As with its food, Brittany has a wide range of distinctive local drinks that you really should try during any visit to this beautiful part of France. The Bretons are a most hospitable people and whether you spend an evening in a small local bar or enjoy a few drinks after a lazy dinner at a seaside restaurant, you will be sure to enjoy a convivial experience with good opportunities to explore the many wonderful local beverages.
The wines of Brittany, such as Muscadet, are covered in an earlier post, so, I will not cover them again here.
Almost half of all the cider made in France is produced here in Brittany, a region that has a long association with apples and cider making. Perhaps not as well-known as Norman cider outside France but it was only in the wave of post-revolutionary changes that cider was legally allowed to be exported from Brittany. Almost all the published accounts of 19th century travellers to the region make a point of noting the Breton affinity for cider. This historical attachment to cider is as much a question of geography as of taste. Apples grow well in this climate and, unlike hops, were widely cultivated; most farms maintained a modest apple orchard to provide the family with fruit and drink throughout the year.
Despite the rural exodus and changes in habits and tastes over the last century or so, hundreds of different varieties of apples still flourish across Brittany. Those cultivated specifically for cider making are tended in an ideal climate for apples and grow well in the rich Breton soil. While domestic production of cider is nowhere near as widespread as it once was, the principles that applied to home-made cider in years gone by are still upheld by those farms that produce cider commercially today. The cider here is made using only freshly pressed apples with no additives, preservatives or concentrates at all. This passionate attention to terrain and tradition, key to the French concept of terroir, produces cider with a quite distinct character; enjoying a light sparkle and a deep, rich flavour with the subtle aromas of fruits and flowers.
Rich in anti-oxidants, vitamins and mineral salts, the local ciders that you are likely to find in the bars and restaurants here are characterised by their slightly sharp but fruity taste; the producers work hard to create a drink with the optimum balance between bitter, acidic and sweet flavours and you will find colours that can range from pale gold to rich tawny brown.
Unfortunately, the local industry has seen a massive decline in output over the last five years, probably linked to the rise in popularity of artisanal beers but cider remains a very popular drink here. There are many great tasting local ciders to tempt you but do try a bottle of traditional or farm cider while you are in Brittany; you will see it noted as cidre fermier on the menu and bottle. The cidre fermier designation can only be used by ciders made exclusively from apples grown on that producer’s farm.
There are a few other differences that might particularly strike visitors from North America or the UK about the cider here. Cider is classed more subtly than simply dry or sweet. A dry cider (Brut) contains little sugar and therefore contains the most alcohol by volume, typically between 4 to 7 per cent, and its slightly bitter taste makes it a good accompaniment to seafood dishes; semi-dry (Demi-Brut) is fairly sparkling with an alcoholic volume of around 3.5 to 5 per cent and popularly drunk, it also goes well with chicken; sweet cider (Doux) contains the least amount of alcohol, less than 3 per cent by volume, and is a sparkling, sweet and fruity drink well suited to complement crêpes or desserts.
Sometimes, you will see a cider described as ‘bouché’ on a menu, if you order this then you can expect a bottle that is firmly blocked with a strong cork and securing metal wire. Typically, this will be a cider that was bottled into a champagne-style bottle soon after its first fermentation and corked. The little residual sugar in the cider allows a secondary fermentation to take place within the bottle. More often than not, you will receive your glass of cider served at your table in a terracotta or china bowl akin to a broad tea cup known as a bolée. This is the traditional way of drinking cider in Brittany and harks back to the days when glass was uncommon and expensive in the countryside.
While production levels might have dipped in recent years, connoisseurs point out that Breton cider has continuously improved in quality over the last decade, with some cider runs coming together like a rare champagne for certain vintages. Of particular note is the Cidrerie Nicol’s Royal Guillevic, the only cider in France to wear the coveted Red Label. The Label Rouge is only awarded to those products that consistently deliver an item that consumers can expect to have a higher level of quality compared to similar products. On the other side of Brittany, the Domaine de Kerveguen produce organic ciders that grace the cellars of the Elysée Palace and are highly praised by Michelin starred chefs and celebrities.
