When we think of heading to France it’s usually for a cultural weekend in Paris or a sun-kissed week on the Côte d’Azur. And when it comes to a ‘vocational’ drinks trip over the English Channel it’s often for wine or champagne, but rarely beer.
While most people consider Belgium or Germany the two beer capitals of Europe, the north of France is certainly staking its claim as the third. Nord-Pas-de-Calais, just a 90-minute ferry crossing from the Port of Dover, is leading this trend with everything from the completely grassroots, one-man-band breweries delivering to local bars through to the much larger scale operations shipping their beer internationally.
Most of the original breweries of Nord-Pas-de-Calais were wiped out by a couple of world wars, followed by worldwide lager institutions taking over in the 80s, but the area has been making an impressive comeback. Its craft beer successes are a result of brewing to local tastes using a combination of traditional and (mostly) local ingredients, while adapting their methods to utilise more modern machinery and brewing processes. Microbreweries in the area prefer to use hops grown in northern France, giving them an edge over their European counterparts who, for the most part, import them.
Intrigued, I happily accepted a press trip* invite and hopped on one of DFDS’ regular daily crossings from Dover ahead of a 48-hour tour of what this region has to offer.
Brasserie Castelain – Bénifontaine
Around an hour’s drive south east of Port Calais and just north of Lens is Brasserie Castelain, home of CH’TI beer. This brewery offers a wide selection of beers to taste and is deceivingly big – I suppose it has to be considering they drain their own water from the soil beneath it – and they’re able to produce 15-20,000 bottles per hour in peak production. Touring the brewery, hair net and everything (!), Romain Di Michele and Guillaume De Laforcade from the brewing and marketing team offered insight into the entire brewing process all the way from sourcing the ingredients to bottles being sold on shelves.
Brasserie Castelain produce a number of beers, including the incredibly popular CH’TI Blonde, their signature beer Castelain, which is made from Flanders hops, and more recently a number of IPAs, including my favourite, Fleur de Houblon.
Regular tours are available if you’d like to go behind the scenes yourselves, or you can visit their brewery shop to pick up as much beer as you can possibly fit in your car.
Brasserie Saint Germain – Aix-Noulette
Such is the popularity of craft beer in France, there’s always another brewery nearby. In this case it’s Brasserie Saint Germain, a fifteen-minute drive away. Famed for its popular Page 24 beer, this is a fast-growing microbrewery in a small village (<4,000 habitants) which has a strong affiliation to hops – around 20% of the village’s population used to work as brewers in the same building up until Heineken bought it in 1983.
Since 2003, Brasserie Saint Germain has been going from strength to strength and they now open up a taproom on weekends. If you feel like making the visit, may I suggest you try the smoked barley wine which would be perfect with some local cheese… yeah, I’m hungry now too.
It’s not just beer that Brasserie Saint Germain dabbles in either. Recently investing €1 million in a distilling unit, the microbrewery is also beginning to produce whiskey and gin, making them one of just fifteen distilleries in the entire country. More information on Brasserie Saint Germain can be found on the Lens tourism website, here.
Stop-over in Lens
With the first day complete, and plenty of beer in tow, it was time to head to nearby city Lens for the night.
Lens, a historic coal mining town, boasts plenty to see and do including the second Louvre Museum, Stade Bollaert-Delelis (home of Lens Football Club) and the UNESCO-listed Nord-Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin.
A special mention must go to our accommodation for the evening, Hotel Louvre Lens. This hotel harks on its industrial past, turning a row of former miners’ houses into a 4-star hotel with authentic northern French cuisine from the excellent Le Galibot restaurant on the side. Think exposed brick walls, high ceilings, industrial lighting and swanky hotel rooms.
Day two begins nice and early with a trip to Saint-Omer for a Combeer tour.
A what now?
A Combeer tour is a day on the road touring breweries in a retro Volkswagen campervan, with your own (sober) local tour guide who lives and breathes the area. Bruno Delforge runs Les belles Échappées – a company dedicated to the restoration of vintage cars for rental, group tours and team building exercises – from the 17th century Abbaye de Clairmarais, a beautiful 1 hectare (approx 107,000 sq ft) site with a working farm, events spaces, wedding reception rooms and a recently opened on-site brewery.
Alongside vintage Volkswagen vans, Les belles Échappées also hires out other vintage vehicles for as little as a half day, from a Citroën 2CV and Mahari to retro mopeds and tuk tuks. This is certainly one way to make your trip more memorable.
The brewery at Abbaye de Clairmarais wasn’t quite ready to open when we visited, however we did enjoy sampling their crisp blonde beer which is available to purchase on-site. More information can be found here.
