Monday, February 20, 2017

Houblonette and brewing in WWI-era France

Much of my beer history research is driven to learn more about a couple specific beers with an ever-present eye on how I could use that info in modern brewing. However, through that I end up looking much further in a couple ways. I'll hunt for contextual information (general brewing, ingredients, etc.) to make better sense of historic brewing info and recipes. But I will also, mostly by chance, happen across something that is intellectually interesting, if not so valuable for practical brewing. This post falls into the latter category and I wanted to share it as it provides some interesting insight into the state of beer, brewing, and public consumption in the north of France during WWI and the lasting implications of the war on brewing.

On October 13th (1914) the Germans entered Lille.
The dark days were about to begin.
I've mentioned this a bit before in other posts - WWI had a significant impact on brewing in Belgium and northern France. This was in addition to the already staggering loss of local populations, either from casualties during the war or from people fleeing their homes and not returning afterward. Raw ingredients were in short supply and were needed more directly for people and animals. So brewing grains, when they could be had, were very expensive. In Lille, for example, 100 kg of malt which would have cost 34 francs in August 1914 before the Germans reached the city (13-October-1914) was selling for 180 francs in 1915. That's almost 6 times as expensive and only in the course of a year! And finally equipment was hard hit. Between incidental damage and looting of equipment, either for scrap or re-purposing (e.g. taking brewing pumps to the trenches to clear water), many brewers were left without the capacity to produce beer even if they had the labor and ingredients necessary to do so.

Brewing in Lille

The information in this post comes mostly from an article in Le Petit Journal du Brasseur in 1919 written by Henry Codvelle which focuses on brewing in Lille during WWI. Lille, as discussed in this post on a paper by Evans  in 1905, was home to bière de garde. While these beers were popular throughout much of the 19th century, their popularity was falling rapidly in the 1900s such that any bière de garde production that survived until the war would have been in the minority of production. In 1909 there were still aged beers (likely the same as bières de garde) being made in northern France along with young beers, blonds and browns, stronger 'luxury' beers, and a small set of wheat beers (see this FB post and this FB post). So the brewing scene is fairly diverse in the region and production of bière de garde probably makes it until WWI, though not as a main product of breweries.

Beer production in N France, 1909 (from Petit Journal du Brasseur, 1910). Volume estimates made by assuming an 
average beer strength of 3.8 degrees, estimated from the same article, and in two different units (see note below).

Crate from an old N France brewery.
From the collection of D. Thiriez.
The table above, from Le Petit Journal du Brasseur 1910, shows the number of breweries and production levels for municipal regions (so city proper and surrounding area) in northern France in 1909. As you can see the city of Lille was a major production center. It accounts for almost more production within the city limits than in any other municipal area, and Lille contributes 5% of the total French beer production. Note that the gravity estimates in the above table were made assuming that the journal article is internally consistent - that the gravities in degrees Belgian (well, of the possible options degrees Belgian is my best guess) as reported are the same units as would be used for production volumes in degrees*hl. This could very well be flawed, in which case the production volumes are probably based on Plato or Baumé, for which the estimate is repeated with the equivalent Plato gravity (9.8 P is about 3.8 Belgian).

In 1914, before the Germans reached Lille, there were 26 breweries (not a large number, the author notes, but some were quite large and had attached malthouses). This means the brewing scene in Lille was either quite a bit smaller than the 1909 numbers, or the breweries in Lille are potentially quite large probably a bit of both. 26 breweries brewing about 770,000 hl per year means each brewer brewing a bit over 80 hl per day every day of the year (or about 32 hl per day every day, so somewhat less massive but still a fair average for every day of the year, depending on which of the above gravity estimates is right). In May 1915 the occupying Germans prohibited brewing in the city under penalty of imprisonment. But it didn't take long until they made a slight reversal and designated 4 brewers who could continue production to supply the German army. Of these 4, 2 closed nearly immediately, leaving 2 operating breweries in the city about a year after the occupation began. Those two breweries, which operating for the benefit of the occupying Germans, didn't make it to the end of the war as they closed in 1917. So Lille went from 5% of total French production in the city proper, and the biggest brewing region in the north of France by a large margin, to having only 2 breweries in (legal) operation in the city in about 5 years. And none remaining by 8 years' time.


