By Alexander Ustinov
Quietly but inevitably, France is becoming an increasingly relevant country for beer innovation. Amongst the 1300 breweries scattered across the land, Brasserie Popihn belongs to a group of internationally underestimated breweries because eyes are turned elsewhere. Nonetheless, the quality of their IPAs is on-par with the best names in the industry, reaching spectacular heights in ratings and currently leading the French craft beer market.
Tucked away in the Vaumont region, not far from Sens, Brasserie Popihn are located within a private estate in the middle of the French farmland. Equipped with state-of-the-art brewing kits, they are surrounded by forests, wildlife and freedom.
Why is Brasserie Popihn still a fringe player in the UK beer market? More precisely, why drink IPAs from France when such an incredible offering of UK beer is readily available and a consistent, regular supply chain for US beer is operating round-the-clock?
There is no better person to speak about it than Gunther Oltra – head brewer at Brasserie Popihn. He started the brewery with Arnaud Popihn back in 2016, going from homebrewing to full-scale brewing in one big jump. The details of this jump and what it meant from the French craft beer market as a whole – those formed the roadmap of our conversation in Paris this past winter.
Part I: Building a French Brewery
What attracted you to brewing specifically in France instead of somewhere else?
For me, it was a matter of opportunity. I am a hardcore Parisian – I lived in the city for 12 years – so moving to Vaumont was only made possible because of the new challenge it offered to me. Originally, I was working in computer science, but I needed to change my lifestyle and reinvent myself. I knew Arnaud Popihn from my days in Paris and I really really wanted to work in beer, to make beer.
So you started brewing a little before working with Popihn, correct?
Yes, but I was homebrewing and nobody was sampling my beer. I threw away so many batches! Even now, I am known as someone who throws away a lot of beer. If it does not match what I want, even deviating in the slightest, I put it to waste.
Did you have an interest in the French beer market beforehand?
Naturally! We are not at the outset of ‘craft’ anymore, which started here in 2012. I worked for Crazy Hops for 8 months where I noticed that there was a real interest for it. At that moment, it was a matter of opportunity as it was much easier to get ahead of the field in France than elsewhere. You still needed to have sufficient investment and being serious about brewing. When we started two years ago, we did not think that we would end up being well-known for brewing mostly IPAs.
If I understand correctly, you did not try to match an existing taste but tried to create a demand for this style?
Indeed! In the beginning, I was thinking that people should drink what I want to brew for them. Now it is a bit the inverse situation, where people are mostly expecting us to brew IPAs.
The French market was wide open when we started. Now, it starts to be increasingly competitive, even if we love our industry colleagues and many are our friends. If I had to start again today, I would probably have a core range as it builds up consistency and gives more visibility. Currently we brew with what we can find in the brewhouse: I wake up in the morning, take a stroll in the brewery and decide what yeast or hops we are going to use.
I know that you are a big fan of Cloudwater; this workflow sounds similar to their model. Until very recently they also avoided having a core range and brewed with what was available at a given time at the brewery, marketing each new batch as a new release and creating some amount of hype.
When we started, being hyped was the dream. It feels great to hear people expecting your new releases. When we started, people were looking for an IPA brewery to get hooked on. We became that brewery, but we are now enclosed in that model. I cannot have a beer in our stock room for more than two weeks, as people expect to always drink the latest releases. I crave the latest IPAs myself every time I come to Paris. For this reason, when I brew, I always think ‘What would I like to drink in a month?’
It is growing tremendously. We are very influenced by UK and US breweries, which is a far cry from four years ago, which was dominated by Sweden. There is an appetite for American-style beers and an abandonment of traditional Belgian styles. It used to be complicated to find a good Pale or IPA in bottle shops around 2012, now it is hard to find a good Tripel.
How do you answer these trends with your own practice?