Brasserie Goudale – Arques
Driving his bright orange VW van, Bruno took us on a picturesque journey through winding, bumpy country lanes en route to Arques for our first stop, Goudale, which is one of the largest breweries in France and the self-proclaimed ‘most modern’.
Considerably grander in size than the breweries we had visited the previous day, Goudale is the oldest brewery we were to visit on this trip, yet the most high tech; it boasts thousands of square meters of floor space for bottle conveyor belts that automate the labelling, filling and packing processes for onward distribution across most of Europe.
Alongside their larger-scale beer production, Goudale, like many other breweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, now experiment in smaller batches of beer. Goudale Project is a new run of beers from their smaller microbrewery, offering a light, refreshing, hoppy lager (pictured) at 5.2% alc, and a 9.2% smoked malt blonde beer called Circus Triple.
Belzebuth Rouge, a fruity cranberry flavoured beer, may go down ridiculously easily but is an unassuming 8.5% alc. Perhaps one to be a bit more sensible with. Most of their beers are award-winning and it’s easy to see why.
You can book a guided tour of Goudale on their website.
Brasserie du Pays Flamand – Blaringhem
Having filled the back of the Volkswagen with more Belzebuth than was probably sensible, and quite concerned that the bottles wouldn’t survive the rickety rat runs of the French countryside, we head for our penultimate brewery stop of the tour.
Brasserie du Pays Flamand is housed within a former distillery in the sleepy suburb of Blaringhem, just a fifteen-minute drive from Arques. Hopefully by now you’re beginning to see the high concentration of microbreweries in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
This microbrewery is popular with the locals – so popular in fact that they have another brewing arm over in Merville – thanks to beers like the refreshing Bracine pale ale, the dark and delicious Brune porter, and their most celebrated beer, Anosteké.
Anosteké beers are delectably hoppy, full of flavour and display fragrant, fruity aromas; while their most unique range of beers, Wilde Leeuw, go through a unique maturing process in whisky, cognac and burgundy wine barrels imported in from across the world. Their taproom and restaurant Anosteké l’Estaminet (named after their famous beer) was in full flow when we visited for lunch, which is always a good sign. The word ‘anosteké’ means ‘to the next’ – definitely a fitting motto to have when dealing in beer.
You can visit Brasserie du Pays Flamand for guided tours and tasting sessions, or you can visit their shop to buy some bottles. Anosteké l’Estaminet also does an excellent lunch menu, and I’m yet to find a better tiramisu than the one I had there. Menus and more information can be found here.
Brasserie du Mont Cassel – Cassel
Our final brewery stop brought us to a quaint village steeped in history. Perched on a hillside in the charming town of Cassel is Brasserie du Mont Cassel, a small microbrewery housed within a former shoe factory. Cassel is a picturesque town that dates back to Roman times and proudly sits 176 meters above the lowland of Flanders.
Mont Cassel is owned by Anthony Debailleul and is pretty much a one-man-band operation, although his wife admits she helps out when needed. This small site is home to everything Anthony needs to brew and distribute beer, from mash tuns to bottle filling machines. Mont Cassel produces the locally-famous Bière du Reuze in blonde, amber and triple malt. All three beers are piquant, though if I had to select a favourite it would probably be the blonde.
‘Bière du Reuze’ translates to ‘beer of giants’ – the beer takes its name after two legends of Cassel, Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman, who parade through Cassel during the town’s two annual festivals as large, mechanical puppets draped in Roman attire. The two giants are pictured on the bottle labels, and Reuze Papa is actually classified as a historical monument.
Visitors can sample beers at the taproom on weekends or buy during the week from the shop. Of course, I brought some bottles home with me.
The French craft beer revolution
It was clear to see that France is benefitting from so many microbreweries within close proximity of each other. Not only are jobs being created, new communities are being built and brought together over beer. In each taproom we visited there was a real sense of excitement in the air from the locals – and with more than 50 breweries opening in the region every year, you can see why they’re excited.
France has a plethora of breweries to discover. Nord-Pas-de-Calais in particular is an excellent option for UK travellers looking to fill their boots with excellent beer made by excellent people. We did this trip in two days, but I’d encourage you to spread it out and stay overnight in neighbouring towns and cities like Lens, Cassel and Saint-Omer.
Timed right, you can drive from Birmingham to Calais in less than six hours. Surprisingly enticing, no?
There are plenty more breweries and taprooms to discover across Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the French Flanders region, but if you’d like to get planning this trip yourselves, check out the route map below.
*Press trip disclaimer: I was invited on behalf of ferry operator DFDS to discover the ease of access to breweries of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. Travel, accommodation and expenses were covered by DFDS but this does not, in any way, sway any opinions portrayed in my writing.
All photographs taken by myself, please do not use without permission.