All for the taking

Robyn Gilmour speaks to Nantes-based Brasserie Aerofab about its love of the NEIPA, and what the future of beer looks like in a country renowned for its wine industry


In Chile and Argentina, where wine is king, palates were already primed to embrace the bolder flavours in craft beer when it first started being imported and produced there over ten years ago. Around the same time in Italy, beer tried to break into restaurants, and earn dinner table status by reimagining its packaging, but ornate glass bottles only pushed price points beyond what people were willing to pay for beer. In parts of Spain, beer and wine don’t really cross paths, but cider has proven a useful conduit for changing public perceptions of beer as a cheap, mass-produced beverage, and allowed it to be seen as a quality, artisanal product. This has often made me wonder what craft beer is like in France, a country that has historically been comfortable in the chokehold of its wine industry, and yet is close enough to Belgium that great beer is always in easy reach. 

I was therefore interested to learn that it was the New England IPA that jump started Arthur Audouin and Charles Tanqueray’s interest in craft beer, and led them to found Brasserie AeroFab, in Sautron, near Nantes, in 2019. Funnily enough, it wasn’t a trip to the US that introduced Arthur and Charles to the NEIPA, but UK and European interpretations of the style that trickled into France from abroad, and which the pair learned more about through the homebrewing community. As such, Charles cites Cloudwater and Northern Monk as points of reference, rather than Hill Farmstead or The Alchemist. 

To lend some context both to Aerofab’s timeline, and that of craft beer in France more generally, Charles tells me that as recently as 2018, there was no mobile canning infrastructure in the country whatsoever. The Aerofab team had to employ contract packaging operatives from Luxembourg to package early batches. Only extremely cheap beer was canned, but the glass bottles that Belgian or very traditional French beer came in wouldn’t fully protect the light-sensitive hop components in modern IPA. More bizarre still, Aerofab’s aspirations to make canned beer made financing the brewery more difficult. 

“Many people when we started the project, told us that it wouldn’t work,” says Charles. “The financial part was not so easy because bankers were like ‘what’s this?’ Six years ago it was only cheap French beer that you could buy in cans. But we really believed strongly that it would work because it was the same thing that had happened in the UK ten years earlier.” Charles continues saying that six years ago, high-end craft beer was trickling into France from abroad, and these all came in can. Similarly, he says that IPAs weren't uncommon then, they were just quite traditional, or were super dry and bitter.  

All this is to say that for bankers, it was one thing to acknowledge a public appetite for products being imported, and quite another to fund a venture that had never been domestically undertaken before. However, Charles and Arthur weren’t sitting idle while they waited for the finance situation to resolve itself; in the meantime they were contract brewing, and releasing beer to market. Charles says, as much to his surprise as everyone else’s back then, that the NEIPA was immediately well received. He says it was a welcome alternative to dry, bitter beers, and that even for those who weren’t beer drinkers at all, the soft sweetness, and recognisable flavours characteristic of the NEIPA made the style feel accessible and familiar. 

Of course, the following was initially small, but it’s steadily growing. In fact, bizarrely, beer sales in France are increasing in proportion to an overall decrease in alcohol sales across the country, a phenomenon I daresay is unique to France. “Fifty years ago, everybody drank wine everyday, like one or two litres per person,” says Charles, which even he finds funny, but assures me is more true than not. “Nowadays alcohol consumption is going down, just the same as in all European countries, but in France because most alcohol is wine, wine sales are going down and beer is going up. I think beer now sells twice as much as it used to.” 

Of course, double isn’t much when the market previously sold little to no beer, especially when it came to craft. However, Charles says the shift is palpable, and that it’s a combination of people now being more open to exploring alternatives to wine, and the fact that wine has risen steadily in price over the years that has created an opening for craft beer, and one which Charles and Arthur were ready to take. The pair of friends are engineers, one civil, the other specialising in waste management, meaning there isn’t a single aspect of brewing they don’t enjoy as a technical challenge. 

When the finances eventually cleared, Charles and Arthur commissioned the new brick-and-mortar brewery themselves, fitting everything together, and getting to know the new site from the inside out. There’s a clear love in the way Charles talks about it all, and although starting out comes with a spate of challenges, none have dampened how exciting it is to be a new brewery in a nascent market. 

For example, Charles says that 80% of restaurants in France have no interest in beer, but that he and Arthur are okay with that. Knowing so many food-led venues are operating within such a high-calibre culinary culture and don’t often have the bandwidth to reinvent the wheel when it comes to their drinks offering, Aerofab tends not to actively seek out accounts with restaurants, and are just grateful for the ones who reach out and want to collaborate. Charles tells me that beer is more of an after-work drink anyway, so working with restaurants is more the cherry on top than the cake itself. 

Furthermore, Charles says that Aerofab currently distributes 80% of what it produces around France, with 60% staying in Nantes. “It's not really easy, because there are now a lot of breweries everywhere, particularly in the area. But we think it's better for us to be here in 10 years, and to sell beer locally than to send it everywhere. We sell beer in some other cities in France, and sometimes in the UK. It's a pleasure for us to know people are drinking our beer in other parts of the world, but it’s not a sustainable solution over time.”

When Charles says there are a lot of breweries in the area, he’s referring to more traditional French breweries that make blonde ales, and more Belgian style beers. He says that at the turn of the last century, before the two world wars, France had more than a thousand breweries, but just 15 years ago that number had reduced to around 20. This was in part because of the destruction of infrastructure during the war, but more recently because of the emergence of big breweries like Kronenbourg. The prevalence of industrial players that acquire and either absorb or dissolve smaller breweries is a feature of almost every country's beer industry, though France seems to have escaped domination in this way more recently. Today Charles says there are around 3,000 microbreweries in France, a hugely positive step for beer, even if people are still mostly producing traditional styles. 

With a budding community of beer enthusiasts around them, and a market searching for newness, it’s an exciting time for Aerofab, and for France’s beer market more generally. Being such a fiercely independent nation, yet one whose craft beer industry isn’t short of places to take inspiration from, it may well be the case that craft beer in France develops in a way we haven’t seen before, the thought of which should be cause for both intrigue and hope. 

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