PUBLISHED: 12:39 13 July 2011 | UPDATED: 15:02 23 February 2012
Breton beer has a long and proud heritage. Norman Miller gets a taste for a unique brew that’s making a comeback...
The Rue Saint-Michel in the Breton capital Rennes is more commonly known as the Rue de la Soif (the Street of Thirst) thanks to its raucous concentration of bars. In fact, the local council famously bought a couple of them in 2008 just to close them down. But here and across Brittany, appreciative locals are shouting about the growing range of distinctive brews that are a world removed from the characterless stuff served up in other parts of France under the heading 'beer'.
Brittany's brewing tradition stretches back to the 17th century. For a couple of centuries Breton beer stood proud alongside other regional drinks such as cider, Muscadet and Gros Plant de Pays Nantais dry white wines, along with Chouchen - a mead apparently favoured by gods, knights and other heroic types. Gradually, however, the dozens of breweries that flourished well into the 19th century began to close down, and by World War II, Breton brewing was largely a memory at the bottom of an empty glass. But in the last quarter of a century, the reassertion of the region's Celtic roots has sparked a renewal of its brewing heritage and there are now more than 25 Breton breweries turning out more than 80 artisan ales.
As with all beer, Brittany's offerings can be split into broad categories. Ambre is a brew that combines roasted and unroasted malt to produce a clear, reddish drink. Rousse beer uses a mix of both pale and more toasted amber or caramel malts and blanche is a wheat beer. A particular feature of Breton beers is the diversity of additional ingredients that add complexity and depth - from elderberries and honey to herbs, spices and seaweed.
Malt and myths
The most diverse of Breton producers is the romantically named Brasserie Lancelot, situated equally romantically on the site of an old gold mine in Roc-Saint-Andr in Morbihan. Its name is a nod to Brittany's claim to be the true wellspring of Arthurian legend, centred on the forest of Paimpont (known locally as Brocliande) and immortalised in verse by medieval writer Chrtien de Troyes. A museum expounds the claim at the Chteau de Comper, near a lake which apparently housed Merlin's crystal palace and where locals claim fairies still appear at night to admire their reflections. If that sounds like the kind of thing you might imagine after a few too many local brews, you'll be drawn to Lancelot's XI.I Samhain, a dark beer brewed on just one night a year - the 'darkest' night of Halloween - which uses seawater to add an iodine tang to its potent inky depths.
The intensely aromatic Cervoise Lancelot is a complex beer flavoured with seven herbs and spices and a dash of honey; Duchesse Anne is a hoppy blonde beauty mixing flowery fragrance and citrus bitterness; and Bonnets Rouge offers cherry aroma and fruit notes which include elderberry for a pleasant tartness. Blanche Hermine is an easy-drinking beer with floral aroma and a spicy finish. One of my Lancelot favourites is Telenn Du, whose Celtic-inflected name translates as Black Harp and whose key ingredient is that Breton favourite, buckwheat. Though dark in colour, it's light on the palate, with a subtle bitterness lurking beneath its frothy head along with a sweet liquorice kick. It's a fabulous drink that makes the summer fields of white buckwheat flowers seem all the more beautiful.
As well as going in the beer, buckwheat is used in the region's famous crpes and galettes, and both are available at the traditional Crperie du Frugy in Quimper - a lively, good-looking city whose Gallo-Roman roots underpin a claim to be Brittany's oldest town. Visitors today can admire a panoply of wrought-iron bridges that span the River Odet every 20 metres or so, a couple of fine art museums and the old quarter of half-timbered houses around the Cathdrale Saint-Corentin.
Sitting at an old wooden table, I order a couple of the more unusual galettes and introduce my tastebuds to unfamiliar ingredients such as salicorne, a salty marsh plant from the rugged coast of Morbihan. To illustrate how Breton beers are attuned to local cuisine, a bottle of Mor Braz provides a perfect accompaniment with a briny tang courtesy of the seawater used in brewing. For a region with arguably the finest coastline in France, it's fitting that several Breton beers have maritime links. As well as Mor Braz and Lancelot XI.I, another is Tonnerre de Brest, a fragrant amber number which features seaweed to provide intriguing briny afternotes to its dominant fruit and honey aroma.
