From France to Fraunce

Or la consommation de bière, initialement limitée au Nord et à l’Est de la France, s’est « nationalisée » au XIXe siècle, permettant l’augmentation de la production de 2,8 millions d’hectolitres en 1815 à 7,4 millions en 1879, malgré la perte de l’Alsace-Lorraine, et à 15 millions en 191312. Les brasseurs alsaciens ont largement participé à cette expansion par leur dispersion sur le territoire français, acquise aux deux tiers avant même 1870. On les signale à Bordeaux et à Pau en 1806, à Nérac en 1808, à Beaune en 1812, à Carcassonne en 1815, à Melun en 1816 et dans beaucoup d’autres villes. A Lyon, par exemple, la fameuse brasserie Georges avec sa salle de plus de 700 m2 fut construite par Georges Hoffherr en 1836 et exploitée au cours des temps par les familles alliées Umdenstock et Rinck ; à Chamalières, la brasserie Kuhn accueillit en 1871 Pasteur qui y mit au point la méthode de la pasteurisation consignée dans les Essais sur la bière publiés en 1876 ; à Rennes, la famille Graff exploita la brasserie de la ville pendant plusieurs générations.

The above quotation is from: Nicolas Stoskopf. Quitter l’Alsace pour faire fortune : le cas des entrepreneurs du XIXe siècle. Diasporas Histoire et sociétés, 2006, pp. 43-55.

The paper studies the dispersion into France in the 19th century of entrepreneurs from Alsace including brewers. Stoskopf makes the interesting point (among many) that 2/3rds of these emigrant brewers left their home province before 1870.

Thus, (me talking here) the lore that the Prussian victory of 1870 cause a mass exodus of Alsatian brewers to the rest of France and beyond is only partly true, and really only minimally so for France itself. The perception may have arisen since, by 1870, brewing had industrialized itself in the east, to a much greater degree than in the north at that time. So that, post-1870 emigrant brewers brought a greater degree of technical skill, notably in the emerging, refrigerated bottom-fermentation (lager) field, than the first wave.

The scale of production associated with that may have led observers to accord greater importance to post-Franco-Prussian War emigration than, viewing the picture as a whole, is warranted.

Indeed Stoskopf notes that most of the early emigrants – to place like Bordeaux, Lyon, Nérac (in the southwest, part of Lot-et-Garonne) founded artisan businesses that did not make the transition to the new industrial brewing era. Yet, he notes that some did, including Georges in Lyon or Graff in Rennes. Other names familiar to brewing historians are mentioned, the Veltins family in particular.

While he mentions implantation to Nérac, he does not mention the main brewery. It was Laubenheimer; the founder of that name came from Alsace. The dates of arrival vary, 1828 is stated in a number of sources as well, see e.g. here.

Still, he was an early arrival, who with his diaspora helped spread brewing through regions where it was unknown, or only minimally represented, in the 1700s.

Laubenheimer and heirs were thus of those able to negotiate the technological changes into the late 19th century and after. They built a large plant in Nérac that endured until 1940 or 1957 (accounts vary).  Therefore, what probably originated as primitive top-fermentation brewing became a sophisticated European lager plant.

Today, only the building that served as the administrative office survives, as seen here:

Laubenheimer Brewery was sophisticated enough that even after WW I it had some presence in export, in fact anglophone markets. Hence the appearance of a “1938 Laubenheimer” on a 1940 menu of famed Fraunces Tavern in New York:

The devastation of WW I in the north and east did not visit remote areas like the southwest. This may have given Laubenheimer’s a boost when competing in the inter-war era.

Still, why would Fraunces, a pre-revolutionary, Anglo-American tavern that operates to this day, carry such a beer? At an obviously high price, too. There were many renowned choices to select, from Germany, the Czech lands, from Alsace if need be: why look to a small town in the old Gascon country, not ever famed for brewing although Laubeheimer’s beer was no doubt quite sound by then?

It’s hard to know. Maybe the sommelier at Fraunces was from Lot-et-Garonne, or … there must have been a connection of some kind that explained it. Maybe it’s as simple as, with nothing coming in from Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia, from 1938 American importers looked to France for supply. Still, there were many names better known than Laubenheimer in that year, and the war hadn’t started yet.

And why the prefix “1938”? Beers weren’t typically vintage-dated then.

In April 1940, Europe had been at war for half a year. America had not yet joined. Imports were being shut down, but Fraunces may have had older stocks in the cellar. The Heineken mentioned was probably from the Dutch East Indies (Heineken had a business there), even though the Nazis took until May that year to overrun Holland. All this resulted from various blockades, especially Britain’s, and domestic war measures.

One way or another, wartime or eve-of-war conditions probably explained the choice of a regional French beer like this.

Anyway, from a New York standpoint, to offer a prewar import was probably a coup, albeit with price to match.

By this period, Laubenheimer was known for its blonde and brown lagers, but were they good after a couple of years in the bottle? Perhaps, those were the days of reasonably high hopping and probably all-malt.

But good or bad, those splits made a statement on the table, evoking the idea of the Champagne split for high-toned or status-conscious Manhattanites. Here is what it looked like:

Who knows what would have happened had WW II never occurred. Laubenheimer might have grown its U.S. franchise. “Lauby’s” might be as ubiquitous today as Heineken, or even have replaced it.

I can taste Heineken anytime, it is available across the counter at virtually every bar in Toronto. I can’t taste Laubenheimer.

Or, maybe I can, via the lens of history and mellow reflection. Maybe you can, too.


Note re images: The first image was sourced from a French bottle cap collection site, here. The menu extract is from the digital archives of the superb menu collection of Johnson and Wales University, here. The third image was sourced from Ebay France, here. The last was sourced from this French historical site, here. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.