Before I ever had the chance to drink a bottle of Loirette—a Belgian-style farmhouse ale produced by Brasserie de la Pigeonnelle in the Touraine area of France’s Loire Valley—I encountered it virtually. Renowned as the “official beer” of the natural wine world, it kept popping up on the usual blogs and social media channels, whether being poured at Parisian landmarks like Le Baratin or Le Verre Volé or posted by industry friends during their annual pilgrimages to natural wine fairs like La Dive Bouteille.
For years, I coveted a bottle of my own. That day finally came just after 2011, when the Oakland-based company Selection Massale began importing the beer. My first impression of Loirette was that of a perfectly well-crafted saison-style brew: not too hoppy, more than a little bit hazy and extremely refreshing. A delicious farmhouse beer, for sure—but I guess I was expecting a little more “farm.” Other than that signature cloudiness, I couldn’t grasp the naturalist connection. How did this beer, of all beers, come to be anointed as the emblematic ale of the natural wine world—and not, say, one of the funky Brettanomyces-fermented sours that would seem to hold more intrinsic appeal?
According to Ludovic Hardouin, owner of Paris’ Brasserie de la Pigeonnelle with his brother Stéphane, the duo’s naturalist connection dates to the movement’s early days. In 1996, they formed a small Paris-based agency to import and distribute artisanal Belgian ales into France, including the legendary lambics of Brasserie Cantillon. Among the only organic beers then available in the French market, celebrated for their thrillingly complex wild-yeast flavors and aromas, Cantillon found a ready audience in the country’s first wave of natural cavistes and bar à vins.
“Through our connection to Cantillon, we started meeting restaurant owners who were very present in the world of natural wine,” Hardouin explains. “So by the time we left the business and decided to open the brasserie in 2003, we already had a lot of friends in that world.”
Those friends included iconic Touraine-based vignerons like Hervé Villemade, Thierry Puzelat and Christian Chaussard, who helped shaped their corner of the Loire into natural wine’s experimental ground-zero. It was no coincidence, then, that the brothers decided to relocate to the area—where they also had family—to launch Brasserie de la Pigeonnelle. Made from organic grains and bottled without pasteurization or filtration, Loirette soon solidified its reputation as the harvest beer of choice for the region’s winemakers. “All of those guys started to drink and talk about our beers,” Hardouin recalls. “And when someone like Thierry Puzelat talks about you, people listen.”
In current day, post-craft beer America, it’s difficult to appreciate what Loirette signaled to France in the early 2000s—a country whose beer culture, never particularly pronounced to begin with, has evolved at a much slower pace than ours. “Beer culture in France is coming, but it’s not there yet,” explains sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, who has poured Loirette regularly throughout her career. “For years, the beer market in France was overtaken by big corporate brewers like Heineken and Kronenbourg, who would supply you with the equipment you’d need, but you had to sign a non-compete clause and agree to buy the range of beers they were offering you.”
Such was the case when Pigeonnelle entered the scene. Arguably France’s first independent brewery, it self-distributed through the same intimate client network as its lo-fi vigneron peers, offering the only likeminded alternative to decades of industrial beer hegemony.
“Every time you went to Le Verre Volé, or any of those places in Paris, if you were drinking a beer, you were drinking Loirette,” recalls Selection Massale co-founder Guilhaume Gerard. “The situation might have changed since then, as there are more small breweries in France now, even some with an organic focus—but back in the early 2000s, there was nothing but Loirette.”
By the time it landed in the United States, the beer’s street cred already preceded it. Today, sold almost exclusively within natural-focused destinations like New York’s Frenchette or Ten Bells, Loirette keeps company with the natural wines it grew up with. And like so many those wines, Loirette has quickly transformed into a cult fascination. In the words of Bill Fitch, former wine director at Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill House, “I was primed to fetishize it, a ‘beer for natural wine geeks’—and fetishize it I did.”