Unable to become the winemaker he wished to be, Fabrice Rivière has turned another passion into a surprising success story, says Caroline Bishop
Counting 120,000 hectares of vines, 8,000 vignerons and an international reputation for quality, the Gironde is arguably the most prestigious wine-producing region in France. It’s not, then, the obvious place to set up a brewery. But that’s what Fabrice Rivière and his wife Pauline chose to do three years ago when they opened their artisan micro-brewery in the heart of wine country.
Brasserie Mascaret, nears Rions in Gironde, south-west France, is set amongst the vines of a neighbouring château and produces some 65,000 litres of beer annually with the same emphasis on quality and taste as the local winemakers place on producing Bordeaux.
The brewery was born out of an appreciation for beer acquired by the girondin couple when they spent a year living near Belfast over 20 years ago.
“I used to go to cafés in France and ask for ‘une pression’, so that’s just like asking for a beer, doesn’t matter which,” says Fabrice. “For me, beers all seemed the same. But in Northern Ireland the pubs had lots of different beers. I realised that beer was like wine, there were very different flavours.”
He returned from Belfast with a love of Murphy’s and Guinness and the desire to start home-brewing in his kitchen.
It was a replacement passion for the young Fabrice, who had studied to become a vigneron. But with neither the money nor the family connections to obtain a vineyard, Fabrice gave up that dream and pursued business studies instead. For the next 15 years he worked for various companies selling everything from computer games to cheese, including a stint in Paris working for Disney. All the while he was brewing beer in his kitchen.
Unsatisfied with life in Paris, the couple wanted to return to the Gironde but Fabrice couldn’t find a job there. Deciding that the only way forward was to start their own business, they considered their options. Beer was the obvious choice.
“All the beers I make today have developed from the kitchen brewing I did then,” says Fabrice, now 42. However, realising that producing small quantities in his kitchen as a hobby was very different to running a microbrewery, Fabrice went to Liège, Belgium, and the Haute-Marne region of France to shadow other brewers. “I learnt an enormous amount about how to make beer and work in a micro-brewery with artisan equipment.”
Brasserie Mascaret launched in November 2010 with four beers, all organic – “I wanted to make a product that had minimal impact on the environment” – and each with a particular flavour derived from the balance of malt, hops, sugar and spices. “The four beers are very different from each other,” explains Fabrice. “But if there is a point in common, it’s that I wanted to make something that was fresh, not heavy, but that has plenty of character.”
Like his wine-producing neighbours, the emphasis is on quality. “Our beers are expensive. For people to pay three times the price of an industrial beer we have to provide something different. People want to consume local, organic and good quality products.”
And Mascaret beer is a truly local product – produced by native girondins, named after the bore that travels down the nearby Garonne river, and sold only in the region. “At the moment the brewery is too small to sell my beer even in the neighbouring départments.”
That’s testament to how well Brasserie Mascaret has been received and consumed in wine country. Fabrice says he was apprehensive at first about how the business would be perceived by local vignerons. However his efforts in befriending them paid off. “When I arrived here I told them what I would do and they became not only neighbours but friends. They accepted me in their neighbourhood and there’s no sense of competition.
“We’re not working in the same market either. I love wine and adore the wine of the region. I like beer too – it’s not a competition.”
A few jealous grumbles from the vigernons would be understandable though, when the weather pays havoc with the vines. Unlike his neighbours, Fabrice can brew all year round and is not at the mercy of the elements. “When the market rate of grain goes up I’m not happy, but I don’t have to worry about the climate.”
Not only have Fabrice and Pauline found there’s ample room among the vineyards for a micro-brewery, but Mascaret’s location has perpetuated its success. “The people of the Gironde are epicureans,” says Fabrice. “They like nice things. They like to live well. So when you have a good product, well made, you will have some success.”
No wonder others are joining in. When Mascaret opened there was only one other micro-brewery in Gironde; now there’s half a dozen. In this region of epicureans, beer drinkers are fast becoming as discerning as wine lovers, and neither they nor Fabrice will ask for ‘une pression’ ever again.