Beer in Brittany: an ancient tale of alchemy
Beer is nothing new to Brittany; people have been enjoying it here since 5,000 BC*. However, it was only when monks created a low-alcohol drink that its consumption became more widespread. The Church had a duty to offer food and shelter to passing travellers and beer, brewed from cereals, was known as ‘liquid bread’ at that time. While the alcohol content in beer has increased since then, the ingredients are still very much the same: water, malted barley, hops for bitterness, flavouring, yeast and sugar. It’s a difficult skill to master: to be a successful brewer, you need to be a bit of an alchemist at heart! And when it comes to chemistry and magic in Brittany, we know what we’re talking about!
16 craft breweries in ille-et-vilaine alone
According to French collaborative website bieresbretonnes.fr, specialised in Breton beer, Brittany has 85 craft breweries, many of which opened recently. With its long-standing brewing tradition, the region is currently enjoying renewed interest in craft beer. In Rennes, the most well-known brewery used to be Graff, which later became Kronenbourg before it closed definitively in 2003. “Brittany used to have a huge number of craft breweries. They’ve all disappeared: the last one closed in Kérinou, Brest in 1981,” explains Clément Droff, who co-founded the bièresbretonnes.fr website with Guillaume Dufour. “Just a few years later in 1985, brewing made a comeback when the Brasserie des Deux Rivières was established in Morlaix by Christian Blanchard and Jean François Malgorn, who went on to launch the Coreff brand. This marked the renaissance of craft breweries in Brittany.”
Since then, a number of microbreweries have popped up, particularly around Rennes and in the Ille-et-Vilaine region, where 16 are currently in operation. Most of these breweries are recent additions. “Almost 70% of Brittany’s breweries were created between 2010 and 2016, which underlines the relatively recent popularity of craft breweries,” adds Clément Droff.
Breton beers brimming with character
One of the breweries situated near Rennes is the historic Sainte-Colombe brewery, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016. Other newer craft breweries and microbreweries include Skumenn and RZN (Roazhon City Ales). Each beer is brimming with Breton character. “Sainte-Colombe beers, like the Dorée or the Pie Noire for example, are must-tries for their rather traditional style that showcases the work that goes into the cereals and the yeast,” explains the Bières Bretonnes team. “With their more modern and current signature, the Skumenn beers focus more on bitterness and hops. Perfect for those who love Indian and American pale ales.” The site also recommends the Brasserie de l’Ombre, whose beers are as delicious as they are rare, especially the L’Ombre Bleue, which is described as “an excellent American pale ale”.
All of these beers have been concocted by enthusiasts, each with their own story to tell… They invited us behind the scenes, without revealing all of their production secrets!
* Please drink responsibly. Alcohol abuse is harmful to your health.
Skumenn: gourmet beer
The Skumenn brewery is a perfect illustration of the brewery revival in Rennes. Meaning ‘froth’ in Breton, it was born in 2004 from a story of friendship and travel. A long way from Brittany, the seed was planted in India. In a guest house at the foot of the Himalayas, Stéphane had a brain wave and a craving for a pint, while reading a survival book. “I stumbled upon this book, which explained in a few illustrated pages how to make beer, and how to survive with a family and a few acres of land by committing to self-sufficiency. The idea stayed with me and I discussed it with Thomas,” explains Stéphane. “Originally, the idea was to brew some beer for ourselves and our friends. Then, it gradually turned into a business project.”
His partner decided to train himself up so they wouldn’t have to improvise. After a vocational course in brewing at La Rochelle, they embarked on the adventure in the garage of one of the boys’ parents with a 100-litre microbrewery that would supply bottled beer to their friends and family.
“The first feedback from friends was positive, so we refined our recipes and created four carefully crafted beers,” explains Thomas. The names of the four beers evoke their Indian inspiration: Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Wheat India Pale Ale and Delhi Delhi (a double India pale ale). Their Indian identity also recalls the origins of India pale ales, which were top-fermented beers originally destined to be sent overseas to supply the British colonies.
