Drinking to The Goddess

France's Ninkasi brews heavenly beers

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Naming your brewery after the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer is a bold move, but in the case of France’s Ninkasi, doesn’t seem like an over-reach. Ninkasi was one of the first craft breweries in France when it was founded more than 20 years ago, but it now owns a chain of bars across Lyon and the surrounding area, where the brand is almost as well known for its live music as for its beers. Despite its longevity though, and its deep love of Belgian brewing techniques, Ninkasi is as relevant and exciting as ever.

Back in the late 90s, the craft beer revolution hadn’t merely failed to catch on in France – the country seemed to be actively avoiding it. This wasn’t just, as one might expect, because everyone was too busy drinking excellent wine. The influence of Belgium, particularly in the north of the country, had left beer lovers with a mistrust of overt hop bitterness and a love of big, boozy, yeasty ales. 

This certainly wasn’t the case for the brewery’s co-founders though, who, having recently graduated decided to spend some time in America to gain some professional and life experience. Here, they were curious to find tiny breweries and pubs brewing their own bitter ales, and even more surprised that they were immensely popular. Taking bar jobs to raise some traveling cash, they quickly became hooked on both the beers and the culture that surrounded them, and set out to do the seemingly impossible: to bring craft beer to the notoriously traditional French.

“They managed to get some funds from family friends to start a brewery in a part of Lyon that was pretty rough, to be honest – nothing like it is now,” says export manager Lysanne Deroches. “It was a warehouse, right in front of the football stadium, which is now used for rugby. 

“The beer industry here was locked up with big companies and big brands, so they created this brewpub where they could sell their beer directly. That first year was still really tough though and they might not have made it, had it not been for the 1998 World Cup. Because the brewpub was within the area around the stadium designated for supporters, business took off and their name began to spread. It was all good after that, and Ninkasi has just kept growing.”

When the brewery itself moved to a new, larger location around 30 minutes outside Lyon, the owners decided to convert the existing space into a venue for local musicians and larger acts to perform, retaining the original taproom as a bar. As Lysanne explains, music had always been part of Ninkasi’s DNA.

“We’re all huge music fans, and one of the founders in particular had started out wanting to be a producer, so it was great for us to be able to turn the old brewery into a 700-capacity concert hall. We have everyone from tiny local bands to artists like Muse and Moby performing there. Our 17 bars in and around Lyon also frequently host live music – it’s a very important part of our brand identity.”

The new brewery is in a beautiful old textile mill in a former industrial town, on a river whose very pure, soft water was perfect for making fine white silk. These same qualities make the local water perfect for brewing pilsners, unlike Lyon’s supply. The move also gave Ninkasi vastly more space, allowing it to ramp up production and even start distilling its own spirits, including a malt whisky, the first 1000 bottles of which have just gone on sale. 

The beers themselves still include Ninkasi’s inaugural brew – an American-style pale ale – inspired by those early travels in the states. Another of its popular core beers is a more conventional (in traditional French terms) Belgian-style tripel; one of Ninkasi’s two master brewers – a veteran of 20 years – trained in Belgium, and is responsible for the tripel, as well as a blanche wheat beer and a blonde.

“Compared to other craft brewers I think we work with the yeast and malt a lot, where most are focused on hops. That’s a combination of the Belgian influence and the fact that French drinkers didn’t enjoy hops when we started out,” says Lysanne.

“It’s a constant balance though, and we always talk about how much we should follow the market trends. We obviously feel pressure to do stuff with hops, because that’s the game just now. Hops everywhere. One way we’ve tackled that is to grow more locally; people weren’t used to big, bitter New World hops, so we made our IPA using more subtle French hops. That’s developed as we’ve started to work with the smaller local hop growers that have sprung up around us. It ties in with the policy of localism that we have in the restaurants, and works well for us.”

As well as its core beers, Nikasi also brews a ‘Discovery’ range of more challenging, experimental beers, and a ‘Grand Cru’ range of strong, wine-inspired beers designed to be shared over a meal. Factor in the monthly seasonals brewed for the Ninkasi bars and it’s a jam-packed brewing schedule.

“We’re still innovating,” concludes Lysanne. “We want to try ancient recipes like gruit, beers with flowers or local spices. We believe that it’s going to be a big thing in the next few years. Our master brewer will also be happier going deeper into those Belgian styles, with wild fermentation and mixed fermentation. Something completely different from the double dry-hopped IPA everyone else in the world seems to be chasing. That’s how we’ll innovate while staying true to our roots.”

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