I simply carry on. I have always seen myself as an interpreter, not an author. I know how to brew, how to taste a beer and figure out how it is made but I have very few novel ideas. Even in my homebrewing days, I used to look at everyone attempting the craziest styles and tell them ‘Master the basics and then develop from there’. I truly wanted to specialise in something, but people end up recognising you for that speciality only. I want to brew sours so I can be recognised for something else.
Do you think that French taste will evolve in that direction, towards more sours?
Yes, I am convinced that it will. The demand is not there yet but we want to help creating it, maybe even open a bar dedicated to sour beer.
That is great to hear! I hope that the new generation of brewers will follow suit. Is France an attractive market for new breweries?
Less and less. As opposed to English-speaking countries where there is a genuine beer drinking culture, France is not there in terms of drinking habits. It does not stop the ratio of breweries per head in France from being quite absurd – it is more than Belgium! Investing 1.5 million in a brewery in the current context is not necessarily the best idea if the focus is to answer the local demand. There is an abundance of easily accessible international beer which means that the focus must be on quality. If you have big-name brewers starting a new project, then it might work but a being newcomer with a £100k kit is becoming quite dangerous. In the end the brewer holds the brand together and I am fine with that.
Part II: Looking at the World and Building the Future
In your opinion, which French brewers influence the market the most right now?
I would say there are two distinct schools. The ‘Old School’ would be breweries that opened between 2005 and 2012 such as Garrigues, La Pleine Lune, Parisis. They are well developed, make a good living and do not need to expand further. For example, Gwen from Garrigues is, for me, the best brewer in the country for spontaneous fermentation and barrel ageing.
Then you have the ‘New School’ represented by Piggy Brewing, Hoppy Road or Gallia. These are the most influential ones on the market right now but breweries like Les Brasseurs du Grand Paris are going through an impressive renewal phase (their Imperial Brown has been phenomenal). Anthony Baraff represents the perfect link between the two schools. What they brewed since 2012 allows me to sell what I do today.
That should allow us to understand your taste better. What about your cultural influences? Why a Fibonacci sequence as a logo?
There is no real explanation! All label photos are Arnaud’s photographic work. We were looking at options for our logo and found that the Fibonacci sequence formed the letter ‘P’. It represents our endless search for excellence: we control our temperatures, we work with osmosis, isobarometric measures and yeast strains we know well. We want complete control over the product.
Which international breweries and practices inspire you the most?
For IPAs, it will be Cloudwater for the UK, Trilium and Tree House for the US. That being said, I am taking more interest in sour beers recently. There is a trend of American breweries producing highly drinkable sours that are less ‘barnyard’, for example Black Project.
Is there a brewery with whom you would love to collaborate? If yes, which aspect of their process would you like to learn?
Cantillon! It’s the dream. At some point I will go there for a week or two to see how they do their decoctions. I want to learn more about lambics or old lagering techniques. I am super modern in my attitude but I want to come back to the source and understand how to brew great beer with minimal equipment.
Is this what is missing in the French scene? What would you like to see brewers do more?
I think that the scene is lacking breweries that get closer to Belgian traditions. French brewers are already getting a hang of the styles developed in bigger craft beer countries. The next step is a ‘back to basics’ movement. For this reason, Gwen from Garrigues brings a real added value to the scene.
Would you like to collaborate with him?
Yes, completely! We will make some sours together. I am not interested in Biere de Garde. It is either Lambic or IPA.
I heard that you are making a little shed for sours?
Little shed? 150m²! That is my secret project – we will produce some sours this year for a release in 2021. It is yet another challenge to myself. We have a 20hL coolship where we will brew some voluntarily infected beer. No wild yeasts, it will be a blend of Brettanomyces, lactobacillus and saccharomyces. We will also produce some Solera which will give some opportunities for blending. I think this is where there is some business to make – in blending. Blending represents the taste of the brewer.
Last question: favourite beer recently?
‘La Pas Piquée des Vers’ from Brasserie des Garrigues.
Find the latest Brasserie Popihn releases in the online bottleshop here