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Beer sellers: La cave à bulles, Paris

First published in Beers of the World December 2008

La , Paris

Regular readers will already know that not all French beer comes from multinational-owned Alsatian fizz factories, but even if you’ve encountered the odd bière de garde or Breton brew, you probably have little idea of the scope and breadth of French craft brewing. Overshadowed by the country’s behemoth of a wine industry, many brewers – in common with other producers in a country hugely proud of its regional food and drink – don’t aspire beyond making an excellent product for local sale.

L'interieur de la cave à bulles, Paris.

And then there’s the fact that Paris, while a great place to buy fine cheese, wine, baked goods, chocolate and much else besides, still does an abysmal job of showcasing French beer, with the few self-proclaimed specialist beer majoring on well-known Belgian imports at staggeringly inflated prices.

Les prix des bières françaises

Be thankful, then, for the Cave à bulles, the one unmissable place for the amateur des bières passing through gai Paris. Owner Simon Thillou is a former building trade journalist who travelled all over the country in the course of his work, discovering great beers from tiny producers and wishing they were on sale in his native city. He finally opened his cave on 8 July 2006, quite unintentionally on the feast day of patron saint of brewers St Arnold.

Centrally located just round the corner from the tourist magnet of the Centre Georges Pompidou, it offers an amazing 150 French craft brews, all from small producers – even the bigger bière de garde brewers are shunned here. 

Confitures à la bière picarde

You won’t be surprised to see bottles from the north and Brittany, but there are also beers from Normandy, the centre, even the south, with many unfamiliar names worth exploring, and several rare one-offs and specials. Nearly all are unpasteurised, many are bottle conditioned, and quite a few are otherwise only found in a handful of shops and pubs local to the brewery. Alongside them are around 40 Belgian lines, mainly Trappists, lambics and Wallonian beers, plus mini-casks, gift boxes and baskets, cider, glasses and beer conserves, mustards and vinegars. There are public monthly tastings, some focused on one brewery with the head brewers themselves often present, and private “dégustations découverts” for pre-booked groups.

Chef de la cave Simon Thillou

Like many in the business, Simon is a fan who’s clearly delighted to be making a living from his passion. The shop’s name translates as “the bubble cellar” but I’m unclear if it’s bubbles in beer we’re talking about, or Simon’s bubbling and infectious enthusiasm as he advises customers understandably overwhelmed by the choice, in fluent English as well as French. His language skills are put to good use with numerous North American and British beer tourists who’ve found the shop online (he’s hosted several private tastings for the US embassy), supplementing locals tired of the limited choice on supermarket shelves.

“I really believe that if you give people good, tasty products and give them the choice, they’ll naturally choose the good over the bad,” he says. “When I was 17 I went into a pub in Liège, Belgium, and asked for a bourbon. They insisted on bringing me a beer instead. I’d drunk beer before, of course, crappy beer, but this beer was Rochefort 10. A light came on in my head – it was a revelation. I’m not saying it’s the best, they’re all different, but if I could marry a beer, it’d be that one.”

But then, with a shopful like this to choose from, it would be hard not to be tempted into adultery.

Fact file

Address: 45 rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris
Phone: +33 (0)1 40 29 03 69
Web: www.caveabulles.fr
Hours: Tues-Sat 1000-1200, 16oo-2000
Drink in? No (except at organised tastings)
Mail order: No.

Manager’s favourites: Rochefort 10, Rabourdin Brie Ambrée, anything from La Motte Juillet, St Rieul or Thiriez.

Beer picks 

  • Bailleux Cuvée des Jonquilles 7%, Gussignies, North. Lively blond bière de garde from a tiny café brewery, with vanilla, banana and flowery notes, as cheerful as its name – “daffodil vat” – suggests.
  • St Rieul Brune 7%, Trumilly, Oise (Picardy). Actually a superb stout from a micro better known for Belgian influences: rummy, spicy aroma, fruity caramel palate and a long ashy finish.
  • Rabourdin Bière de Brie Ambrée 7.5%, Courpalay, Seine-et-Marne (Île-de-France). Outstanding rustic amber ale from a farmhouse brewery, brimming with toasted biscuit malt, intense orange fruit and a hint of cheese.
  • Thiriez Rouge Flamande 5.8%, Esquelbecq, North. You could safely pick anything from world class craft brewer Daniel Thiriez, but this nutty, smoky and meaty red beer named after a breed of cattle is very special.
  • Tri Martolod Blonde 4.6%, Konk Kerne, Finistère (Brittany). Honey, lanolin and teatime aromas introduce a mild, fruity, tangy and refreshing blond from the “3 sailors” brewing coop.

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