Years Back–Southern France

My wife Terry and I took a year off in 2005 to tour Europe. Here’s a look at the beers of Southern France.

Mare Nostrum - Castillon

90-MareNostrum-3The southernmost brewery in France is in a small hilltop artist colony town of Castillon, just north of Monaco. Mare Nostrum Brasserie Artisanale Du Sud has been in operation for 4 years under the ownership of Georges Bensoussan. The only hint from the road is a sign reading "Fabrique de Bieres". While they think of themselves as a microbrewery, with 200 accounts from Marseille to Menton along the Cote d'Azur coast, They also have a restaurant and a Visite et Degustation (tasting room) on premises.

All production right now goes into bottles (from 33cl to Magnums) although they have some European version of coke kegs to try out in bars.

  • Blanche De Castillon - "Prestige" Very effervescent. 5% ABV. Golden. East European lager aroma in a bottle conditioned beer (the sell by date on my sample was Sept 2006). Very neutral and balanced. There's a touch of Cascade hops in every batch.

  • L'Abbe Des Anges - A nice thick Belgian Braun. Not bottle conditioned but a small amount of yeast added as a preservative. Nice balance and great body. Attacks stronger than expected and finishes delicately with a little raisin.

In addition to beer they also make citrus pops, lemonade, citrus aperitifs, jams, and even a distilled version of Blanche De Castillon called Elixir De Biere. At 40% this is what we would consider beer schnapps and is quite similar to that home-brewed-distilled by certain Hoosiers.

90-MareNostrum-5Georges' brother-in-law, Goget Christian, is the brewer producing 500,000 bottles last year. He says distribution is holding them back since the wholesalers don't want to deal with such a small volume. So palette loads are put into what looks like an impossibly small van and driven down the twisty roads to the coast for delivery. They also have one client store in Paris.

  • The brewery is Canadian, built in place by two guys in 2 weeks.

  • Mare Nostrum is the Latin name for the Mediterranean Sea.

  • Biere Passion magazine calls Prestige "C'est une tres grande biere".

The brewery complex occupies both sides of the main village street at a switchback.
Lower level: bottling.
Second level: brewery and tasting room.
Third level: restaurant.
Across the street: storage and distribution


Mandrin - Grenoble

90-Mandrin-0390-Mandrin-01 Grenoble may be known most for the Winter Olympics of a few decades back. Shame it isn't known for Mandrin beer produced by Brassee a Grenoble near the University area.

Owner Vincent Gachet was mashing his third batch of a 3.3% wheat beer on a hot May day and took some time off to talk to us. Thank you. He and brewer Tim Collins have been producing for 3 years. They make 1 or 2 brews per week and also report distributor resistance.

The 2nd batch of the wheat (which we tried) was quite like an American wheat with good effervescence. All their beers are bottle conditioned. In winter they make a spruce beer that registers 8%.

90-Mandrin-05Their regulars include a blonde made with French hops and Brewers Gold and Noix (amber) that's dark copper and made with walnuts in the mash. A nutty character develops very late in the taste. Nice.

Since a tram line is being built to within a couple of blocks, maybe people will make them have weekend parking-lot parties and spread the word about Mandrin. They hope to be better known in Scotland and Italy where export deals are in the works.

At right some British customers are picking up 3 kegs and an electric jockey box (a European thing). The box regulates CO2 from a separate tank and has a 230volt refrigeration unit. Makes sense since we've only found ice in Europe on Mediterranean beach towns.

Chardon - Belladonne

90-Chardon-0390-Chardon-01Up the road in Belladonne Denis Dumand went from homebrewing to a full-time brewery last autumn with a English 7-barrel system sheathed in wood. He also has a building in an industrial park where he brews once a week, bottles once a week with his wife, Claudie, and cleans, delivers, and markets the other 6 days per week.

All Chardon beer is best found in small shops in Grenoble. It's all bottle conditioned and organic even though the availability of organic malt and hops is spotty in France.
2-person rotary bottling system (Mandrin has an identical one).
A labeling system attaches but is not pictured.

Chardon's range is

  • Grande Chantourne - An amber made with spelt malt. Malty with a little spiciness.

  • Cheneviere Blonde Au Chavure - Made with hemp seed. Clean, mild, bright yellow. Nice base beer. German hops.

  • Tete Rouse - "Red Head" - A tinge of red on a brown beer. Mild to weak. An introductory drink.

  • Barbulle - Blonde with more carbonation than an English blonde.

  • Roche Noire - "Black Rock" - A creamy porter that is our favorite even though it's their lowest seller. Much like any excellent porter found anywhere.

Tartentaise - Aigue-Blanche

90-Tarentaise-02Hidden away in a ski resort in the French Alps is Brasserie Tarentaise owned and operated by not-quite-ex-pat Brit Dean Jarmon. He loved the area and moved here in 2003 to brew English beers for the ski crowd. Business is great in the winter but the summers it's doldrum city. Dean is looking into moving the operation to the larger town of Chambry on the main highway and possibly making it a brewpub with food and all.

Even in the summer he still brews and had a couple on hand that weren't quite ready for bottling. A Summer Wheat had a touch of citric from Cascade hops. The Best Bitter is based on Youngs #3 Mild. He also makes a blonde and 720 Strong Abbey Lager at 7.2%. (No that label isn’t printed sideways.)

Ninkasi - Lyon

90-Ninkasi-390-Ninkasi-190-Ninkasi-4If southern French breweries aren't well know, Ninkasi is the exception. Everyone we talked to about beer asked us if we'd been to Ninkasi. Open since 1997, with a big brewpub in southern Lyon and three tied houses, a busy music scene, big food portions, all-day opening that goes into the night, and the same type of beer normally found at American brewpubs, it's easy to see why.

Concerts 3 or 4 nights a week with jazz, reggae, funk, vocal, etc. Patio seating is in a loading dock setting (somewhat like Portland).

90-Ninkasi-2Almost everyone we saw at Ninkasi had the medium sized plate of Frites Maison (not up to the best fries at home but not greasy - maybe cooked too cool as the inside isn't properly mealy). Oh, the salads are served in what at first glance could be mistaken for a big flower pot. Big. Also ham, chicken sandwiches, flammekuches, and burgers.

Is it a coincidence our hotel is 100yds away. No. Did we stop in every night we were in Lyon. Yes.

The beers:

  • Blanche - Bavarian wiezen with banana, clove, and some subtle aromas as extras.

  • Blonde
    Fruitee - Myrtle beer. We'll have to try this one tomorrow. Maybe.

  • Ambree - A genuine British pale ale. Nicely hoppy with maybe a touch of northwest American Cascades along with the predominant Fuggles. Served at the proper temperature and with little carbonation.

  • IPA - Same formula as the bitter but a bit hoppier. Not overblown but sharp. Authentic to the classic British IPA. About 40 IBU.

  • Noire - A black stout with a big tan head that dissipated quickly. A big, dry stout. A+.

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