A Moveable Yeast
Tapping Into Paris's Overlooked Beer Bars
By Seth Sherwood
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page P01
The waiter squeezed between the tables and clapped the bottle down with a Cheshire grin, practically daring me to drink it. Then, before I could say a word, he vanished into the cigarette haze puffed out by a score of clamoring Parisian diners. The bottle was clad in blood-red foil and its label depicted a gruesome device familiar to any student of the French Revolution. Its identity was spelled out in crimson letters: La Guillotine.
The first sip was a surprise. Sweet, pungent and high in yeast, La Guillotine was less severe than its threatening name suggested. All the same, at 9 percent alcohol, the super-strong Belgian ale was no pussycat.
"C'est bon?" the waiter asked, rushing past. I nodded.
Here at the grandiosely named Academie de la Biere (Beer Academy) on Paris's Left Bank, my quest for decent brews in the City of Light was paying off. On a previous trip I'd done the wine thing -- visited Bordeaux, toured vineyards -- but this time I wanted something foamy, frothier, simpler.
I thought it would be a challenge. The French, after all, drink less beer per person than any other European nation except Italy, according to a British Embassy study released last year. And because France is so closely associated with the noble grape, chancing across something as unsophisticated as a beer bar in Paris seemed as unlikely as stumbling into a KFC in the Vatican.
What I didn't realize is that France has a well-established brewing tradition dating back to cervoise, the fermented grain beverage quaffed by the ancient Gauls. Charlemagne encouraged brewing during his ninth century reign, and the 13th-century rule of Louis IX saw the establishment of France's first brewers guilds.
Some of the most important research on preventing beer spoilage and contamination was done by none other than the 19th-century French scientist Louis Pasteur. And one of the most ubiquitous words in French dining, "brasserie," actually means brewery, even if the term has become bastardized.
These days in France, there are signs of a burgeoning interest in beer. Purchases of specialty brews are increasing at a double-digit clip, according to the British report. A slew of new, small breweries and microbreweries open every year, especially in the northeast regions.
The authors of a guide to Gallic suds called "The Beers of France," John Woods and Keith Rigley, observed in the late 1990s that "brewing and beer appreciation in France is now undergoing a huge surge of interest."
At the Beer Academy, the bulk of the bar's offerings were specialty suds churned out by France's tiny neighbor, Belgium. Among the choices were monk-brewed Trappist ales, lambic beers brewed with fruit, and dozens of regional varieties made by uncommercial outfits.
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