Imagine my delight when, visiting Alsace this summer, I found a little brewery, with a few little tables outside, selling little glasses of cold beer for only 2 euros (about $2.70) apiece – and it was tasty beer, too!
The brewer, Gilbert Holl, began distilling fruit-based eaux de vie in 1978 and opened his first shop in the charming town of Ribeauvillé in 1979. He still produces dry eaux de vie made from apricots and local berries, various sweet fruit liqueurs (peach, blackberry, cherry, currant) and lightly sweet liqueurs in coffee, cinnamon and caramel flavors. He even makes a whiskey nicknamed “Vieil Or,” or “old gold,” which perfectly describes its color.
Holl told me he got into brewing by accident, when some equipment at a tradeshow caught his eye and he couldn’t resist buying it. He opened his brewery in 1998 in Riquewihr, a walled village just down the road from Ribeauvillé, amid some of the highest quality Alsatian wine-producing vineyards you can find. I had gone there to taste the Grand Cru Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers that make Alsace famous — drier and more complex wines than the German Rieslings just across the Rhein. It never occurred to me that I’d spend an afternoon drinking artisanal beer on the doorstep of what may be the smallest commercial brewery I’ve ever seen, but that’s what happened and I loved it.
Holl’s beers (called Hollbeer, by the way) come in some darker and more flavorful styles than much of what you find throughout Alsace – a region where pilsner predominates. I’m not talking about Porter or anything opaque, but Holl offers a “Bière Ambrée,” or amber ale (6 percent ABV), that’s mid-amber colored with fuller body and more pronounced malt flavor than the local pilsners, an earthy palate and noticeable hops on the finish. His Prestige beers (6.5 percent ABV) are made from three malt types, with the final products neither pasteurized nor filtered. The bottled version of Bière Ambrée undergoes a secondary, in-bottle fermentation for natural carbonation.
Holl makes 10 beers in total, including blonde and flavored brews – such as an anise-infused beer, a Christmas beer with cinnamon and orange essence, and a beer flavored by the local sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace. There’s a stronger “collector’s beer” called Summum, an amber ale described by some experts as “heavy and flat,” by which they mean evocative of a very early (possibly Medieval) style. And if you want to incorporate beer into every meal but you’re not up for drinking in the morning, you can buy Holl’s beer jelly (confit de bière, sweet and similar to honey) to spread on your croissant.
For full disclosure, Gilbert Holl also makes wine. (How could you not, when you’re surrounded by vineyards?) Using the local white grape varieties, he bottles Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris and a Crémant made in accordance with the Champagne method. Dry and fresh, yet aromatic (and well-priced), they prove Monsieur Holl is a man of many talents.
A sign at the brewery says his beers are brewed with love, but I think there’s a little love in all his efforts. (Brasserie Hollbeer; 8, Avenue Jacques Preiss; 68340 Riquewihr, Alsace, France.)