Beer, Cider, Aperitifs and other Drinks in France
Find out about some of France's popular drinks; with information on aperitifs and digestifs such as Pastis and Calvados, as well as details about French beers, ciders, hot drinks and bottled water...
In 1935 the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) classification system was introduced in France.Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée translates as "controlled designation of origin", and is the French certification assigned by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) to guarantee that a particular product adheres the standards set regarding place of growth, method of production, and other criteria specific to the produce.
While French beer has always lived in the shadow of wine, the wider renaissance in artisanal produce has seen microbreweries mushroom. But it's a long road back – the French brewing industry declined steadily throughout the 20th century. The thousand or so regional breweries in existence in 1900 went flat in the competition with a clutch of industrial pilsner-style beer producers, Kronenbourg and Pelforth among them. Two decades ago the decline slowed.
It's not that more people are actually drinking beer in France (that figure dips year on year), rather that those who do enjoy ale are seeking out the smaller brewers. The growth of these microbreweries has been spearheaded in Alsace and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (where monks began brewing in the Middle Ages), the traditional heartlands of French brewing and beer drinking. In Alsace, the German love of blondebeers seeps into the region's drinking habits, while in Nord-Pas-de-Calais the local brews have a distinctly Flemish twang. Brittany has also joined the microbrewing fraternity over the last decade with a handful of producers, while the brewpub phenomenon (whereby bars brew their own) creeps through the north. All over France, the English style pub is making a gradual appearance.
Five famous French brewers
- Castelain: Brewing in Benifontaine near Lens, this family firm produces various bières de garde.
- Kasteel Cru: An Alsatian brewer producing a blonde beer fermented in much the same way as champagne; renowned for its sharp white foam.
- Deux Rivières: A popular Brittany brewer that includes Coreff, a highly fermented stout-like brew, among its output.
- Kronenbourg: The famous Alsatian brewer easily outsells any other in France. Founded in 1664, a year used to name its premier beer, today Kronenbourg is owned by Scottish and Newcastle Breweries.
- Les Trois Brasseurs: Actually a pub in Lille that brews its own blonde, ambreé and blanchebeers.
Find an orchard in France, from Picardy to Les Pays Basques, and it's highly likely that someone nearby will be making cider. However, the undisputed home of French cider is the north-west. Brittany boasts a sizeable cider industry, but general consensus states that the Normans of Pays d'Auge, with their AOC status, make the best.
In contrast to the US and Britain, France has spawned few industrial giants in cider production. Like French wine, cider often originates from single estates: some small farms may well sell you cidre fermier direct. If the label says cidre bouchê, the drink, bottled like champagne, will have undergone a second fermentation. Cidre doux is a weak sugary drink, rarely stronger than three percent, while cidre brut is a strong, dry variant of five percent or more. Brittany and Normandy also produce poiré, pear cider, in large quantities.
Five Popular Apéritifs
Pastis: The Midi's favourite only became popular after 1915 when absinthe was banned and makers concocted a wormwood-free substitute. Star anise became the governing flavour. Provence harbours many artisanal variants; some blend more than 70 herbs and spices to get the right anise flavour.
Dry vermouth: Vermouth is actually Italian, but dry vermouth has its origins in France. In the early 19th century, traders found that white wine became fuller and developed an amber colour when barrels were exposed to the sun and spray of sea travel. Today the effect is achieved by leaving oak barrels out in the Mediterranean glare for a year. The addition of herbs and spices gives a nutty flavour. Noilly Prat is the big name.
Kir: A DIY apéritif, kir is made with crème de cassis topped with white wine. Dijon mayor Félix Kir pioneered the drink after the Second World War, serving it up at official receptions. Various kir variations exist; the most famous, Kir Royale, uses champagne.
Pineau des Charentes: Fresh, unfermented grape juice is blended with cognac or eaux de vie and then aged in wooden barrels for a sweet, fruity taste. Apparently discovered by accident in 1589 when a winemaker put new grape juice into a barrel containing cognac. Today, the genuine Charentes variety has AOC status.
Pommeau: A bit like pineau but with apples. Unfermented cider is mixed with year-old Calvados and left to age in a barrel for over two years. The richly coloured result has a smooth sweet vanilla taste. Both Pommeau de Bretagne and Pommeau de Normandie have AOC status.
