The annual New Year jaunt was to Nice last time round, in search of some Mediterranean sunshine and arty culture but not really for beer. Which of course is not to say some beer didn't cross my path during my week on the Côte d'Azur.
Nice itself has one brewery, La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice, based in an unassuming shop unit not far from the centre of town. There's no tap room but it does open for a few hours each day for off sales, as long as you don't mind interrupting the labelling or packing work going on. I came away with the three core beers plus two seasonals.
I began working through them with Blùna, a witbier. There was lots of sediment in the bottle and lots of fizz as it poured, the fine white mousse on top stayed for the duration of drinking it -- possibly because of the oatmeal listed among the ingredients. First impressions of smelling and tasting were of something not quite right: a strong lactic quality, exactly like spoiled milk. It needs a few minutes for the coriander herb flavour to start taking the edge off this but it never quite dispels the unpleasantness, and neither do the more subtle sparks of black pepper and lemon juice. I don't know whether it's a production flaw or just a bad recipe, but I was not off to a good start.
To follow, a 5% ABV blonde called Zytha, brewed using grains of paradise and, oddly, chickpeas. The aroma is a lovely waft of exotic fruit, all mango and passionfruit, and that's the main element of the flavour too, with just a slight incense spicing from the grains. The body is a little thin for the strength, though a mineral softness helps it avoid outright wateriness. It would be nice to know what the hops are but I'm guessing some sort of tropical power combo involving Mosaic, Nelson or Equinox: it's very much that sort of New-World-inspired juicy pale ale rather than anything like your typical French blonde, and so much the better for that.
No hop ambiguity in the third member of the brewery's core range: Hopstock is described as both an ambrée and a Cascade pale ale. It's certainly amber -- a hazy dark red colour. A spiced toffee aroma promises hops but keeps them on the down-low. The texture is heavy and chewy, accentuated by a flavour that's big on chocolate and caramel. There's a floral rosewater fruitiness but that's as far as the Cascade goes: you get no real bitterness, just a sharp metallic tang on the end which may be more down to the yeast floaters than anything else. It's definitely a bit rough-and-ready, in need of a polish.
I brought the specials home with me and first out was Cougourdoun, the brewery's take on a pumpkin beer, utilising courge de Nice ("winter squash" in English, apparently) plus ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. It's the last of these which really leaps out of the murky red-brown beer on tasting, though the aroma is sweeter and fruitier, suggesting pumpkin flesh to me. It's quite refreshing to find nutmeg and cinnamon as mere background players in a beer like this. The cloves are bright and fresh and chewy, imparting all their oiliness which goes some way to offset an irritating thinness in a beer which should feel bigger at 5.5% ABV. Enough fruity sweetness comes through to create a lovely apple pie effect. Sure, it suffers from the usual one-dimensionality of these autumn spiced ales but I found it enjoyable drinking nonetheless.
Last up from Brasserie Artisanale de Nice is Calèna, their Christmas seasonal. This is a chocolate milk stout, once again incorporating cinnamon and ginger, plus added clementine zest. The aroma shows the spices to a certain extent plus a little bit of cacao bitterness. It tastes clean with a touch of chocolate and no more than a dusting of spice. There's a milky texture and a creamy residue is left on the palate after swallowing. While a sharper sweetness is present I could not say whether this is the cinnamon or the fruit: my guess is that any clementine influence has been buried completely. Overall it's another well-balanced and drinkable beer, despite the complexity of the recipe. The brewer has shown great restraint in both the addition of the flavourings and keeping the ABV down at a cool 5.5% when there must have been a temptation to ramp it up.
Not far from the brewery there's a tiny off licence called Brune Rousse Houblon with an excellent selection of French and international beers. A few very interesting rarities from Canada's Dieu du Ciel! caught my eye but I figured that they probably wouldn't have been in the best shape so left them in favour of an all-French selection.
Microbrasserie Lou Soulèu is based around the coast in Antibes. The first one I tried from them was a blonde ale called Pretty Nice. It pours very murky with a desultory head and tastes quite dirty too, rather like a homebrewish unfiltered pils. Saaz and Perle are listed on the label so at least some of the lagerlike quality must be down to them. There's a slight peachiness as well which could be the American contingent, Willamette, at work. I was expecting Franco-Belgian hot esters as well but they're mercifully absent. Overall, a rough and ready sort of beer. A bit of cleaning up would do it the power of good.
