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Why British booze makers are finding a haven in the French Alps

Beer with a mountain view
Beer with a mountain view Copyright ronstik @canva
Copyright ronstik @canva
By Katy Dartford
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Amid the soaring peaks of the French Alps, British beer and gin artisans have been blending passion and craft to find a surprising niche for their unique beverages, bringing a whole new meaning to 'entente cordial'.

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Located in the picturesque Alpine town of Chamonix, Big Mountain Brewery has evolved over the last few years into a hub for mountain enthusiasts, offering a welcoming environment to share tales of their alpine adventures over locally brewed beers. 

On the menu of the popular bar are modern, hoppy blends typical of British IPAs, while for French tastes, there is the new Blonde Mountain Lager, which co-founder, Jack Geldard describes as "a touch sweeter than a classic pilsner, but still snappy and crisp - a real hybrid beer".

Big Mountain's beginnings were not solely as a commercial enterprise but trace back to Geldard and Matt Livingstone’s home-brewing days in 2014, driven by a passion for craft beer that was initially unavailable in Chamonix. Geldard notes, "It was frustrating to go climbing in the US, sample all the amazing beers there and not be able to get them back home."

Elsewhere, Tim Longstaff and Ash Smith of Sapaudia Brewing Company ( named after a late Roman and medieval Alpine territory) began their brewing journey out of respect for the local lifestyle and a distaste for mass-produced beers.

"When Brits went home they were surrounded by craft beer, then returning to France they could not find much of it at all. So people started to see a business opportunity," explains Longstaff.

Harnessing the Alpine spirit

After moving from Teeside in Northeast England to Bourg Saint Maurice near Les Arcs in 2013 for two winter ski seasons, Longstaff met his business partner Ash Smith in 2015 and they started chatting about craft beer and the Alps. 

In 2018 they decided to start brewing and by late 2018 they had installed their first ‘pro’ brewing kit. 

The pair settled on the Tarentaise Valley because it is surrounded by the world's three largest ski areas, Val d'Isere, Tignes and Les Arcs. This "seemed like a pretty good market to have on our doorstep," Longstaff adds.

Meanwhile, in Saint Gervais Les Bains, a quaint spa town down the valley from Chamonix, James Abbott pursued his dreams of distilling gin at Distillery Saint Gervais Mont Blanc

After arriving in France for what was meant to be just a few months, Abbott discovered there were no distilleries in the area, so decided to have a go himself. He affirms that "Every Scot has a dream of being involved in a distillery at some point in their lives".

James Abbott at the Saint Gervais distillery
James Abbott at the Saint Gervais distilleryJames Abbott

"My grandparents were botanists, so I had a fairly good knowledge of what plants you could eat and use for medicinal purposes. Other than that I had to learn as I went along."

The Western Alps' highest distillery

The region is famous for its Genepi spirit, and Abbott wanted to include this botanical and the blueberries (myrtle) that locals love in his gin.

"All my botanicals are located within a five-hour drive from the mountain distillery, which is very rare as most companies import from America or Siberia," Abbott shares. 

He eventually found his niche by crafting a gin that can be enjoyed without tonic, a characteristic appreciated by locals and top chefs alike: 

"Some of my older French friends turned their noses up at the thought of distilling Gin and said they would wait for me to do Whisky. But they introduced me to 'eau de vie,' which inspired me to create a gin (Le Gin Mont Blanc) that you didn't need to drink with tonic." 

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Describing it as "delicate," Abbot recounts that the three-star Micheline chefs Emmanuel Renaut and Anne-Sophie Pic have both enjoyed using it to complement a food dish.

Renaut and Pic both have gourmet restaurants in the nearby town of Megeve: the 'Flocons de sel' and 'The Maison Pic'.

Abbott attributes his success to his commitment to local, sustainable production: "I have a very hands-on set-up with no mechanical assistance, I attach the labels, seals and wrappers completely by hand. No plastic, no chemicals, even the glue is made from milk".

