You could say he came for the wine and stayed for the beer.
Originally from Edinburgh, Craig Allan is now part of a vibrant craft beer scene in France, which he is confident will resist the double challenge of Covid and inflation.
Mr Allan studied malting, brewing and distilling science in the Scottish capital, where he met Sabine, his future wife, in 2001.
“She was selling wine for a company in Beaune, and they had recommended she spend time in the UK to improve her English.”
They soon moved to Burgundy, where he spent time working in the vineyards.
‘Discouraging voices when I started’
After a brief return to Scotland, the couple moved to Oise in northern France in 2009, and the following year, Mr Allan returned to his passion and decided to create his own beer, under the label Brasserie Craig Allan.
“There were some discouraging voices when I started,” he says, in a market that was much less developed.
The number of breweries in France rose from 442 in 2011 to reach 2,300 in 2020, more than any other European country, according to the Brasseurs de France trade union.
They are responding to a clear demand – 56% of French people now name beer among their favourite alcoholic drinks, compared to 55% for wine, according to a survey conducted in December by Dynata and marketing company Sowine.
‘Ideally, live where you brew’
Mr Allan began by working with a brewery in Belgium to produce the beers – the original three varieties are still made there – but in 2015 he was able to install a brewery in an outbuilding of the family’s farmhouse after convincing the bank to lend him money.
“When I’m brewing, you can see steam coming out. I’d worked in a few breweries in Scotland, and was aware that ideally you live on site, as there will always be something to check on at the weekend.”
Experimenting with Burgundy wine barrels
As well as the four regular beers produced there, this is where he makes more experimental one-off beers in smaller batches, including maturing beer in Burgundy wine barrels.
The latter is part of a tradition in Belgium, with lambic beer, but Mr Allan says small breweries are rediscovering the technique.
“The benefit with wood is it is porous, so oxygen can get into the beer.
“You normally try to avoid that with classic beer, but sour beers want oxygen to get in as it feeds the microbes and you get interesting flavours.”
His most popular beer is an IPA (India pale ale), reflecting a trend that began in the US and UK.
“IPA has become the most popular style in France. In 2010, it was practically unknown here.
“My best sales come from my three hoppy, relatively pale beers.
“When I first came up with my beer Agent Provocateur, which is like a hybrid between an IPA and a more Belgian ale, I tried to sell it to clients in Paris but for most people it was too bitter.
“They were used to sweeter Belgian beers like Leffe, which are indust-rial and tend to be low on hops.”
French drink stronger beers in smaller quantities
Belgian beers are usually stronger than those found in the UK, meaning beer tends to be enjoyed in smaller quantities.
“There is not this culture of the pub, and drinking a lot in a short period of time and getting drunk.
“Personally, I prefer the French approach,” he said. “It’s healthier.”
“Beer is consumed a bit like malt whisky, often as an apéritif – you’d have one or two before a meal.
“You don’t drink so much in bars. I do sell some kegs, but if I think back to breweries I worked for in the UK, we sold much more to pubs and bars.”
Served in Michelin-starred restaurant
The perfect illustration of this preference for quality over quantity is the Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, Frenchie, which asked Mr Allan to create a bespoke beer for its diners.
“For a long time in France, a good Michelin-star restaurant probably didn’t have any beer. Now, with the younger generation of restaurants, they probably have a few beers on offer, from small craft breweries.”
Whisky and beer have overlapping flavours
The notion of beer as a luxury item is fairly new. The market was previously dominated by a few large brands.
Beer was to quench your thirst, and had few cheerleaders outside northern and eastern France, where a beer culture exists due to proximity to Belgium and Germany.
“When I started, I remember somebody saying France is a desert for good beer. I’d briefly worked in the whisky trade, and France was the biggest market for malt whisky in the world.
“I thought if they can appreciate that, they can appreciate very good beer, as there are overlapping flavours.”
Most of his sales come from Paris and other cities, where there are more people willing to spend money on good beer.
He says craft beer remains a small niche within the market, but one that is growing – part of a wider trend for buying local, quality produce.
Covid and inflation have impacted the business
“Up until Covid, the future looked extremely bright. Now we are going through a slightly turbulent period.
“There are so many breweries that ones where the quality is not good enough might be struggling at the moment. But for ones which manage to produce quality beers, I think there will be a good future for them.”
Mr Allan’s business had been growing comfortably until Covid restrictions caused sales to fall by 30% in 2020 and 2021.
The recent inflation crisis has been another obstacle.
“Everything has gone up significantly”, says Mr Allan, who recently raised his prices by 10%.
He says the price of malt alone has risen by 30% to 40% in the last two years.
Glass bottles previously came from Ukraine
A spokesperson for Brasseurs de France told The Connexion that prices of “raw materials, but also packaging (glass, cardboard, aluminium), transportation, but above all energy” had all risen between 30% and 60%.
Malting and glass-making are both energy-intensive and companies have had to pass on rising costs to breweries.
To that is added the fact that many of the glass bottles used for beer and wine were previously imported from Ukraine.
Many breweries are now turning to a consigne system, where consumers can bring their bottles back to the shop for recycling in exchange for a small sum of money.
A survey from Brasseurs de France published in December showed that eight out of 10 breweries said they were affected by price rises of more than 10%.
Half resorted to a prêt garanti par l’État (state-guaranteed loan) during the pandemic, as the closure of bars and restaurants and the cancellation of events slashed their revenue.
Connexion readers keen to sample craft beers for themselves should check out France’s numerous trade fairs, such as Planète Bière in Paris every March.
Most major cities also have their own beer festival.