But the Lilloise, being crafty and with un-sated thirst, devised ways around this. One such product was Houblonette, which in large part prompted this post. Houblonette seems to fall somewhere between a naturally carbonated soda and some sort of fermented sugar water. It was produced by both the "unauthorized" breweries (later its commercial production was restricted and there were specific "authorized" Houblonette breweries) and the public. When the English arrived in Lille, Houblonette was the only product from the three remaining Lille breweries (out of the pre-war 26) who were still able to do anything. Houblonette was a fermented product, though I'm unclear on the degree to which it was fermented. And with a bit of searching I haven't been able to find any specifics about it other than what is in this article. So the very, very limited amount of info about it that I have comes from this article, and much of the following is guesswork based on that and general info about beer/brewing at the time.

Houblonette: "a true beer without malt". Hmm, I'm suspicious...

Houbonette is described as consisting of boiled water, sugar, a bit of alcohol, and hops. The taste carries some of the bitterness from the hops and it was carbonated and served from bottles or kegs. Based on beer strengths of the region of the time, I'm going to guess that it was likely not much more than 2% ABV, and it easily could have been less. I suspect it was meant to be consumed quite young such that there was still some sugar around. Both the addition of alcohol the development of carbonation when put in sealed containers for serving suggests that producers were not relying on this sugar as a primary driver of alcohol as opposed to taste and carbonation. I imagine that if it was allowed to ferment to dryness it would be pretty unpleasant. Note however, that according to Johnson 1918 the sugars used in Belgium of this era were not fully fermentable and left much more residual material than the sorts of sugars used in English brewing at the time. So it is possible that the sugar was rather unrefined. This is supported by the use of molasses in place of sugar at times when molasses could be smuggled through.

Crate from an old Lille brewery.
From the collection of D. Thiriez.
Houblonette was produced by the commercial breweries as well as at home. And, according to Mr. Codvelle, the people of Lille were able to access it quite easily (and apparently did so eagerly) from one of those two sources. Though prices weren't always great due to the high cost of sugar. In October 1917 the price of Houblonette was roughly twice that of pre-war beer (26 Francs for 160 L of beer pre-war, 50 France for 160 L Houblonette in Oct-1917). As such, it would be reasonable to guess that the amount of sugar used in Houblonette could be quite low. The Lilloise apparently gained a taste for it as home production of Houblonette continued and hops could be bought in grocery stores for private production for at least a couple years after the war.

Lasting consequences of WWI on brewing and beer in Lille

As mentioned above, none of the 26 pre-war Lille brewers were still brewing at the end of the war. And between damage to buildings, near complete loss of equipment from looting by the Germans or destruction, and short supplies/high costs of labor, brewers weren't in a good position to restart their activities. However by 1919, 18 breweries were able to re-open. This required a bit of non-ideal and re-purposed equipment but Mr. Codvelle asserts that the beer was good. But the consequences of the war were wider-reaching for brewers. Prices had to go up significantly (in 1919 160 L of beer cost 115 Francs compared to 26 in 1914, note that I don't know anything about inflation/other products like bread to normalize this increase and all other price comparisons above).

And, more worrying for the brewer, the people were increasingly no longer turning to beer as their drink of choice. French soldiers were now accustomed to wine (thanks to JC and Guillaume for translation help with the related idiomatic expression there!) and, even though wine was much more expensive post-war as well, its consumption was much higher than when it was inexpensive before the war. Finally, as mentioned above, people were also used to producing Houblonette at home.

While the author leaves this article with a bit of optimism looking toward how the future might go for the Lille brewers now that they were starting back up, what we know about brewing in northern France would say otherwise. The north, pre-WWI, was a region choosing beer as its preferred drink. As this article makes clear, this is no longer the case in 1919 and there is a growing influence of wine. It appears this held strong and WWI had a much more significant and lasting impact on brewing than was clear in the immediate post-war era.

Thankfully some brewers did continue. And, perhaps more importantly there is a growing wave of newer brewers in the north of France who, over the last 20+ years, are rebuilding the reputation of northern France as a region with beers of great character.

20-Feb-17 note - an earlier version of this post used only degrees Belgian for volume estimates. The post has been updated to include both Belgian and Plato to minimize the potential for error.


  1. Thank you for that part of our history. A French brewer

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for doing your part to keep French brewing going!

  2. Very nice and interesting reading.
    Thank you from another french homebrewer.
    Not sure how I ended up here though. :-)

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Ha, and I'm also glad that you ended up here, even if it was a bit of a mystery how that happened.