His efforts appear to have paid off. Abbott recently secured a contract with VandB and Chartreuse who distribute all over France and has just been awarded 'Best Sustainable Small-Batch Distillery in France, 2023 in the Distillery and Brewing Awards hosted by Luxlife.

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He's also been making his own whisky - but just 300 bottles a year for now.

Cracking Wine Country

The trend in which craft beer is emerging as a favoured drink in France – traditionally a wine-centric country – is being embraced and leveraged by British brewers.

Geldard explains that France is a net importer of beer, with a lot of it sent to France from the UK. This (especially with smaller breweries) has definitely slowed since Brexit, so we can capitalise on that by selling our domestic market here in France.

Longstaff observes a time-lagged trend flow from the US and the UK to France in beer preferences and anticipates that local breweries will begin crafting their own lagers and stouts, following the current trend in the UK to take on the big established brands.

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"Last year for the first time in France, beer outsold wine," he notes, adding that "Craft beer is still relatively new here, people aren’t looking for boundary-breaking styles, especially in the mountains, but just a good pint after a day of skiing or biking".

Geldard also perceives an increasing influence of American craft beer on the French market. He believes it has taken longer to come to France due to language (the UK is always quick to adopt American culture) but also France's proximity to Belgium.

"The French palate seems to like sweeter beers like the Belgian style" says Geldard, which is why they created their new Blonde Mountain Lager, which is tailored towards French tastes.

Breaking traditions

Brewhouse74, also based in Saint Gervais les Bains, was born out of a dream by Simon Greenwood when he worked in Chamonix at a local Canadian-style brewery. " The rise of IPA especially has caught on in France like wildfire, as it has globally," he says.

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Greenwood, who's from Reading in the UK, believes that initially in France there was a reluctance to enter the 'new world' of craft beer and look further afield from tried and tested French brands such as Kronenbourg and Pelforth. The brands were big in the Alsace region of France where traditional breweries were based and have dominated the market nationally. 

The situation is "very similar to the almost dislike and distrust of the rise of ’new world’ wines from the Southern Hemisphere and USA two decades ago".

"Craft beer is also not for everyone purely from a price impact," he adds.

Greenwood and his business partner, Stephen Furze, started thinking about creating their own brewery in 2016 when the US  brewing craze was filtering over into the UK in "the same maniacal way". 

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"Maybe other Brits saw an ever-saturating craft beer market in the UK and decided that a move to the continent was a good idea," he adds.

Traditional UK breweries have always been real ales or ales, which hasn’t been a big market on the Continent, says Greenwood, who perceives American-styled West Coast, East Coast and New England IPA (NEIPA) along with American Pale ales (APA) as the standard bearer among most breweries here. 

But Brewhouse74 will be getting some ‘modern’ British-style ales out this coming winter, he adds.

It's not just Brits crafting beer anymore. Geldard admits that "things have really moved on since they started. There are people in France making exceptionally good modern beer now".

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While France is also the largest consumer of single malt Whisky in the world, Abbot perceives the same trend happening with gin. 

"Gin production and consumption are growing fast, and I suspect it will overtake the UK too". And he has high hopes for the future: "Most of my clients are French. At this moment I do not export, but by 2024 I will hopefully succeed in Spain, Italy, Switzerland and the UK".

A community-driven approach

Since its modest beginnings, Big Mountain has evolved into a significant presence in the local community, inspired by the spirit of adventure and the scenic beauty of the Alps. “From the start, we wanted to cater for outdoor-minded, mountain-loving people, and we have really built a community around that,” reflects Geldard. 

The company's success isn’t constrained to the mountainous region; its beers have permeated various parts of France, allowing urban dwellers to experience a taste of the mountains at home.