Its companion is an "American IPA" called Riviera Connection. A faint puff of gas as the cap came off immediately told me that this was one for the carbonation dodgers, and sure enough almost no head forms on pouring. The body is a clear amber and it doesn't smell of much due in part, I'd say, to the lack of gas pushing out the aroma. The flavour is interesting: a bone-dry hop acidity, almost acrid but not quite. Beside this there's the lightly fruited toffee more usually found in amber ale, a wisp of smoke and crunch of fresh cabbage. This would be superb if it wasn't for the flatness making it seem tired and stale, which it isn't. A craft work in progress, I think.
Moving out to other regions, there's a more pleasing fizz and pale colour about St Glinglin Houblon by Brasserie Artesienne, though a lot of yeasty grit is visible in the bottle awaiting the unwary pourer. It smells of fresh bitter citrus, like fine French lemonade. There's lots of cheery lemon sherbet sweets in the flavour, plus sparks of herb and spice and a nicely oily hop-resin finish. Everything about it is bright and fresh and clean, showing how important local is if you're going to insist on making this sort of hop-forward ale. The bottle had travelled almost the full length of France but you get the idea. 6% ABV lends it a certain robustness but it's not heavy or any way hot. A convincing west coaster from Northern France.
The St Rieul brewery is in Picardy and its Grand Cru is a 9% ABV tripel. It looks innocent enough: the cloudy orange colour of many a good spicy tripel, but the flavour is a blaring mess, at once overly sweet, jarringly bitter and hot hot hot. There's a sickly blast of peach nectar and lurid mixed-fruit breakfast juice hitched to a biting edge of orange and lemon pith, and though you might expect some kind of citrus harmony from this it doesn't balance at all. It finishes on an acrid burnt plastic note which does complement the alcoholic vapours but not in a good way. This is very hard drinking and something of a penance to get through.
Brasserie Saint Germain is further north again, near Lille, and makes beers under the Page 24 brand. Page 24 Stout is badged as being Irish-style though is only 3.9% ABV. It was a bugger to pour, piling up masses of tan-coloured foam and refusing to settle down. When I finally got my face near it I got a fairly intensely dry burnt aroma followed by an extremely burnt flavour. This tastes of charcoal, like it has been thoroughly incinerated. I swear there's even dry charred flakes of ash in the texture. It's a difficult beer to drink, unbalanced and unrelenting, and not what any stout -- Irish, French or otherwise -- should be about.
So I was wary when I approached Page 24 IPA. This one wasn't keen on forming a head at all and took a bit of coaxing to raise some foam. It looks pretty in the glass, though: the classic bright copper of an American-style IPA. The label's promise of aromatic hops isn't fronting: a sniff delivers juicy mango and a sharper resin, the sort of smell that would be perfectly at home in a whopper double IPA and is an extra bonus at just 4.9% ABV here. It's not as much of a sensation on tasting, though it is very nice. Instead of tropical fruit there's more of a spicy gunpowder flavour, tailing off to orangey sherbet. This effect is heightened by that low carbonation and I really felt that it did need a bit more fizz to bring the hop flavours to life. There are some lovely thirst-quenching tannins too, but the flatness causes an unsettling lemon tea effect. I like lemon tea but I don't necessarily want to be reminded of that by my IPA. Something of a curate's egg, this, but there's definitely potential for greatness.
Cuvée d'Oscar, to finish,is short on branding information, only that it's brewed at Proef in Belgium for someone called Craig Allan, and I can see his signature on the oil-painting label artwork. The tech specs are more forthcoming and we're told it's a 7.5% ABV dark wheat beer, dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin. Nothing wheaty about the lacklustre head, however, which is just as well as I only had a small glass to hand. It's a murky brown colour and smells fruity and spicy, all sherbet and grapefruit zest. The flavour blends a slightly astringent citric bitterness with softer caramel from the dark malts for a sort of chocolate candybar studded with dried orange peel effect. Unusual, but very interesting. It's rare for a dark wheat beer to hold my attention for any length of time though that may be because nobody's thought of dumping a load of Nelson into one before. I approve.
As well as wandering around Nice, Antibes and Cannes, there was also a side-trip to Monaco, which actually has a brewery you can drink in! My report on that follows next.