Which is the most innovative beer country? Belgium? The US? Britain?  Patrick Gengler turns his attention to France and Italy to see how traditional wine growing regions make beer

  Amphoras and barrels at Birra del Borgo

Italy and France, when I think of these two countries a couple of things come to mind. Great wine, Great food, and blue-green Mediterranean coasts. I don’t immediately think good craft beer. This is likely because, between the two of them, these relatively small countries produce over one-third of wine consumed across the planet.

The wine culture in these two countries is incredible, there are so many grape varietals and the climate varies so much from one location to another, you can get a myriad of grapes and within the variety itself, you can have variation in flavour based on the geographic factors of the vineyard.

Wine got its start in the near east between six and eight thousand years ago. That predates the first mention of beer by about five millennia. The grape is actually indigenous to the near east and wine’s first mention comes from (what is now) Georgia. Armenia has the oldest known winery that, by best estimate, dates back to 4000BC. What all of this means is that wine has an even longer established history than beer.

Despite being way older, wine still checks in as the sixth most consumed beverage in the world behind Coca-Cola and beer. In France, the macro brewed lager is the beer of choice and it controls over 90% of the beer market. According to statistics, the average French person will drink 43 litres of wine in a given year and that same person will only drink 29 litres of beer. That’s less than 60 pints. For comparison Britains drink over twice  as much, Germans: three times and the folks from the Czech Republic knock back nearly five times as much beer, about 300 pints annually. The question I have been posing to the other articles: “Why isn’t this country (in this case ‘countries’) making more exciting ‘craft’ beer?”  I think the answer is spelled out pretty clearly in the statistics. They have been producing some of the world’s finest wines for thousands of years. I want you to think about that for a second, thousands of years. That is absolutely staggering when you see that the oldest brewery in France is less than 500 years old.

You may have noticed that I left Italy out of that last paragraph. The beer and wine consumption statistics are very similar and the vast majority of beer produced is generic macro brewed lager. I’ve witnessed first hand however, the craft beer movement is slowly but surely taking off in Italy with breweries such as Birra del Borgo at the forefront of innovation. It’s got a great vibe as well. It feels like you are “in the know” when you find a great craft beer bar. This begs the question… What’s the difference? Why are there two countries with nearly identical drinks cultures so much further apart with innovation? I don’t actually know but I have a guess.

The history of beer in France is very interesting. Most of those amazing traditional Trappist brewers were in France until the French revolution when they packed up and moved to Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. I think that the brewing culture in France still hasn’t recovered from this loss. You see the odd northern French brewery making Biere de Garde but as the numbers say it’s not at the forefront of French brewing culture.