From France to Fraunces

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 1913. 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 quotation is from Nicolas Stoskopf’s Quitter l’Alsace pour faire fortune: le cas des entrepreneurs du XIXe siècle, Diasporas Histoire et sociétés, 2006, pp. 43-55.

He studied the dispersion in France through the 1800s of Alsatian entrepreneurs, including brewers. He makes the interesting point that two-thirds of the emigrant brewers left their home province before 1870.

There is lore in brewing circles that the Prussian victory of 1870 caused an exodus of Alsace brewers to the rest of France. Evidently it is part of a larger story.

The 1870 focus may have arisen since brewing had industrialized in eastern France to a much greater degree than in the north.

So that from 1870 brewers departing Alsace-Lorraine had technical skills of note, especially to produce bottom-fermented, chilled lager.

Stoskopf notes that most of the early emigrants, to place like Bordeaux, Lyon, and Nérac (in the Southwest) operated on an artisan scale – did not make the transition to  industrial brewing.*

Yet as he also observes, some did including Georges in Lyon and Graff in Rennes. Other names familiar to brewing historians are mentioned, Veltins in particular.

He does not mention the main implantation in Nérac, Laubenheimer, an early brewing migrant from Alsace. The date of his arrival varies in accounts, 1828 is often stated, e.g. here.

Laubenheimer and diaspora helped spread brewing in regions where it was unknown or only minimally represented earlier.

Laubenheimer and successors were among those able to negotiate the technological changes through and after the 19th century.

Their large plant in Nérac endured until 1940 and possibly 1957, accounts available to me vary. Today, a single building survives, which had served as administrative offices.

The brewery was sophisticated enough that even after World War I it participated in export markets. This explains the appearance of “1938 Laubenheimer” in a 1940 menu of the famed Fraunces Tavern in New York:


The devastation of the Great War did not reach remote areas like the Southwest. This had to assist Laubenheimer’s prospects during the interwar period.

Still, why would Fraunces, with origins before the American Revolution, carry such a beer? It clearly fetched a high price, too. Ostensibly there were more obvious candidates for good beer, in Germany, the Czech lands, nay Alsace-Lorraine.

Why look to a small town in the French Gascon not ever famed for beer? It’s hard to know. Maybe a French waiter or the sommelier at Fraunces was from the area.

Or maybe with nothing coming in from Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia in the late Thirties American importers looked to France for good beer.

Why the “1938”, as beers weren’t typically vintage-dated then? In April 1940 Europe had been at war for half a year. The British Navy imposed an Atlantic blockade on trade with Europe, and U.S. domestic measures were adopted to stop trade with Axis countries.

With European beer supplies drying up, older stocks on hand were likely showcased, or perhaps newly obtained from a distributor’s languishing stock.

The appending of “1938” to the beer’s name probably was to show patrons the beer was pre-embargo stock, and perhaps as well to suggest a vintage quality, in the way for wine (spurious for most beer, but to use our vernacular, they might have turned a negative into a positive).

The Heineken was probably from the Dutch East Indies where Heineken had a brewery. The Nazis did not overrun the Netherlands until May 1940 but I doubt it was exporting beer to the U.S. during the Phony War.

In the Thirties Laubenheimer was known for blonde and brown lagers, but were they still good after two years in bottle? Perhaps so in those Continental days of high hopping and likely all-malt for good pilsener.

Who knows what would have happened had World War II never occurred. Laubenheimer might have grown its U.S. business, and likely would have survived for decades after 1950, possibly even exist today.

Note re image: Menu extract is from the archives of the superb menu collection of Johnson and Wales University, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Some or all such artisan brewers likely were making top-fermented beer (ale), as continued in the French North for much of the 19th century. However, I have not investigated this level of detail.