Beerdeaux, where to get a decent pint in the world wine capital !!

In 1154, Eleanor of Aquitaine married the Duke of Normandy, who became King Henry II of England. Between then and 1453 Aquitaine was English. If the local wine trade had up to that point been relatively low key, this new connection with England exploded it on to the international stage. Given special royal privilege not to mention tax benefits which created a trade monopoly the name Bordeaux became forever synonymous with wine. The brand was born.

600 years have passed since the English put this city on the world map and the only remnant of our presence is the leopard on the traditional coat of arms. Nevertheless, Bordeaux is arguably the most 'English' of all French cities. Aside from having the largest number of British and Irish theme pubs per population (over 20 give or take), there are Anglo traces in the regional architecture, long running educational links such as the Bordeaux-Bristol association, a cricket club, the Bordeaux British community and a British consulate providing assistance for the reputed 250 000 UK expats in SW France. It also rains a lot.

Moving to Bordeaux in 2011 with my own Eleanor of Aquitaine (a French wife) the quest began to find traces of home and above all a decent pint of English BEER. It's not been an easy task...


The pubs are a good place to start especially during happy hour although the range of beers is hopelessly limited. According to the landlord of the Yorkshireman in Bordeaux, the French have banned the import of real ales by the barrel as they claim they are unpasteurised and unsafe to drink. In the same way English ciders are more or less off limits. We are thus left with a fairly uniform choice of commercial barrel beers which are deemed to be within 'French Standards'. Ironically, in the few pubs that do serve draught-pulled pints of Bitter, Ale or Stout, low consumption can mean that there is infrequent barrel turnaround and beer has gone off. It is not uncommon to shell out €7.50 or more for a sour undrinkable pint, then to be met with confusion, bewilderment and recrimination when you ask for a replacement jar. Then there is the matter of how to serve a beer properly.

A step by step guide on how to pour the perfect pint should be compulsory learning for all aspiring Bordeaux British pub bar staff as well as the John Smiths Youtube guide. 'The Beer Advocate' gives the following advice : 

  • Use a clean glass. A dirty glass, containing oils, dirt or residuals from a previous beer, may inhibit head creation and flavours.
  • Hold your glass at a 45° angle. Pour the beer, targeting the middle of the slope of the glass. Don't be afraid to pour hard or add some air between the bottle and glass.
  • At the half-way point bring the glass at a 90° angle and continue to pour in the middle of the glass. This will induce the perfect foam head. And remember, having a head on a beer is a good thing. It releases the beer's aromatics and adds to the overall presentation. You may also want to gradually add distance between the bottle and glass as you pour, to also inspire a good head. An ideal head should be 1" to 1-1/2".(2.5 - 3.8 cms to the French) 

Assuming the beer is poured properly, a major issue in 'Anglo-Irish style' theme pubs here is the topping up of your glass. The majority of Bordeaux bar staff seem to have no concept of the actual size of a pint. A British pint measures 20 imperial fluid ounces or 568 millilitres. Whether the glass is straight, cobbled or a weird Belgian variety, the beer (including regulation size head) should be poured to the TOP. Equally a pint of Guinness has it's own special pouring routine which is lost on the locals. Spending half the Greek budget deficit to enjoy what is advertised as a 'pint', am I not entitled to a standard of drink which could at least partly compensate for the outrageous cost and laughable service?


On to French supermarkets. The major players all stock a feeble range of Eurolagers, the plethora of 9% headache Belgian beers and at a stretch a symbolic can or two of Guinness and English 'Spitfire'. If you're not into Belgian beers, it's a dire and hopeless situation. On the plus side, the last 10 years has seen a modern French revolution in crisp flavours; since the days when all you could munch were hypermarché ready-salted jumbo packs, you can now get hold of the same myriad of varieties available England including : Lays BBQ, Tyrells and SALT AND VINEGAR (!!). However getting hold of something resembling real English beer is another story.