Organic beers with fruity aromas and a pronounced bitterness
That isn’t the only defining feature of Skumenn beers. “From the outset, we wanted to make quite hoppy beers because we fell in love with the taste on our travels. We really like bitterness and fruity flavours, both of which are quite hard to come by in today’s industry. And this surprised people, in a good way,” points out Stéphane. “We didn’t opt for the traditional style of malty Breton beers. We went for drier ales instead,” adds Thomas.
And the result is a very surprising taste sensation! These well-fermented beers are fairly hoppy with a more pronounced bitterness than classic beers, but, at the same time, they’re also more fruity. “It’s a balance. We choose very aromatic hops varieties with notes of lychee, passion fruit, pink grapefruit…they’re all very floral,” explains Stéphane. Another defining feature of Skumenn beers is that they’re organic. “These are values we have shared since university. We always wanted to work locally as far as possible, using local ingredients in partnership with the association ‘De la Terre à la Bière’ [from land to beer]: our malting barley is grown in Brittany and will soon be malted in the region, too.”
Following the success of Skumenn beers, the team has grown and now offers new products developed with the same passion that first brought them together: “We love beer! Both crafting it and savouring it…”
- Skumenn brewery, 5 rue Joval, 35690 Acigné.
Chez Alain: a beer lover’s paradise!
Open since 2014, the Chez Alain beer store is the go-to address for beer connoisseurs. And you won’t find just any old beer there! The store has a permanent stock of around 400 different beers from all over the world, with, of course, a few carefully selected quality Breton beers. Chez Alain is a craft beer paradise, with quality products that are a far cry from the mass-produced beers with next to no individuality. The owner can talk for hours about the various beers he has on offer: “It doesn’t matter where it’s from, as long as it’s good,” declares Alain. For him, beer should be enjoyed like a fine wine: the bitterness and finish should be appreciated, and many craft beers improve with age, too. Just like wine then: “The difference when tasting beer is that you don’t spit it out,” explains Alain.
1 ,000 different beers on the shelves every year
For Alain, there’s no compromise on quality when it comes to beer. Here, we don’t talk about browns, blondes, ambers or whites, but stout, gueuze and IPAs. To help his customers navigate through the hundreds of different beers gracing his shelves, Alain advises each of them individually according to their tastes and preferences, explaining the history and origins of the beers in the process. From the strongest (the Molotov Cocktail Heavy at 17%) to the most expensive (the Saint Bon-Chien at almost 20 euros a bottle), there’s something for everyone Chez Alain. It’s also a friendly place where you’ll find amateurs, enthusiasts, restaurateurs and even cheesemongers, like Balé, who explains that certain dark beers are perfect with veined and blue cheeses.
Yann, another knowledgeable beer enthusiast, is a regular customer. He brews his own beer in his apartment for himself and his friends, and it’s no piece of cake, even for this chemistry researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research! “You have to be meticulous to be a successful brewer,” explains the researcher. Alain confirms: “It’s very difficult to give craft beer a consistent flavour. The DIY trend attracts a lot of people, but you have to get it right.”
At his store, there’s no chance of bringing home a bad bottle. Alain only chooses the very best beers and shares his advice with“people of taste” who appreciate quality products. It’s well worth a visit if you want to discover some new flavours from Brittany and beyond.
- Chez Alain, beer store, 18 rue poullain duparc. +33 (0)2 99 50 28 30
The Sainte-Colombe brewery: a safe bet
The Sainte-Colombe brewery has inspired many young Rennes-based brewers. Based in the small eponymous village, the brewery is located to the south of Rennes, near Janzé. It was set up in 1996 by Gonny Everts-Keizer from the Netherlands, who was the first female master brewer in France. Sainte-Colombe is something of an institution in and around Rennes. Everyone knows and loves its blonde, golden and amber varieties, not forgetting its brown beer (the aptly named Bretonne Pie Noire). Sainte-Colombe offers “8 types of beer for all tastes,” according to Gonny, excluding the limited editions. “These are delicious beers to enjoy while you relax.” The brewery, which currently employs five people, produces approximately 3,000 hectolitres a year, which is then distributed throughout the entire département.
