France commands many honors. The country brings in more international tourists annually than any other. France exports more wine than Chile, Australia, the USA, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, Argentina, and South Africa combined. French cuisine has been added to a UNESCO list of the world's "intangible cultural heritage."
But its beers?
No one has much to say about that.
France's best known beer inside and outside the country is Kronenbourg 1664 with 40% of the market. Kronenbourg may be the most widely sold French beer worldwide and the fifth oldest beer brand in the world (of brands still existing in the present), but when you wipe away all the marketing gloss, what remains is a multinational brew birthed in 1952, not 1664, that is currently bought and paid for by the Carlsberg Group in Denmark, hardly known for craftsmanship-like beers.
Other than Kronenbourg, one has to think pretty damned hard to come up with any other French beers with international name recognition - and can't.
France's brewing history mirrors that of many other countries. Before France industrialized, beers were brewed by small local operators in rural areas. At the end of the nineteenth century, France had 2,800 small breweries. Brewery consolidation affected France much like it did everywhere else, but in France there were additional factors at play conspiring against beer's future. Beer was enjoyed more by country folk, and that's where the breweries were. French industrialization pulled people out of the country and into the cities. The decline of the coal industry in northern France reduced the population of traditional working class areas where beer was in demand. Two world wars crippled the French countryside and sometimes the breweries as well when brewery equipment was expropriated for military materiel.
France has several historical beer regions which survive to this very day. Alsache-Lorraine in France's east remains the nation's brewing center and is the only region in France where beer and wine are both widely consumed and produced. Beer was originally brewed in the monasteries. Private breweries followed, and by 1268, brewing became an official trade in Strasbourg. Kronenbourg, Heineken (12% of the market with their l'Espérance brew), and well known brands within France like Fischer and Meteor are located here. Microbreweries have since sprouted up in Lobsann, Marienthal, Riquewihr, Saales, Sand, Uberach, Scharrachbergheim, Saint-Pierre, Schiltigheim, Uberach, and Vogelgrun.
The second region, Brittany, has ties to the Britain on the other side of the channel both historically and alcoholically. Celts occupied both areas. Cider- and beer-making are two talents Brittany shares with the UK. Coreff is one of the better known breweries from this region. Lancelot Telenn Du at 4.5% ABV is brewed from buckwheat.
The Nord-Pas-De-Calais area, near Belgium, also referred to as French Flanders, is the last region, best known among the French as being the home of Pelforth, now one among many in the Heineken lineup. Nord-Pas-De-Calais is where the distinct French beer style bière de garde originates. Bière de garde translated means beer for keeping and is a strong pale ale. The best known is probably 3 Monts at 8.5% ABV. Traditionally, these keeping beers were brewed during the winter and spring by small farmhouses and kept, as it were, for drinking later in the year while being stored in champagne bottles. Bière de gardes are more a general designator, like amber ales or blonde ales. Some are bottom fermented, some are top fermented. The color may be gold like a lager or amber like an ale. The general unifying characteristic among this type is that it is earthy and has undertones of exotic spices. Big producers have since moved in to produce it, but most of the production remains in the hands of small operators. For those outside France, bière de gardes remain a best kept secret.
With famous French artisanal craftsmanship behind these unique beers, why is it that France never got world class beer producer on its resume in addition to its renowned skills with cognacs, wines, cheeses, and snails? France is certainly poised to occupy such a vaulted position. It is Europe's largest barley producer and has been the world's largest malt exporter for over three decades.
The answer isn't very deep. France as a whole doesn't care about beer. 80% of its malt is exported. As of 2013, France produced only 16% as much beer as Germany, 37% as much as the UK, and about 86% as much as Belgium despite Belgium having just 17% the population of France. In per capita terms, France only produces 23 liters per person per annum compared to Germany's 118 liters, the UK's 65 liters, and Belgium's 161. France's annual beer consumption isn't much higher at about 30 liters. It might be helpful to see France's three key beer regions as extensions - culturally, in any case -- of the three beer countries which border them. And with duty free European Union trade nowadays, it could be cheaper for a Frenchman to sip a quality German, British, or Belgian beer than brew local beers few French desire. France is anything but a nation of teetotalers. It outranks Germany, Belgium, and the UK in liters of alcohol consumed per capita. The French just aren't getting most of their alcohol from beer.
Habits are slowly changing. In 2010, France had just 334 microbreweries. Three years later, the number was over 600. Parisian restaurants are slowly coming around to the idea that craft beers can be paired with French gastronomic creations just like wine. The microbreweries in France are different from the ones you see popping up everywhere else. They're not aping American Pacific Northwest styles, but rather, bringing back old French country traditions in beer making that faded with industrialization. In Corsica, one brewery uses herbs from the "maquis," the dense brush bush of the island, in one beer, chestnuts in another. In Alsace, another brewery uses roses, peach, ginger, and herbs from Guadeloupe.
Wine has been so entrenched for so long in the French psyche that it's not likely beer will usurp its privileged place on the average French person's palate. It doesn't have to. Beer is, historically, a part of French culture. Now, in a friendlier climate with more adventurous brewers, craft French beers are giving France another way to show the rest of the world what frogs are made of.