 
For an proper beer education you need to start at the beginning :  

CAMRA



The Campaign for Real Ale was formed in the 70's by drinkers who were fed up with the shift away from traditional brewing to a uniform commercial drinks market. They have been making efforts ever since to prevent the age old craft of brewing from dying out completely and have an established worldwide following of around 150 000 members. Beer festivals are held throughout the year and throughout the world championing local brews from Ales and Bitters to Ciders and Perry to Stouts, Porters and Barley wine.



The Great British beer festival, held in Olympia in London in mid August every year hosts over 800 cask and bottled real ales, ciders & foreign beers from around the world. The festival harks back to the golden age of Anglo Saxon public house culture with a plethora of bizarrely named local brews, pub games and beer gutted aficionados. For the lucky select few who understand a well brewed, tasty, proper pint, it's heaven on earth.


Local brewery and beer culture in France is extremely limited and even dying out completely according to the owner of the Cave a Bulles in Paris. The industrialisation of brewing is mainly responsible as well as urbanisation in the 20th century and the two world wars. Anglo Saxon culture also doesn't descend much further south than Lille. There are a couple of English brewers in Normandy and Brittany has some beer culture but aside from that the outlook is bleak. The average beer consumtion per capita in France in 2010 was only 30 litres (17 pints!) - that's compared to an average of 45.7 litres per capita of wine. Complare that to 74 litres in England, 104 in Ireland and 132 in Czech Republic. The lack of French brewers and general interest in beer isn't really surprising particularly in Bordeaux, the world capital of wine. However despite the booze tide flowing massively in the wrong direction, a few of the Frenchies here seem to be switched on.



 
Le Caisse de 12 is just off the Boulevard President Wilson and has an owner who is a CAMRA member. Stocking beers from all over the world they have a selection of Ales, Stouts and Artisan Lagers. Midnight Sun is a fantastic rich stout from the Scottish Williams Brothers brewery. 7 Giraffes is another star with a hint of elderberry that transports the drinker straight to a sunny English summer pub garden. You can get hold of Coopers beers from Australia (the oldest non-commercial Aussie brewery) and Anchor's Steam beers from San Francisco. A local favourite comes from the 'Entre Deux' local brewery who are one of Aquitaine's own breweries (also stocked by the English run West Coast burgers in Bordeaux). Another recent addition are beers from the Gascogna brewery in Pessac. 



Next on the tour is V&B (Vin & Biére) which has shops in Bruges, Merignac and Bordeaux Lac. Half off licence, half bar this is a nationwide chain that stocks a couple of decent alternative brews amongst the larger range of Belgian beers. Brewdog from Scotland is worth a try as are the classic favourites of Newcastle Brown, O'Hara's Stout and Hobgoblin. The real draw with this place is that it's 50% licence and 50% bar. You can choose your ale (albeit a limited choice of English names) and drink it in the bar half of the shop. They are to be found in Bruges, Merignac and BDX Lac, have a beer garden for summer and plenty of cold tap beers.




Le Comptoir Irlandais has a fairly central location (Rue du Temple near the Gambetta tram stop) as well as a superb and growing range of English and Irish beers. They are arguably the winner in Anglo-Saxon and Gallic beer stockists in Bordeaux with a comprehensive selection that could rival any off licence in England. St Peter's is definitely worth a go as are the Breton brews such as Telenn Du. Alternatively you could just ogle at the bountiful beer selection from Murphy's to Boddy's, John Smiths, Wychwood brewery, Shepherd Neame, Badgers with my personal favourite of Fursty Ferret, Greene King IPA as well as the mighty Old Speckled Hen. Young's Double Chocolate Stout also deserves a mention. Prices are reasonable (€2 for a can of Abbot, €2.30 for Murphy's) and they have a fridge for a cheeky cold one in the summer. Get down there !!





 
As a stout drinker there are a few options for finding different types of the black nectar. The cheapest Guinness in town is at the St Aubin on Place Victoire. At €3.60 a pint during happy hour (seven days a week from 6-9pm) they are the only pub in town approaching UK prices. On top of the cheap pints are the superb homemade chips at €3 a bowl, large terrace for the summer months and huge number of sports screens. A stones throw from Victoire next to the Marché des Capucins are the cluster of African and Indian shops. Here you can pick up Foreign Export Guinness by the 33cl or 66cl bottle (be sure to get the Irish export version and not the African Guinness which is double the price). These badboys are 7.5% and not to be messed with. In the Indian shops you can find Lion Stout from Sri Lanka which packs an 8.8% punch and goes perfectly with some hot Bombay mix (also available). Crossing over the Cours de la Marne into the mini Portuguese/Spanish district of the city you can get hold of Portuguese beers, notably Super Bock Stout. The trek up Cours de L'Yser to the Adega Lusitana is worth it just to pick up a €4.50, 6 pack of this outstanding brew, along with some bacalao.