It also came about mostly by chance, 20 years ago. As her Dutch nursing qualifications were not recognised in France, Gonny brewed “as a hobby” before deciding to start up her own business. She was joined by her husband in 2000 and by brewer Pierrick Clavier in 2006. Herhard work paid off! Despite experiencing initial difficulties establishing the brand, Sainte-Colombe beers soon achieved recognition in the industry, winning multiple gold medals at the French Concours général agricole (general agricultural competition). The brewery recently launched a whisky to expand its product range called the Roc’Elf, in homage to the nearby Roche-aux-Fées (The Fairies’ Rock) area, where the Sainte-Colombe brewers love spending time.
Sainte-Colombe beers are available on tap in a number of bars in Rennes and Ille-et-Vilaine, and can also be bought bottled at all the best wine and beer stores as well as on the Biozh and Coat Albret stalls at the Marché des Lices market.
- The Sainte-Colombe brewery, la landelle, 35134, Sainte-Colombe.
The public can buy directly from the brewery on friday afternoons, 2 pm to 7 pm.
Biozh: “a story behind each label”
Another fine brewing connoisseur is Tony Misiaszek, who describes himself as a “travelling brewer”. A former employee of the Sainte-Colombe and Tri Martolod breweries (the latter is located in Concarneau), he is also a fan of local beer, which he showcases at the beer-tasting sessions he organises for budding beer connoisseurs and anyone eager to know more about pairing the best beers with the best dishes. Every Saturday morning, he sets up his Biozh stall at the Marché des Lices, between the two Halles Martenot in order to promote Breton craft beers. “I’m not one to brag, but there’s definitely an encouraging dynamic going on in Brittany and the Rennes area, where each beer has its own identity,” states Tony.
“Beer opens new doors for appreciation”
He knows the local brewing scene like the back of his hand and could talk about it for hours. “There’s a story behind each label. Becoming a brewer is all about passion,” adds Tony. It’s a challenging and demanding craft where “you spend 80% of your time cleaning the equipment”. Both on his website and at the market, Tony strives to highlight the commitment of craft brewers, “who are constantly reinventing themselves”. The small production units he sells have no desire to be tied to a particular supermarket chain. He offers new beers on his stall every month depending on the season. His guiding principle is to sell local beer at affordable prices that surprises the people who taste them. “Beer opens new doors for appreciation. An amber beer with caramelised pork, for example, will showcase each and every ingredient, while white beers served with fish will bring out all the flavours. Anyone can discover a new beer whatever the occasion.” Just like with wine, but with one small difference: “the fizz cleanses the palate”.
- Biozhhas a stall at the marché des Mices in Rennes every saturday morning.
Rare and mysterious: the l’ombre beers
If you are passing through Rennes and are a fan of craft beer, you simply must try the L’Ombre brewery’s organic beers. Opened in 2010, its creations are both rare and delicious. Steven Guyader, the brewer behind these mysterious labels, is intrigued by transformations. Based in Plélan-le-Grand on the edge of the legendary Brocéliande Forest since January 2016, Steven smiles coolly when asked if he’s a bit of an alchemist. This former organic farming technician simply reveals that he “wanted to create something; craft some unique beers in a range of different styles.” Cue an English-style blonde (the L’Ombre jaune), an American ale (the L’Ombre bleue), an amber with hints of caramel (the L’Ombre rouge) and a white made from regional wheat (the L’Ombre blanche). Steven recently added another new style: an exceptional, full-bodied porter (the Nuit de l’Ombre). And in spring, the brewery expects to release a California common beer based on a 19th century recipe traced back to the gold miners.
From local land to local beer…
These five types of beer, created using organic products, make up the L’Ombre’s delicious organic, locally produced range. And just like the Skumenn brewery, Steven works with the De la Terre à la Bière association, which brings brewers and organic producers together to reflect on the ways in which they cultivate and work the barley. The hops are still imported from Germany or England, but the L’Ombre brewer hopes he will soon be able to source 100% of his ingredients locally.
L’Ombre bleue is available on tap at Oan’s Pub, Le Petit Vélo bar and Le Chantier, all in Rennes. The beers are also sold by Biozh in and around Rennes, and in the Brin d’Herbe organic shops located in Vezin-le-Coquet and Chantepie.