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Coming from West Yorkshire himself, Geldard notes that the bar in Chamonix appeals to a varied clientele, with a diverse mix of nationalities, from the French and Scandinavians to Britons and Americans. However, their production isn’t merely for an international crowd. “Our production brewery sells beer from the south coast of France up to Paris, and the majority of that is, of course, French," he explains.

Meanwhile, Longstaff, with Sapaudia, equally grounds his brewing narrative in the local tales and traditions of the Savoie region. He maintains that “Beer is for everyone and a big part of Sapaudia is telling the story of the Savoie and our local mountains, area, and history.” 

Sapaudia is also dedicated to ensuring the brand is not seen merely as a British import but as an integral part of the local beer culture. "We’ve worked hard locally to not just be a British brand that only caters for one group of people. We sell a lot of beer now in Lyon which are all French-owned bars," shares Longstaff.

Longstaff also speaks positively of the camaraderie within the brewing industry in France. "Everyone gets on and wants to share knowledge, contacts for new suppliers etc. So it’s great to see and taste what other people are up to and maybe take some inspiration from them," he expresses. 

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Overcoming obstacles

Both brewing entities also faced significant challenges in their journeys. For Geldard and Big Mountain Brewery, complexities arose from ensuring enough production to meet demand, navigating distribution networks which are "very much tied up with larger companies", and moving and expanding the business.

Their tactic with distributors was simply to "make exceptionally good beer" that appeals to bar owners who ask their distributors to carry them.

Despite these hurdles, the brewery has garnered regional renown and achieved recognition through awards, such as winning five medals at the World Beer Awards, including a gold for their IPA.

"We’re in a really good place with that now - our new brewery in Cluses is big enough to see us in lots of beer for the next few years," says Geldard.

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Things are going so well in fact that they recently set themselves the challenge of brewing the highest beer in Europe:

Longstaff concurs that for his company, startup finances and business winning were hurdles but notes that establishing trust and relationships eventually eased their path.

Sapaudia has marked a significant milestone, celebrating its 5th anniversary in September, and has become a recognised brand in the local French bar scene.

It has also achieved an impressive annual sale of over 300,000 pints and earned recognition from the World Beer Awards.

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Abbot also admits he faced numerous challenges, including not speaking French, stricter French production laws and administrative hoops, but attributes his success to local friends and the town's mayor helping him navigate through them.

Le Gin Mont Blanc
Le Gin Mont Blanchttps://www.facebook.com/distilleriesaintgervais

Community and Sustainability at the Forefront

This all begs the question of why these British artisans found a harmonious home within the French Alps? It seems the answer lies in how they have intricately woven themselves into the fabric of the local community. Both brewers and Abbott have not merely established their businesses in the Alps but have also become significant contributors to their communities.

The reciprocal relationship that these British artisans share with the French Alps is palpable. The richness of the resources and the appreciative market for artisanal goods typical of the Alps, fused with a commitment to quality, sustainability, and community engagement, has allowed them to integrate and thrive within a new cultural and geographical context.

"I believe that culturally French people love an artisan, they love locally made products, and they have a real taste for quality - whether that is in food, wine or beer. It’s a beautiful country and a great country in which to make beer," says Geldard.

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Living the Alpine Dream

For many, establishing a brewery or distillery amidst the stunning Alps remains a distant dream. Yet, for these British artisans, it's a beautiful reality. Geldard reflects: "I consider myself very lucky... we create a real physical product... and we get to drink our favourite cold beer after a long day in the brewery or on the mountain."

Abbott agrees that  "When you see the view from the wee mountain micro-distillery, it is all definitely worth it". 

For Longstaff it’s pretty cool to be able to go for a bike ride or a ski before or after work. We try run our shifts for our staff as morning or afternoons to allow people to have time for sports. We definitely have a sense of place and people seem to be attracted to beer from the Alps".

Indeed, the allure of the French Alps, combined with the adventurous spirit of brewing and distilling, has given rise to a scene where passion, community, and artisanal creation intersect, crafting not just beverages, but stories and experiences.

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