If you don't mind paying elevated French beer prices and crave an English/Irish pub atmosphere there are a few reasonable options around Bordeaux. Some also employ expat chefs who can rustle up a mean fish and chips, pie or Sunday roast. Here is a list of the main players for draught beers, apologies if I've missed a few out :

The Black Velvet : Guinness, Kilkenny, Magners
The Blarney Stone : Guinness, Kilkenny, Magners, Newcastle Brown

The Cambridge Arms, The Oxford, Molly Malones : Guinness, Kilkenny, Newcastle Brown, Strongbow, Cambridge Beer
The Cock and Bull : Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow
Connemara : Guinness, Kilkenny, Kilkenny Red
Dick Turpin's : Guinness, Kilkenny, Newcastle Brown, Strongbow
The Frog and Rosbif : A microbrewery concept pub chain - stocks 6 types of homebrewed beer - ale, stout, wheatbeer, lager etc

 The Golden Apple : Guinness, Youngs London Ale and Magners
The Houses of Parliment and HMS Victory : Guinness, Kilkenny, Magners, Newcastle Brown
The Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens : Guinness, Bombadier, Directors, Young's Gold, Young's Stout, John Bull Classic, Eden's Promise Cider, Red Stripe
Sweeney Todd's - Guinness, Magners, Sweeney AleO'Rowland's : Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow
The Yorkshireman : Guinness, Strongbow, Newcastle Brown




  

As well as the Anglo/Irish pubs there are a number of other bars that could be of interest to the English drinker. Chez le Pepere just off Place Gambetta is an Occitan bar run by a Stade Toulousain rugby legend. He puts chairs outside in the summer and sells amongst other dangerous tipples, Rince Cochon 8% lager on tap and Absinthe. The prices are reasonable during happy hour and they also do jazz concerts in the basement and show ALL the rugby! A few doors down is the Mushroom cafe - this is a student haven primarily due to the cheap beer. They have La Chouffe 8% on tap, €4 happy hour pints of lager and a dartboard. Further down past Meriadeck is a fantastic pool hall called the 3B's. Run by a Belgian and easily the best pool place in Bordeaux they have a range of Flanders brews on tap and in bottles which are guaranteed to knock your socks off.

 

Wine more Time is just past Place Fernand Lafargue and has a array of comfy sofas and arty pictures. Along with the range of wines on offer there is a beer section stocking a few English bottled brews. It's a civilised place to take more sophisticated visitors and conduct a beer tasting. Slightly less sophisticated is the Lucifer. Boasting 18 tap beers and 250 bottled it's best to make sure you have a taxi booked well in advance to take home your wrecked cadavre. Other student meat markets in the vicinity include El Bodegon, the Cafe des Sports and the Cafe Populaire. Take wads of cash and a spare liver or two.


Last on the Bordeaux beer tour is an Alsace restaurant called Le Fleur de Houblon in Bruges. Far from stocking English beers this place has a Germanic theme and stocks a range of artisan brews. It's bright and airy and the selection of Sauerkraut and Flammekueche will have you donning lederhosen and downing steins in no time. With concerts and its own mini beer festival à la Munich this place is worth a try if you find someone willing to drive you there while you get the drinks in.


 
There is a legend of an English beer festival which was once held in Bordeaux by a group of expats. With enough support and Bordeaux locals taking an interest in the miracle that is a pint, maybe this legend could once again become a reality. In the meantime, I'm off to Toulouse where two blokes called Bill and Jeff and the rest of their Airbus colleagues bring down tons of English beer barrels once a year for a giant beer fest lash up


The next one's scheduled for July or October 2013 - see you there...



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