Apples are the very essence of Pommeau de Bretagne, an alcoholic drink, about 17 per cent by volume, which enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée granting Brittany’s producers a little protection in using and marketing the name – and guaranteeing the buying public that the Pommeau’s terroir is really that of Brittany. Pommeau de Bretagne is a blend of two-thirds freshly-pressed unfermented apple juice and one-third local cider brandy, aged in oak casks for a minimum of 14 months. The drink, usually served as an aperitif or digestif, has a long tradition in Brittany and today there are 15 or so professional producers working with some 75 varieties of apples to help make their particular blend stand out. Try one of the offerings from Cidrerie Kerloïck. Depending on its age, you can expect an amber coloured liquid with a strong floral scent and an aromatic palette that fluctuates between baked apples or dried fruits and hints of almonds, caramel or honey.
Honey and apples are married together in another Breton speciality, Chouchen; a type of mead produced from the fermentation of honey in water and apple juice. Traditionally, buckwheat honey is used and this helps develop the strong rich colour and pronounced flavour found in chouchen. This ancient drink was known by many different names across Brittany, the name chouchen actually started out as a brand name after WW1 but quickly gained popular acceptance before becoming synonymous with the beverage. A distinction is sometimes made if the honeycomb is fermented in cider only, it is then usually known as chufere a word derived from chug ferv, the Breton for strong juice.
Chouchen was once renowned as a drink that caused people to fall over and the old stories always attribute this to over-indulgence and inevitable intoxication. However, careful analysis of Breton honey in the 20th century showed high concentrations of wax, dead bees and bee venom. Traditionally, the hives in use on Breton farms were the basket hives that necessitated smothering a lot of bees in order to access the honey. It was the presence of bee venom, which attacks the cerebellum (the part of the human brain controlling movement and balance) which caused some drinkers to lose their balance although I am sure that intoxication might also have played a part. Nowadays, there is a wide degree of conformity in the production of chouchen which now typically contains between 12 to 15 per cent of alcohol by volume and is drunk as an aperitif or digestif. There are many options for buying a good bottle of chouchen but I would recommend that you support the local artisan producer and choose one that has been made as close to you as possible.
Undoubtedly, one of the finest local drinks that you will come across in Brittany is Lambig which is sometimes labelled as Fine de Bretagne. This is a rich cider brandy that enjoys an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation and is produced locally by a traditional process of distillation in a retort (lambig being the Breton word for a retort). Today’s lambig is a direct descendent of the ‘farm brandy’ of yesteryear; a time when only a limited number of people had permission to operate stills and neighbours would smuggle in their home-made cider to use the still covertly, beyond the eyes of the prying excise man!
As in times past, today quality local cider is heated until the alcohol evaporates, the vapours are condensed, recovered and diluted until the alcohol content is reduced to about 40 per cent by volume. The brandy is then aged in oak barrels for several years. During this aging process, the brandy’s interaction with the wood of the barrel develops the lambig’s unique character; its aromatic complexity developing a subtle balance of fruity and woody fragrances.
Lambig can be found clear or amber coloured but it is a drink that always delivers a smooth, fruity and satisfying taste and is an ideal digestif. As with most brandies, the bottles are marked to indicate the age and thus degree of refinement that you might expect from your bottle: VS for lambig aged for at least two years; Old/Réserve for that aged at least three years; VO/Vieille Réserve to indicate at least four years of aging and Very Old Reserve/Hors d’Age for lambigs aged at least six years. Personally, I would recommend Fine Bretagne Gilles Leizour but there are about twenty fine producers to choose from here in Brittany.
It may surprise you to learn that there are some decent Breton whiskies worth looking at. To be able to use the designation “Breton Whisky”, the whisky must adhere to certain quality standards surrounding the raw ingredients and production methods. While malted barley, smoked barley, wheat, buckwheat and rye are all permissible, the water used can only be drawn from Breton springs and the whisky fermented, distilled and aged in Brittany. The resultant whisky must be matured, in oak barrels, for at least three years and contain a minimum 40 per cent alcohol by volume.
