As in the case of North America, British “beerways” had a marked impact in France in the 19th century. In France, the prestige of British beer continued into the 20th century.
In the mid-1970s when beer author Michael Jackson (1942-2007) began writing, he stated English beer was “chic” in Paris. In truth, it has been so in parts of France for 200 years and more.
In the 1840s in the Channel port of Boulogne-sur-Mer on the northern coast, English and Irish beers were big sellers. This arose partly due to Boulogne being a British resort, frequented by an upper class and other prosperous tourists. Many passed through, to Paris or warmer parts south, but some stayed for “the season”.
Nearby Le Touquet had a similar scene, of even higher social rank, in fact.
A cottage industry sprang up in these parts of British-run businesses to supply Anglophones with home-style needs: inns and pubs, bakeries, florists, beer “depots”, insurers, bird-stuffers, even undertakers.
An English-owned hotel and bar, the Royal Oak, had a good run in different parts in Boulogne in the mid-1800s. Beers it offered are listed in this 1846 guidebook, a “Tableau” to help visitors. Turn the page and one sees a similar ad from an indubitably English Mr. Stubss (sic), with his beers listed. Further examples are strewn through the volume. The famed Bass East India Pale Ale, from Burton-on-Trent, is mentioned, among other brands of repute.
At least in Boulogne, somewhat distant from “metropole”, stout, porter, and strong ale hadn’t yet been eclipsed by the rising star at home, pale ale. Porter and stout were likely the major draw at Royal Oak since they are listed first.
Lane & Co. of Southgate, Cork supplied such brews, both draught and bottled. Reid’s stout was also offered, and bottled Guinness. Lane, choc-a-bloc to the more famous Beamish & Crawford brewery, was much smaller. When the Victorian beer writer Alfred Barnard was in Cork to tour its breweries he visited Beamish & Crawford only.
Still, Lane’s beers must have been good to fetch top billing over the Channel. They were apparently the highest-priced in the list, in fact.
In 1883, Lane’s beers were exhibited at the Cork Industrial Exhibition. Its porter was described as “full, sweet, clean”, and the stouts, as bitter and durable although one was thought to contain preservative. See details at p. 344, here. The comments on the Beamish beers are also interesting: the notes on its single stout can be applied to many craft stouts today.
(The taste of beer changes much less than we think, but it’s a separate topic).
The barrels’ journey to the French coast from Cork harbour, in those pre-pasteurization days, probably didn’t harm the beer too much. The North Atlantic climate is equable from a beer standpoint, and turnover was likely such that patrons could expect top quality in Boulogne’s British quarter.
Boulogne, which we have visited, was bombed by the Germans and British during WW II, and the Lower Town near its harbour was considerably rebuilt. The Upper Town survived much better, not just due to its heavy stone construction but its lack of military significance.
All in all, a charming place to wander the streets, tour the markets, and sample super-fresh North Atlantic seafood. Fishing is still important and well-represented in the local restaurants.
Boulogne, being in far north of France, has a brewing heritage of its own, connected to that of nearby Belgium. In pre-craft beer days the last local brewery was Facon, lasting into the 1980s. Facon made the peach-coloured Saint Léonard, a Bière de Garde.
The brewery closed before I got there but the brand was later made elsewhere in France, and carried for years by our LCBO in Toronto. Today, craft brewing has sprouted in Pas-de-Calais and Flandre. And there are lots of imports, British and other, in the larger supermarkets, and wine stores.
The Royal Oak, if it still existed, would have a luxury of choice.
The Canadian Fifth Infantry fought in the area in 1944, a contribution recalled by a local memorial. There is lots to think about when strolling in Boulogne, including the many parallels to Quebec – in architecture, surnames, some food. Mais oui.
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