Sunday, 7 August 2016

Norman de Biere, or She aims to Conquer

I’ve taken part in several Battle of Hastings re-enactments, so it was bound to pique my curiosity when I was contacted by a Normandy brewery about to launch its vegan beers into the UK market using 1066-themed branding. More curious still was its Franglais name – Le Brewery – and French-free website.

So it was off to The Rake, the pioneering craft beer pub by London’s Borough Market, for the UK launch, to try the beers and meet the people behind them. It turns out Le Brewery is an expat operation, set up by Steve Skews in 2001 with help from brewing consultant David Smith, who also developed the recipes. They sourced a second-hand 10 barrel brewkit in Britain and shipped it over to Normandy to brew mainly for the British expat community there.

April enjoys Lady Edith
What’s changed now is the ownership. Steve was looking to retire, while entrepreneur April Chandler was looking for a farm – she had moved to France with the intention of growing organic vegetables. To switch from farming to brewing vegan beer and importing it back into the UK as a health drink is not an obvious career route, but it’s one that April is doing her very best to make work.

It helps that she has the zeal of a convert – to beer, that is. A health enthusiast who has written a book on workouts and another on cocktails, the latter focused on good quality, healthy ingredients, she used to think beer was beer. She says that all changed when she met Steve and he helped her realise just how natural and healthy is craft ale (the French call it Biere Artisanale, which Le Brewery has wittily anglicised to Art Is An Ale).

“I didn’t understand at first, because I didn’t come from the beer world.,” April says, “but then I brewed with Steve and it was like, Gosh!” So with David Smith still advising, Le Brewery is back in production with a professional brewer and a range of eight beers; they also have a cider made for them locally in the semi-sweet Normandy style.

Only the cider, called Queen Edith, and two of the beers – Mysterieuse Lady and Norman Gold – are coming to UK supermarket shelves though. Norman Gold is a classic golden ale, with light dry and spicy notes over a sweetish malt body, while Mysterieuse Lady is rather more unusual, being an elderflower ale with a high proportion of wheat in it. Very perfumed and a little sweet in the finish, it’s smooth, lightly fruity and had an interesting distant tartness.

Le Brewery's Norman Gold
Le Brewery’s production is real ale, most of it bottled-conditioned in 75cl cider bottles with champagne corks and wire ties, plus a small amount of cask ale for those few bars in Normandy that know how to look after it – again, it tends to be an expat thing, says David. The two beers for the UK are not brewed in Normandy, however, nor are they real ales. The UK trade will get 330ml bottles containing filtered beer brewed at Wadworths. (April says she plans to import other beers in the range for specialist beer shops – Le Brewery already exports to the US.)

I’m not normally a fan of licence-brewed beers. Whether it’s Russian-made Carlsberg, Sam Adams from Faversham, or Bud and San Miguel brewed just about anywhere, it suggests to me that the brand is more important than the beverage. Still, while Le Brewery is definitely trying to build a brand, you have to cut it some slack because you can’t supply the likes of Tesco from a 10-barrel kit. They would have to contract the UK-bound brews out somewhere, and I guess that given the customs issues it makes more sense to contract-brew in England rather than France.

I expect the beers to do well – “free-from” products are in vogue, they’re well made with a twist of individuality, and they look good. It helps too that April is a professed optimist. For instance, faced with the prospect of Brexit, her reaction is that maybe it will ease the crap she has to deal with from assorted customs regimes. Her take is that the EU and the Single Market are too much orientated to favour the big corporations, and that leaving could change that*.

It’s also really nice to see another brewer commercially promoting proper beer as what it is: a healthy, natural product. Sure, Le Brewery isn’t the first to do it, but another voice in the choir is always welcome. Cheers, April!

*I can’t help thinking though that the real issue is simply scale and regularity. From what I hear, once you are exporting a full pallet – or better yet, a full lorry – and doing it regularly, things smooth out.

As an aside, this highlights that, with the exception of the personal import allowance, the Single Market is a flat lie as far as the drinks business is concerned. Even commercially exporting beer from Germany to the Netherlands can be a challenge, never mind getting it across the Channel. The tax and duty regimes around Europe are so wildly, utterly, ludicrously different – usually for no reasons other than fear, emotion and religion – that it’s impossible to harmonise.

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