While the biggest concentration of bars may be in Rennes, the most illustrious single bar for Breton beer hunters is Caf de l'Aurore in Morlaix. Tucked away on the corner of a cobbled square in the pleasant port near Roscoff, this shrine to local brewing serves more than 40 Breton beers in a relaxed, cosy space. As in many bars in the region, you'll find Coreff Ambre (draught rather than bottled), a smooth easy-drinking beer with strong malt and hints of cherry. Coreff's Etiquette Noire is a rich bottled sidekick which echoes Telenn Du with its liquorice flavour.
Even with help from two drinking buddies who let me taste their choices, it's an impossible task to more than dent the range here. But with diligent research, I soon find favourites. There are two dark beers that shine: the tart beauty of Tri Martolod Brune followed by Hini Du Noire de Huelgoat, a richly textured chocolatey and dried fruit combination - both from Finistre. It's thumbs-up too for the well-rounded Dremwell with its symphony of citrus undertones, and the almost peachy Sant Gwenole from the Brasserie du Trgor in Minihy-Trguier. But I'm still left licking my lips at a host of untested offerings - another seaweed flavoured beer Ouessane Blonde, Fleur des les Rousse, the ranges from Brasserie de Bretagne (Finistre), Brasserie des Remparts (Ctes dArmor) and Brasserie des Abers (Finistre). To try and compensate, I ask the barman which beers are the most popular. He reels off a long list: Dremwell, Coreff, Mutine Blonde and Ambre from Finistre producer Brasserie des Abers, Sainte Colombe from Ille-et-Vilaine, Lancelot's Bonnets Rouge and Cervoise. "We even have a beer cocktail," he adds, with a laugh. "Le Breizh - Breton whisky with Telenn Du."
Le Breizh - the Breton word for Brittany - also turns out to be the name of a range of beers at the Distillerie de Warenghem just outside Lannion, producer of one of Brittany's handful of single malt whiskies, Armorik, as well as the intriguing Le Galleg made from 50 per cent malt and 50 per cent buckwheat. Taking a break from the beer to try both, neither is a patch on the Eddu distilled in Plomelin - the only whisky in the world made exclusively from buckwheat and a justified international award-winner.
I move on to the brews the distillery has made alongside whisky for nearly a decade, inspired by the fact that the processes to make both drinks mirror each other for much of their journey. There are three, of which a lip-smacking ambre is by far the best.
My Breton beer odyssey ends in Roscoff - more famous perhaps for its links with the Onion Johnnies who, dressed stereotypically in striped tops and berets, sailed from here for England to sell the area's delicious oignon ros to English homes from the back of a bicycle. Roscoff - like any self-respecting Breton city - has its own local brews: Rosko Blonde and Ambre, plus Bloscon Rousse, made by the Brasserie Kerav'Ale.
Before I try them, I have lunch at the acclaimed local fish restaurant, La Brasserie Les Alizs over-looking the harbour, where a bottle of Cervoise Lancelot perfectly washes down a plate of delicious local scallops - as good an accompaniment for this Breton dish as the region's beers are to many others.
Afterwards, I walk down to the quay where fishing boats lie at ease on low-tide mud. Cracking open my Bloscon Rousse, I prepare to down a final draught of delicious Breton beer, pausing only to say the appropriate Breton words: "Yec'hed Mat!" Cheers!
By road: Roscoff
can be reached by Brittany Ferries
Tel: 0871 244 0744
By rail: Roscoff is
four hours from Paris
56460 Le Roc St Andr
Tel: (Fr) 2 97 74 74 74
Caf de lAurore
17 Rue Traverse
Tel: (Fr) 2 98 88 03 05
Brasserie Les Alizs
37 Rue Amiral Courbet
Quai 75 dAuxerre
Tel: (Fr) 2 98 69 75 90
Brittany Tourist Board
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 36 15 15