There are currently eight distillers producing over 400,000 bottles of whisky a year in Brittany. A few of the more notable ones include Armorik, a highly regarded and award winning single malt whisky made with barley; Eddu, the only whisky in the world made from buckwheat; and Kornog, a peated single malt whose Roc’h Hir manifestation, aged in bourbon barrels and bottled at 46°, is a much sought after tipple and priced accordingly.
That most French of aperitifs, pastis, does not seem to have the same strong following here as in the rest of France but there is even a Breton pastis, Brastis, to try if you are feeling adventurous. Kir Breton is a popular aperitif in Brittany and consists of one part crème de cassis mixed with four parts of cider.
As for cocktails, you will find that the Spritz and Monaco are very popular here in the summer months but there are two distinctly Breton cocktails worth looking at. A relative newcomer is the Cidrito; a Breton take on the classic Cuba Libre cocktail – local cider is added to a decent measure of Bacardi rum over ice and garnished with a little fresh mint. Brittany’s most famous cocktail must be the Godinette; macerated local strawberries marinated in lambig for a day before being mixed with Muscadet wine and left overnight to develop and served chilled in a glass with a drop of strawberry liqueur.
Although Bretons have historically been cider drinkers, beer has been brewed commercially in Brittany since the early 17th century with production peaking in the late 19th century with thriving breweries spread across the region in places such as Saint-Brieuc, Morlaix, Brest, Landerneau, Quimper, Pontivy, Nantes and Rennes. Improved transport links and business consolidations saw the number of Breton breweries gradually decline until the last closed in 1985. By coincidence, this was also the year that the first micro-brewery was opened in France – in Morlaix, Brittany.
This brewery, Coreff (the Breton word for beer), was inspired by British real ales and soon developed a loyal following. Their early beers were amber, richly malted, unfiltered, unpasteurized and marketed as distinctly Breton. The brewery, now based in Carhaix, has expanded its range considerably and now offers over a dozen beers; white, blond, amber, red and brown, each with a distinctive taste. Still fiercely Breton, the brewer’s beer tents are ubiquitous at fetes and festivals across the region. If you attend a festival in Brittany, even a small local event, you will be almost certain to see them.
Established not long after Coreff, the Lancelot Brewery is another Breton brewer that started with a distinct offering – a honey beer flavoured with plant extracts and a beer brewed with barley and buckwheat – and now brews well over a dozen different types of beer, available in draught or bottles in bars and restaurants across Brittany.
Since the mid-1990s, Brittany has cemented its position as the centre of French craft beer and now boasts about 160 active micro-breweries producing over a thousand different Breton beers. There are now over half a dozen breweries who offer a range in excess of twenty beers; the brewery with the most extensive range is Saint-Brieuc’s La Guernouillette which offers around thirty different beers.
With so many local beers to choose from, you can either play safe and go with a type of beer that you are familiar with or try something a little different such as Lancelot’s La Blanche Hermine, an IPA with a strong taste of hops; or Brasserie La Belle Joie’s Gamme 56, a dark rich beer brewed with buckwheat; or Coreff’s Dramm Hud is a strong blond beer with a malty flavour.
If you prefer to enjoy soft drinks then you may be surprised to see that the multi-national corporations get a real run for their money here in Brittany. While bottled water from Perrier is, of course, widely available, you are just as likely to be offered the local bottled water from Plancoët. Similarly, lemonades and colas are not the sole preserve of Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo as both face strong competition from Breizh Cola, France’s first regional cola, a tasty refreshing beverage that has built up a strong following and decent market share over the last 18 years.
Whatever your taste and preference, you will be almost certain to find something to enjoy that gives you a taste of Brittany in any visit here. Please drink responsibly and raise a glass to the Breton saying that translates along the lines of : “A glass is fine; three glasses … it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine”.