Turning ponies into unicorns
Tommy Barnes moved to France with dreams of literary mega-stardom. Now he’s bringing craft beer to his Loire village home
Wednesday 13 February 2019
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People sometimes say I’m brave to have given up a comfortable office job to try and start a brewery in France, but I’m not so sure. There are two sorts of people that give up perfectly good jobs to start a new life in another country: There are people like my wife who think it through, see all the risks and do it anyway. Those people are brave. Then there are people like me who don’t give it any thought at all. People who just think ‘it will probably be alright’. I’m not sure those people are brave. I think those people might be idiots. A beer in the Loire is the story of my calamitous attempt to escape the rat race in London and start a brewery in prime French wine country, despite knowing nothing about brewing beer. Like I say, idiots.
I remember telling people I was going to start a brewery when I took voluntary redundancy from my job working for a faceless corporation in central London, but I don’t think I ever really thought I would. It was just something to say. What I really planned to do was move to France, write a best-selling comedy murder mystery novel and spend the rest of my life in a white linen onesie bobbing around a dollar shaped swimming pool on a giant inflatable emerald encrusted unicorn, guzzling piña coladas from a hollowed out reindeer horn and staring directly into the sun, but I couldn’t tell people that was my plan because they would think I was insane, so instead I told people I was going to start a brewery.
We bought a beautiful old French Maison de Maître, a lofty, elegant, symmetrical house built of white sandstone and set in an acre of land for way more than we could afford in a village called Braslou in the Indre-et-Loire region of central France and I set about merrily writing what turned out to be the worst murder mystery ever written. It garnered absolutely no interest from publishers. The dollar swimming pool plan was in ruins. Suddenly we found ourselves with a crumbling old dwelling in the French countryside, a baby due in a few months and no means of income. So I turned to the one thing I always turn to in a crisis, the one thing that had always saved me in the past – I turned to beer, and the Braslou brewery was born.
While to this day I have never written down any numbers or worked out any costs, I formed a fairly basic plan to practise brewing for a few months on a little 25-litre Grainfather system. Then, when I thought my beers were good enough I bought a tired old 400 litre brewery system from a guy in North Wales, shipped it to France and installed it in one of our outbuildings. My beers weren’t good enough of course. They’re probably still not, but they are getting better. I started selling beer at the local markets and village fairs just over a year ago and after a year of calamity followed by catastrophe, almost always of my own making, I am now selling into the bars and restaurants in the area.
I’ve faced all the usual challenges that top brewers face:
Not knowing how to brew beer
Flooding the brewery
Acquiring a satanic dog whose sole purpose is to usher in my agonising demise
Flooding the brewery again
Surrounding my brewery in two metres of wet concrete before realising I’d left all my stock in there
Flooding the brewery once more
Making beer that tasted of bins
Flooding the brewery
Making beer that tasted of armpits
Shorting out the electricity by flooding the brewery
Making beer that my neighbour used as pesticide
And then I’ve had to face the additional challenges that come with doing it in France:
Everyone is French
I don’t speak very good French
Seriously, these guys are really French
French bureaucracy is insane. There are entire offices dedicated to telling you you’ve come to the wrong office.
But the biggest challenge I faced is that the French have an alien attitude to beer. Of course, there are strong beer traditions in some corners of France – the Alsace, for example – also the North of France as you get closer to the Belgian border. Meanwhile in large towns and cities, while the craft beer revolution is still a few years behind the UK it is catching up fast. However, in places like Braslou, our village in rural central France, away from the traditional beer hubs and fashionable cities, people might drink beer occasionally, but it isn’t given much thought.
Where we live, beer is categorised solely by colour, usually blond, amber and brown, and big industrial breweries still reign supreme. Categories within those colours – IPA, Stout, Shwarzbier, Bock, Helles etc – don’t exist. Beer is for an aperitif, a little glass before a meal, or to quench the thirst on a hot day. It’s seen as cheap and inferior to wine. In fact, it’s not really in the same category as wine at all. No one would consider drinking beer during a meal. It would be like eating chocolate cake with roast potatoes, or kissing your aunt.
The point is a lot of French people don’t expect much from beer and don’t understand why you would put effort into making a beer that tastes of anything interesting. This is changing of course. We’ve been here for just over three years and in that time we’ve seen craft beers proliferating from the cities into the small towns. You might see a bottle of Punk IPA in your local supermarket now. Also, the Belgian breweries are embracing the craft beer scene. One of the first IPAs I saw over here was from Leffe, and several more have followed. But in general still, especially amongst people over a certain age, beer equals Kronenburg. Therefore, my biggest challenge was and still is trying to change people’s perceptions about what beer can be.
I’ve had fantastic triumphs – I’ve made some great beers, I’ve sold out at farmers markets, hell, I’ve even beaten a giant rat to death with a spade – and then I’ve had comprehensive disasters in equal measure – I’ve made some undrinkable beers and had to rebuild my reputation from scratch, I’ve been sexually assaulted by a miniature horse, I’ve been chased out of my brewery by a swarm of bees. It helps to be British in these situations. The French are surprisingly fond of the British, but they assume we’re all fucking lunatics and are consequently quite forgiving.
Brewing consistent beer in a barn is difficult, so I try to embrace the fact that it’s not consistent. As long as I can make sure the beer tastes good I’m perfectly happy to have a beer that is more estery one month than the next because I couldn’t quite keep the temperature where I wanted it. I often use different hops to dry hop my IPA; whatever I’ve got around really. I am still perfecting my beers. I am still experimenting. I adore brewing, it’s witchcraft, and I hate this movement now to reduce beers to numbers. IBUs and SRM levels can all get to fuck. They’re sucking the fun out of it.
It’s for this reason I will never be a great brewer of course, because brewing is really a science and I am, I’d like to say, an artist but a closer fit would probably be ‘a bit of a tit’. And I’m ok with that. Decent, interesting local beer made with passion is what I’m aiming for.
It’s still touch and go as to whether the brewery will be a success. Any money I make either goes on my croissant addiction or straight back into improving the brewery. I’m still using what is essentially home brew equipment for my bottling and labelling and it is killing me. It takes days to get everything bottled and labelled. I need to upgrade to something more sophisticated, but that takes money, which means making a lot more beer with what I’ve got.
There is a demand here and I am certain it will grow. The people are endlessly forgiving and savour food and drink in a way the British don’t. It’s in their blood. Rough old farmers will hop off their tractors, bark something largely incomprehensible but probably insulting, flash a grin that reveals all manner of missed dentist appointments, swill my beer around in their mouths and then talk passionately about body and flavours of aniseed and red fruits, maltiness, bitterness, the crisp finish at the back of the mouth or indeed the lack of it.
One thing I have learned is they don’t like bitterness here. I went wrong for a long time making a bitter IPA that was probably ok but wasn’t to their tastes. But I think I have cracked it. I am developing a New England style IPA low on bitterness and high on tropical flavours using Alsacian and German hops that I believe will smash the market wide open. And then my friends, somebody start blowing up the emerald encrusted Unicorn, because it feels like France and beer is about to explode.
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