British Beer in Boulogne, 1850

As we have seen from American ales and porters of the 1800s, English styles had an outsize influence albeit modifications occurred. An odd situation resulted, yet frequently seen in former colonies or fiefs, where as late as 1890 much ale and porter were hopped and stored in a way that had virtually disappeared in Britain.

As well, the Americans were still using all-malt then – for pale ale, strong ale, stout – while British breweries were quickly turning to sugar or another adjunct to eke out the malt.

Another country where British beer had a long history either directly, through imports, or by influencing local brewing was France. In the 1970s when Michael Jackson started writing about beer, he explained that English beer was chic in Paris. In truth it has been so, in much of France, for 200 years and more.

Being inland and a great French and international city Paris was such that British beer, while making a mark, tended to get lost among the plethora of wines and French beers. However, in the 1840s in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the western coast, English and Irish beers were big sellers and stood out.

This is partly because Boulogne was an English resort, frequented by upper class and other prosperous tourists. Many were passing through but some stayed for the season. A cottage industry sprang up in Boulogne of English-run and staffed businesses to supply Anglo needs originating at home. There were hotels and taverns, bakeries, florists, beer “depots”,  insurers, bird-stuffers, even undertakers – all the comforts of home.

An English-run hotel and bar, the Royal Oak, had a good run in different locations in town in the mid-1800s. You can view the beers it offered in this 1846 guidebook, a “Tableau” to help visitors. Turn the page and you will see a similar advert from the indubitably English Mr. Stubss (sic) with his beers listed. Yet further examples are strewn through the book. Bass East India Pale Ale is mentioned, among others.

As Boulogne was relatively far from England U.K. trends were slower to appear. Therefore, stout, porter and strong ale hadn’t yet been eclipsed by the rising star at home, pale ale. Porter and stout were surely the major draw at the Royal Oak since they are listed first, indeed India pale ale appears in the bottom half of the listing. Lane & Co. of Southgate, Cork supplied most of the draught and bottled porter and stout. Reid’s stout was offered, and bottled Guinness, but the way the ad is laid out suggests that Lane’s offerings were primary.

Lane & Co., while choc-a-bloc with the more famous Beamish & Crawford, were much smaller. When the pioneering Victorian beer writer Alfred Barnard was in Cork to take details of its beer productions, he visited Beamish & Crawford only. Still, Lane’s beers must have been good, to fetch such an export market. Cork’s harbour facilitated the trade, as for its corned beef which I’ve discussed earlier.

It may seem unlikely that decent taste notes of Lane’s beers survive, but they do. In 1883 the beers were exhibited at the Cork Industrial Exhibition. The judges were rather more explicit on their qualities than often appeared in such commercially-sensitive affairs. The porter was described as “full, sweet, clean”, and the stouts as bitter and durable although one was thought to contain preservative. You can see the details at pp. 344, see here. The comments on Beamish’s beers are interesting, too, the description of its single stout applies to a “t” for many craft stouts I know.

The journey over to the French coast probably didn’t hurt the beer too much. The North Atlantic climate is equable from a beer standpoint, and turnover must have been such that U.K. visitors could expect top quality in the burgh of Boulogne. Indeed they would have demanded nothing less.

Boulogne is the second French centre I ever visited, the first was Calais (1980s, for both). Both were reached then over water, by ferry. Boulogne unfortunately was bombed by the Germans in 1944 and hence the Lower Town features considerable modern reconstruction, but the Upper Town survived better. All in all, a charming place to walk around, visit the markets, and sample seafood. The fishing industry is still important and the produce is well-represented in the local restos.

Boulogne, being in the French north country, has a brewing heritage of its own. In the pre-craft days its last brewery was Facon, into the 1980s at least. Facon made the peach-coloured Saint Léonard, a bière de garde. Our LCBO carried it for years. The brewery closed before I got there but the brand was later made elsewhere in the north, and maybe still. Today craft brewing has probably created new microbreweries in or around the city.

The Canadian Fifth Infantry fought there in 1944, and its contributions are recalled in at least one local memorial. There is lots to think about when strolling in Boulogne-sur-Mer, including the many parallels to Quebec Province – in architecture, surnames, some food, even the way of talking. Ben oui.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the Brewery History Society site, here.  All intellectual property in or to the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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