Five Popular Digestifs
Cognac: The original masterclass in distilling grapes twice takes place in the Charantais department. Distillers' cellars are rich in the aromatic fug of la part des anges (the angels' share) that evaporates into the atmosphere. The youngest, labelled VS, must be at least two years old, VSOP four years old, and the finest, XO, a minimum of six years. In truth, many cognacs produced in each classification are much older. Two of the most famous were initiated in the 18th century by an Irish mercenary, Richard Hennessy, and a Channel Islander, Jean Martell.
Armagnac: Gascony's answer to cognac isn't quite as famous. It lacks the internationally renowned merchants, instead boasting some fine small-scale fermier brandies. While cognac has two distinct distillation periods, Armagnac matures in one continuous process.
Calvados: An apple brandy produced predominantly in Normandy's Pay d'Auge, in the Calvados département, by distilling cider. Double distillation takes place in giant copper cauldrons before aging slowly smoothes out the wrinkles in wooden casks. The youngest, trois étoiles, is a minimum of two years old, but the best are much older, sometimes aged over decades.
Eaux de vie: The so-called waters of life are basically fruit brandies, and thus technically include cognac, Calvados and Armagnac within their ranks. However, typically eaux de vie will refer to the fiery, clear aperitifs made with plums, pears, cherries, raspberries and other fruits. Each region has its own variations, although the artisanal eaux de vie of Alsace are particularly renowned.
Marc: Another eau de vie, this time made by distilling the grape pulp (pomace) left over from wine production. Some makers even throw in the grape stalks. The most popular versions are made in eastern France, from Marc de Gewürztraminer in Alsace, to Marc de Champagne and Marc de Bourgogne.
Absinthe is a bitter anise flavoured spirit, of which the supposedly mind-bending wormwood is a minor constituent. It takes the nickname la Fée Verte (the green fairy) from its emerald colour. Originally a Swiss elixir, absinthe was first produced in France in the early 19th century. It became hugely popular, to the extent that France was knocking back over 35 million litres annually by 1910.
The corresponding social ills of this mass consumption and the growing belief that absinthe created psychosis and criminality led to its prohibition in many European countries – it was banned in France in 1915. This ban hasn't been officially repealed, although is now widely bought and drunk in France. The bottle is be labelled spiritueux à base de plantes d'absinthe – spirit with a wormwood base – rather than merely absinthe.
While the accusation that absinthe is more harmful than any other drink with an equally high alcohol content remains unproven, the drink's cultural prestige is undeniable. Manet, Degas, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso all drank and painted it, while Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway lauded its effects in print.
Carthusian monks near Grenoble have made the beguiling green Chartreuse liqueur since the 18th century. It's not the kind of tipple you can brew up at home – the recipe takes 130 different herbs, flowers and various secret ingredients and blends them with a wine alcohol base. Various imitators, including the French government, have tried and failed to reproduce Chartreuse. Only two monks, so the monastery blurb suggests, know the recipe. A sweet yellow Chartreuse is also available. The green original has strong literary connections: Gatsby drank a bottle in F Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel, while Hunter S Thompson, himself a Chartreuse drinker, spiked his work with the green stuff.
No one has taken to bottled water quite like the French. In 2005 the Parisian authorities handed out free designer carafes in a bid to draw people back to the tap, but they had their work cut out – France produces and drinks more bottled water than anywhere else in the world. Eau de source is simple spring water, while eau de mineral may have health benefits – a declarée d'intérêt public, granted by the Ministry of Health, will indicate as much on the label.
When the French order a coffee they expect a small cup of espresso, referred to as un express or un petit noir. For breakfast they may slurp a large cup or bowl of café au lait. In between, there are various subtleties of size and content; a café crème (just ask for a crème) is an espresso with milk or cream, anoisette the same but with a smaller dash of milk. Decaffeinated, ask for déca.
Tea is usually served black or, if requested, accompanied by milk or a slice of lemon. Herbal teas (tisanes and infusions), particularly camomile, are popular as digestifs. Hot chocolate continues to be a popular breakfast drink.
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