Brit conquers French taste buds
COUPTRAIN, France - With its cozy atmosphere, a menu offering home-cooked fish and chips and hand-operated pumps spouting foaming pints of bitter beer, the Famous Knight is the epitome of the typical English pub.
This particular watering hole is in the tiny village of Couptrain in Normandy, northern France. The award-winning bitter on sale here was brewed just a few minutes' drive away.
In a country where wine is more often the tipple of choice and beer is largely limited to mass-produced yellow lagers, the Famous Knight and its nearby brewery are winning over a surprising number of French fans with their real ales.
"Beer has always been my passion," said Steve Skews who, along with his wife Jane, owns the Famous Knight and runs the brewery, called quite simply "Le Brewery."
Skews, a bearded, shaggy-haired and sprightly looking 62-year-old, moved to Normandy in the early 1990s. But he didn't begin brewing beer at his stone-built farmhouse nestled in the green folds of the Norman countryside until several years later.
"We originally made cider, but most of our trees were destroyed in the storms of 1999," he said, referring to the ferocious winds that battered huge swathes of France that year.
"We had to think quickly. With my brother — who's also a beer fanatic — we found a brewery that was closing down in England. As I had the buildings, we shipped the equipment across the Channel and installed it here," he said.
Twelve years later, Le Brewery is going strong. Skews has lovingly developed a selection of real ales ranging from heavy bitters to lighter wheat beers, ideal for summer months.
Most of the beers have funny names, drawing on the fact that they were brewed in the birthplace of William the Conqueror, who famously became ruler of England after winning the battle of Hastings in 1066.
'We've converted quite a few'
One brand is simply called "Conquerant" (Conqueror).
Another limited edition variety was christened "Harold's Revenge" after the English king that William defeated.
"It's something people identify with, it's a great talking point between the local people and the English and it's great fun," said Skews.
Le Brewery has its own field of hops — the climbing plant used to flavor beers — containing varieties with esoteric names like "Fuggle," "Cascade" and "Cobb".
Prepared using traditional British brewing methods and without additives, the beers are winning over local converts.
"The look on French people's faces when they first taste English bitter is a little disconcerting. But we've managed to convert quite a few. A lot of them are surprised that beer actually tastes of something," he said.
At the Famous Knight, the locals backed up Skews' comments.
"Since I've been coming here, I've stopped drinking French beer altogether," said Daniel, a Famous Knight regular ensconced at the bar.
"I like the beer and I like the fact that it's made here," added Yvan, another of the pub's content French customers.
And although most of his customers are in Normandy, Skews now sells his beer across France.
"We've got outlets in Paris, in the south of France (and) a couple of outlets in Brittany," he said.
But despite the popularity of Le Brewery's wares, there is a cloud on the horizon.
"I'm 62 now and I don't plan to still be brewing beer in 10 years' time. I want to enjoy my retirement," said Skews.
The problem is that, so far, the brewer has not been able to find anyone to take over from him when he stands down.
"My daughters have different interests so I don't know what will happen, to be honest," he said.
"If some young person, some young brewer somewhere fancies a lifestyle change and would like to buy the brewery, then I'm certainly happy to talk about that. It'd be lovely for the brewery to continue." - Simon Coss, Agence France-Presse