I've mentioned my fondness for Pelforth Brune here before. When I was a teenager, my dad used to do the occasional ‘booze cruise’ to Calais, returning with a few 6-packs of Pelforth Brune amongst the bargain cases of wine, and it was probably the second beer (after London Pride) that I enjoyed that wasn't a standard light lager. If I didn't think he would read this post, I might even admit to having pinched the odd bottle from the stash in his shed and taken them to gatherings at friends’ houses, feeling very sophisticated whilst shunning the lukewarm Carling in favour of a French import.
And then, once I left home, I didn't taste it for years. It is available in the UK (online retailers like the excellent Beermerchants stock it, for example), but not a common beer by any means. And absence made the heart grow fonder. As I became more interested in beer, I’d often think of Pelforth Brune; what was the deal with that crazy sweet French beer I used to surreptitiously sup as a teen? Was it a brown ale? A lager? I longed to sample it again.
In the meantime, I trawled the internet for information, piecing together a little background information on the beer and the brewery. Pelforth dates back to 1914, and was originally named Pelican. The name changed in 1972, adding the Anglo-sounding ‘forth’ because they used English malt in their beer. English beers were popular in 1930s France, and Brune was first brewed in either 1935 or 1937 (the date varies from source to source) to satisfy this demand with a domestic product. The brewery was purchased by Francaise de Brasserie in 1986, who were then bought out by Heineken two years later. Pelforth remains a Heineken brand today and, whilst its scarcity and somewhat unusual profile might seem exotic to me, it is very much a common, everyday beer in France – it is the most popular dark beer in the domestic market, and one of the highest sellers of any variety.
One of my online searches was fruitful – I found a great blog by Toby Cecchini, detailing his own small Pelforth Brune obsession, and his post answers some questions I've often pondered. For example, the beer is listed as a brown ale on sites like Ratebeer and Beer Advocate – it has a lot in common with traditional English brown ales, and its body and malt profile is no less substantial than many I've tasted. But I've often suspected that it is bottom fermented, which Toby confirms. The term ‘double malted’ which appears on the bottle’s label has never meant much to me either – turns out it refers to the combination of lightly-kilned and caramel malt. As Toby points out, this means that the beer isn't made from entirely roasted malt – caramel malt is a liquidised roasted malt sugar. If this sounds like a money saving shortcut imposed by the Heineken corporation, you may be surprised to learn that it has always been this way.
A great passage from Toby’s blog describes reactions to his professed love for Pelforth Brune;
“I've had friends drag me back bottles of it, with disbelief. Truly? With all the haut de gamme products one might purloin from Paree, you want this beer from the supermarket? This reaction is a mere shadow of what the French themselves exhibit when I regale them of my love for Pelforth Brune. Most of them smirk acidly, trying to parse whether I'm being facetious or not. Imagine some excitable French nerd sputtering on about his deep love for Miller High Life.”
This leaves me wondering whether either side of this argument is truly tasting the beer for what it is. Of the small number of beer drinkers who will admit to a fondness for Pelforth Brune, few will mention it outside of the context of happy memories of French sunshine. Ben McFarland, for example, designates the beer as “classic” in his book Boutique Beers, whilst adding the disclaimer, “There may not be those do not consider this a classic”. For him, though, “it’s like that Madeleine dipped in tea was for fellow Frenchman Marcel Proust”, taking him back to his student days in France. Those of us who like it seem quite determined to like it, just as those who wish to dismiss it as unsophisticated macro fare are unlikely to give it a fair chance.
I have a 650ml bottle of Pelforth Brune in my possession. When my band played in Paris some weeks ago, we decided to politely decline a kind offer of floor space in a cramped apartment and treat ourselves to a budget hotel for the night. I bought the beer to drink in the hotel room (everyone knows hotel room beers are a rare treat) but, on arrival in an especially grim branch of Formule 1 in a less than inviting neighbourhood, I lost all desire to drink it and went straight to bed instead. Much as I like the beer, I wouldn't normally bother to bring any back home with me; but it remained in my bag and, as it joined the rest of my stash, I wondered how it would taste when drunk on my sofa. It was unlikely to match up to the memory of the last time I tasted it, in a roadside restaurant hallway through a leisurely bike ride between Nice and Juan-les-Pinnes.
It pours an attractive reddish-brown, with a beige head. The aroma isn't hugely inviting – it’s a little acidic, and reminds me of Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown. The taste is actually not dissimilar either, although perhaps this is closer to a big, malt-monster of a Scotch ale – caramel sweetness is dominant, with no notable hop presence at all. That malt is full of interesting flavours – there’s a little chocolate, but mixed with cereals, a bit like a malted chocolate milkshake. Banana, plum and cola are all present, alongside a nutty, marzipan note. This is possibly characteristic of certain French yeast strands – I've noticed it in the occasional Biére de Garde, especially Jenlain.
It’s unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes – I can imagine many might find it too sweet – but there’s genuine complexity here. I can’t pretend to be objective, because I want to like Pelforth Brune based on happy memories I associate with the beer. But if you haven’t tried it and you do happen to be ordering from Beermerchants, I’d urge you to take a punt and try it for yourself. And if you don’t like it, book yourself a holiday in France and see if that changes your mind.