat country (and mine too, sort of), and they used hops grown in Alsace which gave to the beer an herbal and lemon side.
It is also brewed with 4 different cereals, wheat, rye, barley and oatmeal with the idea to make a farm beer when farmers in the past used their own cereals to make their beer. This is a high fermentation beer, a blonde.
Like you can see the color is pretty wild and free, it tastes very refreshing while very richly textured, this is liquid food, no spitting anytime that day, especially that the good side of Paris is that there's almost never any breath checks compared to the back country roads where you find yourself easily trapped with no way to escape.
This beer is turbis but it's not a Hefeweizen, they don't do any (yet); hefeweizen beers are made with wheat only, using special yeast strains. here there's wheat too as well as oatmeal which both tend to turn the beer turbid.
Mission is a Pale Ale, it is more colored, actually I think the picture with Thomas pouring was this Mission beer, I just opened a Trouble 6 as I'm writing this part of the story and the color is actually more yellowish and to that orangeish, it's more on the ripe-wheat shades.
For Mission, they use pils malts, clear malt but also malts that are lightly caramelized which will bring orange color shades as well as roundness, some sugary feel and fruit notes. They use here Cascade hops which bring a citrus, grapefruit side, and also Summit hops that tilts toward tropical fruits like mango and lychee. the idea is to bring something fresh along this intense color. The choice of hops makes a difference, the American ones being more exhuberant. these come from Washington state and Oregon.
One interesting thing to note is that on the back label they print the brewing date as well as the limit date to drink the beer, and they voluntarily set the limit date quite early to gurantee the consumer that he'll have the full-mouth experience intended by the brewers. This beer is alive and not blocked in anyway and they like their customers tyo have only the freshest beer possible, that's why they ship regularly to the bars and restaurants instead of delivering palets of bottles at once. They set their limit date 4 months after brewing when most breweries put a one-year or a two-year delay, but here they want the consumer to get the most of these hoppy and fruity notes before they fade away.
This beer has as you guess a Japanese name, Makkuro meaning something like intense black, this is a porter, a beer associated with workers in London. Its alcohol level is 5,8 % (Trouble 6 was 4,8 % and Mission 4,8 % too). Nice dark beer, there's the toasted side with coffee notes. Thomas says that they chose a hop that brings a menthol side, with eucalyptus notes to have the freshness first, followed by the satiating feel typical of a dark beer.
Mike has a strong connection with Japan from what I understand, first through his Japanese wife and also from his time spent in Japan, and I happened to be in the brewery when a mixed couple and their son dropped to buy a few bottles, and I could witness that Mike is fluent in Japanese (although I don't know the language myself).
This other one is a hoppy, amber beer with 5,5 % alcohol content. THeir idea here is to make an amber beer without the often-excessive caramel side. To have this color they used a very pale-colored malt and a small percentage of roasted malt in order to get the color but without the heavy sugar feel that you often get otherwise. For the hop they choose the American Chinook type to get a real bitterness with a marked woody character.Thomas says that the alcohol level here at the brewery is typical of beers made without added sugar (they don't add any), and when you have a beer with high alcohol content it is usually obtained by adding sugar during the brewing.
Here is the IPA with a mere 6,5 % in alcohol. Thomas says they do dry hopping here which means that they not only ad hops during the boiling stage but also after the fermentation when the temperature went back to normal. This renewed contact with hops will underline the aroma of the beer. This is indeed a very gentle and civilized I.P.A. and for a change I like that (many of the ones I got in the U.S. were in my taste quite excessive in aroma and power) and could finish my glass easily, I give strong recommendations for this I.P.A.. Thomas says there's also some Summit hops here.
Read this interesting article by Kate Robinson about the late awakening of the French to craft beer, this excerpt reproducing the words of Simon Thillou (La Cave à Bulles) is on target about what real beer and real wine have in common :
Yet, while it's easy to see how Paris has taken its lead from a US-led trend, this movement also reflects several decades of changing attitudes about food in France itself. The scrutiny started with wine in the 1970s. That decade produced some truly terrible vintages, which were heavily sulphured, sparking interest in natural wines, which claim to be free from such additives. And, while marginal in the beginning, natural wines are found on the menus of the city's best restaurants. “Everything that was questioned about wine - adding sulphur, the use of wood chips, chaptalisation [adding sugar to increase alcohol content] - can be applied to beer,” says Simon Thillou. “People starting asking, ‘What's really in my glass?'”