- Brasserie de l’ombre, 2 ter rue des Noës – parc d’activité les Noës, 35380 Plélan-le-Grand. The brewery is open to the public on friday mornings, from 9 am to 12 noon
RZN: a microbrewery in the centre of rennes
RZN City Ales is a craft brewery based in the Dinan-Saint-Malo district of Rennes, halfway between the lively Place Sainte-Anne square and the peaceful Saint-Martin meadows. Clément Auvitu is the young one-man brewer behind RZN, which stands for Roazhon (the Breton word for Rennes). While many brewers favour the countryside or the outskirts of the Breton capital when it comes to setting up their farm breweries for reasons of cost and space, Clément chose to set up shop right in the town centre!
“Brining the beer culture back to the city”
Originally from the neighbouring Sarthe, Clément came to Rennes to study sociology and noticed a paradox he decided to resolve: “I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a brewery in the centre of Rennes, despite its long brewing history, with Graff in particular,” states Clément. “Some breweries did operate here in the 18th and 19th centuries, but disappeared after the First World War. I wanted to brew in the town, craft on site, deliver to bars on foot and bring this beer culture back into the city.” This resolutely local project took almost two years to set up.
Today, Clément offers three beers, all named after the district or local traditions and cultures, whose flavours are inspired by other brewing practices. “I’m mainly inspired by English and Irish beers. La Vieux Canal is a bitter with a strong cereal flavour, while La Vilaine is a more hoppy India pale ale.I only work with British hops. It’s a question of flavour and cultural similarities,” explains Clément, who recently released a porter. Named La Bagoul, it is a “dark, full-bodied ale” whose name means ‘chat’ in Gallo… over a beer of course!
According to the young brewer, his urban beers are perfect paired with local specialities. “The amateurs I meet at markets tell me that La Vieux Canal goes well withthe galette-saucisse,“ declares Clément. “La Vilaine is a beer best enjoyed in the afternoon, the early evening, or even with a dessert given its sweet, floral flavour.”
RZN beers are available from the shop directly, at the Sainte-Thérèse market on Wednesday mornings, or at the city’s bars, restaurants and beer stores.
- RZN city ales microbrewery, 16 square de la Rance, 35000 Rennes.
Maloan: canned craft beer coming soon!
“The future of craft beer lies in cans!”This is the Maloan philosophy underpinning an unprecedented project in France, which was scheduled to open its first point of sale dedicated to craft beer in Rennes in February 2017. The idea came about after a group of friends (Marie, Marion, Lois and Antoine – hence the name Maloan) tried their hands at brewing beer. The result? About 15 craft beers from around the world that can be enjoyed at the store or taken away in cans. This container, which is “endlessly recyclable and has a very low environmental impact, also protects the aromas of the hops from the light,” explains Marie. The Maloan concept focuses on offering a draught beer experience that can be enjoyed at home. Financed by crowdfunding, the Maloan project should get tongues wagging in Rennes and further afield.
- Maloan, 10 rue Vasselot à Rennes www.maloan.fr
3 other craft breweries operate in the vicinity of rennes
The Montreuil-sur-Ille brewery: Brittany’s smallest brewery
The smallest craft brewery in Brittany is located in Montreuil-sur-Ille, 30 km north of Rennes. It stepped into the limelight in 2016 after clinching a gold medal for its beer Mars in the bottom-fermenting category at Brittany’s regional beer competition. The brewery also sells other products at the Montreuil market, including a Christmas beer (Noël), as well as their porter, a Pils and an East Side Pale Ale.
The drao brewery farm in the heart of “gallo country”
Right on the doorstep of Rennes, Rozenn Mell has been crafting local beers using traditional methods at her Melesse-based brewery since 2012. Her organically certified range of unfiltered and unpasteurised beer has a distinctive feature: they are all made from barley grown on Rozenn’s own farm.
Donac beers: the bretagne romantique brewery
Operating in Tinténiac, not far from the Château de Combourg and the birthplace of the Bretagne Romantique community, a small brewery produces a range of white, blonde, amber and brown beers under the brand name: Donac If you’re visiting Chateaubriand, you can’t leave without trying them!
- Head over to Bières Bretonnes to discover other craft breweries in Ille-et-Vilaine.