While visiting a friend in her beautiful home city of Toulouse this week, I found myself alone one evening with a few hours to kill. Resisting the temptation to turn in early, I decided to head for Au Poêle de la Bête in Rue d’Aubuisson.
I had read good things about this bar and restaurant to the east of the city, where a nascent craft-beer scene of brewpubs, bottleshops and cafés has established itself around the Rue Riquet. Still, as I approached I could see that the place had the sort of backstreet hustle and bustle that can make a lone Englishman with poor French a little self-conscious. I had second thoughts for a moment.
I am glad I ignored them.
Three hours and three excellent beers later, I was thanking the proprietors and telling them, “Si j’avais rêvé du bar à bière parfaite, ce serait comme ça.”
If you share an interest in beer and English literature, those words might bring to mind an article published by George Orwell in the Evening Standard newspaper in February 1946.
“The Moon Under Water” – now the name of many real public houses, most of which Orwell would have despised – describes the author’s unrealised ideal of the perfect London pub.
As I ambled happily back to my hotel, I wondered how well Toulouse’s Au Poêle de la Bête would stand up to the criteria Orwell laid out.
“My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights. Its clientele, though fairly large, consists mostly of ‘regulars’ who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as for the beer…”
Au Poêle de la Bête gets a good score on craft-beer rating websites. As I mentioned, it’s in the heart of Toulouse’s craft-beer scene.
But Toulouse’s craft-beer scene is 15 minutes’ walk away from the city centre, in one of the drabber districts of an otherwise picturesque town that, after all, is not well known for its beer culture. A place that would be bursting like a booze-cruise suitcase in London or Brussels was sedately buzzing in this corner of France. Admittedly, this was a Monday night, but there was no sign of “drunks and rowdies”. I appeared to be the only out-of-towner – and certainly the only non-francophone.
“The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone,” imagines Orwell.
The one “barmaid” in evidence was sitting at the bar eating dinner when I arrived. When she finished, her two colleagues poured three shots of liquor and toasted her health before she went on her way. I believe she was one of the staff, at least: it was difficult to tell because a number of the bar’s punters were on hugging terms with the people behind the bar – who themselves spent a lot of time not behind the bar, chatting, bantering, and generally meeting-and-greeting.
“… its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian. It has no glass-topped tables or other modern miseries, and, on the other hand, no sham roof-beams, ingle-nooks or plastic panels masquerading as oak… In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano…”
Like much of Toulouse, Au Poêle de la Bête is an old building. Its aesthetic, however, is more modern tap room than cosy snug or faux-farmhouse kitchen. Its chalkboard beer lists, cartoonish murals and gleaming keg taps could put it anywhere from Shoreditch to Seattle. But these accoutrements come with a uniquely amateurish charm, a lack of self-consciousness that is as French as the hugging and kissing, and the animated chatter.
There was music playing, but at a barely audible level. When I was paying attention, we were getting pre-stadium Chili Peppers. I’ll settle for that. There was a television up in the corner, but it was a boxy old thing from about 1987 that probably hadn’t shown anything for 20 years. Where the screen should have been there was a cardboard cut-out skull, or monster face, or something else offhandedly eccentric.
“You cannot get dinner at the Moon Under Water, but there is always the snack counter where you can get liver-sausage sandwiches, mussels (a speciality of the house), cheese, pickles and those large biscuits with caraway seeds in them which only seem to exist in public-houses…”
You certainly can get dinner at Au Poêle de la Bête, if you don’t mind small, tapas-like plates. Indeed, the proprietors seem to think of their place as more restaurant than bar, if the name is anything to go by. “Poêle” translates as “stove” in English, with, my friend tells me, a punning glance at “poil” – fur, or perhaps “pelt”. The dishes coming off “the stove of the beast” looked splendid and receive appreciative reviews. I was there only for the beer.
“If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house, it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me about the Moon Under Water is what people call its ‘atmosphere’,” writes Orwell. Later, however, he remembers that he is quite particular about his beer, after all: “I doubt whether as many as 10 per cent of London pubs serve draught stout, but the Moon Under Water is one of them.”
Au Poêle de la Bête offers an astonishing range of French and Belgian beers, with a tilt towards the sour and the Wallonian, all served with care and attention to detail – “They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass.”
While there were some interesting and rare Belgian treats to be enjoyed I was most keen to try beers from French breweries that were new to me.
My first beer was Sour Noise Barrel Oak by Brasserie de Sulauze in Miramas. This is a light-bodied Flanders Red-style ale, dry, not too acidic, nicely balanced with a hint of fruity American hops to complement the woody tannins.
Second was Brassin Pilote, a New England IPA double dry-hopped with a single varietal, from the tiny Brasserie Le Detour in Montpellier. This was quite a sophisticated venture into this style, fermented very cleanly to showcase the tropical and herbal essential oils of the Ekuanot hop. This will never be my favourite sort of thing but I can admire any beer when it is crafted as competently as this.
Finally, I chose Imperial Stout Armagnac, a 10%-ABV whopper from Brasserie Gilbert’s in Rabastens, just north-east of Toulouse itself. Aged in barrels previously occupied by the world famous local brandy, this one had “over-ambitious potential disaster” written all over it. The brewery’s rather dubious sword-and-sorcery marketing aesthetic hardly inspired confidence, either. The beer, however, was an outstanding way to end my visit to this very special little establishment. A luxurious nectar, seducing with brandy, honey and candy in its aroma and palate, before delivering a serious hit of dark-malt, salty, marmite-umami in its long, reverberating finish. The fermentation was superb, masking the alcohol to just the right extent.
This was a terrific flight of French beers, the like of which it would be very difficult to experience elsewhere. I could have returned for another three evenings and had no need to repeat myself. There were nine great and varied beers on tap – including Guldenberg, the magnificent Tripel from De Ranke, and a “nationwide-exclusive” collaboration beer from U.S. brewers Jolly Pumpkin and Bastone. These were complemented by a truly inspirational list of two dozen or more French and Belgian sour and barrel-aged beers in its bottle collection, every one of which was available on the night.
“There is no such place as the Moon Under Water,” Orwell admits. “That is to say, there may well be a pub of that name, but I don’t know of it, nor do I know any pub with just that combination of qualities. I know pubs where the beer is good but you can’t get meals, others where you can get meals but which are noisy and crowded, and others which are quiet but where the beer is generally sour.”
Well, there was sour beer at Au Poêle de la Bête, all right – gloriously sour! This was one very big reason why it felt so much like the beer bar of my dreams.
“Unlike most pubs, the Moon Under Water sells tobacco as well as cigarettes, and it also sells aspirins and stamps, and is obliging about letting you use the telephone.”
Did I try to buy tobacco from Au Poêle de la Bête? No. Thankfully, I did not need to use its telephone, either.
What I did require, however, was a bit of help, patience and understanding with my French. The gentleman who served me through most of the evening spoke perfect English, but when he noticed that I wanted to order my drinks in French he took the trouble to respond slowly and clearly in his own language. He continued to do so even when I had to struggle through the process of starting an account so that I could pay with a credit card. Compared with the usual “time is money, so let’s just cut to the chase and talk English” approach, this was customer service of an unusually considerate and attentive kind.
I hope and expect that Au Poêle de la Bête can thrive on such friendliness and attention to detail, and I greatly look forward to returning, for some beer and some food, as soon as I possibly can. I reckon Orwell would have approved.