Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Boasting of Complexities for the Nose, Brewer Invades a Land of Wine

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Boasting of Complexities for the Nose, Brewer Invades a Land of Wine

Article excerpt

With wine by far the preferred alcoholic drink in France, Brooklyn Brewery's marketing strategy is to start small, offering its specialty beers in carefully chosen outlets.

Garrett Oliver popped the cork of one of his specialty brews, swirled the amber liquid into a wine glass and took a hearty sniff.

"It smells a little like cheese -- in a good way," he said the other night in Paris at a tasting of his artisanal beers.

Mr. Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, a New York maker of craft beers now trying to expand into France, has a quirky way of describing his creations, some of which are stopped with corks. He refers to the more complex ones as "a little bit barnyard," "having a funky nose" and "like a good sourdough bread."

Brooklyn Brewery is counting on such earthy complexities to entice drinkers to try something new in a country where even construction workers are more likely to belly up to the bar for un petit verre, or small glass, of house red than they are to ask for un demi, or half glass, of beer.

This is no sure bet for Brooklyn Brewery. Beer consumption in France is the second-lowest in Europe, after Italy, with only 16 percent of French drinkers choosing beer. With nearly two-thirds preferring wine, French consumers have proved so unfriendly in the past that few American craft brewers have bothered to cross the Atlantic. The only American beer that has caught on to any extent is Budweiser, largely by dint of the distributive heft of its multinational parent, Anheuser-Busch InBev.

"France is a difficult nut to crack," said Simon Spillane, senior adviser of The Brewers of Europe, an industry group based in Brussels that tracks beer consumption by country. Added to the brewer's challenge is the 160 percent increase in the French beer tax that took effect Jan. 1, which is projected to raise the price of a typical serving of 235 milliliters, or half-pint, of beer by 20 to 30 euro cents, or about 27 to 40 U.S. cents.

And yet, among younger French men and women there are signs of changing tastes. While consumption of all alcoholic beverages in France has been dropping for 30 years, beer is nonetheless an industry with annual sales of EUR 2 billion. And even as overall beer sales in France fell 1.7 percent in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, specialty beers jumped 8.8 percent, according to the French Brewers' Association.

Craft brewers, an American category for independent breweries producing fewer than six million barrels, or 715 million liters, a year, and smaller microbreweries have been popping up across France. Numerically, they are the vast majority of the approximately 500 brewers now operating in the country, although their sales make up only 2 percent in a market dominated by Anheuser-Busch InBev, Carlsberg and Heineken.

"People are drinking less but they want something that's good -- they're fed up with crappy, tasteless beer," said Simon Thillou, a former journalist who in 2006 opened La Cave a Bulles, a specialty shop in Le Marais, a district in Paris. The shop sells 250 craft beers and microbrews, including Brooklyn Brewery's.

Mr. Thillou and others in the French industry attribute the drop in drinking less to a health kick than to an evolution in taste. The French, they say, are now willing to spend more for a better product, be it wine or beer, even if they consume less of it. It is a trend that may bode well even for niche beers that pack a bitter punch and test a French palate predisposed to aromatic, lighter flavors. …

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