La Biere des CigalesProvence is all about pastis and rosé wine - or is it? We explore the region's long brewing tradition and current craft beer scene, visit a micro-brewery in Marseille and suggest spots to drink what the French call "la petite mousse" ("the little foam").

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

At the Iron Age Celtic site of Roquepertuse, west of Aix en Provence, archeologists have uncovered the very earliest evidence of beer-making in France, dating right back to the fifth century BC.

Excavators found grains of carbonised barley that had been allowed to sprout as part of the process known as malting near the hearth, oven and a ceramic container in a private house.

Reporting their finds in 2011 in the on-line journal Human Ecology, the historians speculate that this was a small-scale operation to make "home-brew" for the family's personal consumption.

They believe beer brewing and drinking were an ancient local custom, as opposed to wine-making, which took hold later in Provence, encouraged by the Romans. The method used by the Celts appears to be similar to that used today - though we have no idea of what the beer actually tasted like.

Provence's love affair with beer continued. At the beginning of the 20th century there were still 18 breweries in the region, the most famous being the Brasserie de la Méditerranée and the Brasserie Phénix.

Poster for Biere Phenix from MarseilleThe latter was later swallowed up by the Heineken group when, as elsewhere in France, big breweries took over and smaller ones closed down, unable to cope with the rising price of cereal caused by the two World Wars.

But the link between Provence and beer in the popular imagination continued. Since the 1990s Stella Artois (brewed in Belgium, by the way) has run a series of successful, witty and inventive advertising campaign linking the product to Provence, with commercials spoofing the film Jean de Florette and going on to imagine many more Southern French scenarios.

While France still lags way behind Britain in the brewing revival and there's no equivalent of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, there has been a huge resurgence over the last decade of artisan micro-breweries.

Again contrary to the general stereotype, the main boom has not been in the North, but in the South-East. The Rhône-Alpes region just north of Provence has dozens of micro-breweries, more than anywhere else in France, and artisan breweries in Provence itself are booming too. There are now over 700 breweries in the country as a whole.

BEERS BREWED IN PROVENCE

But what of Provence itself? Probably the two most popular and visible beers, are La Cagole in Marseille and La Bière des Cigales in Avignon. They're low in alcohol (4.7°), mass-produced, readily available in bars and at large supermarkets and both sell themselves on regional stereotypes: "une cagole" is an affectionate Marseille slang word for a feisty girl of easy virtue, while the cigale or cicada is one of the iconic symbols of Provence.

Merchandising for La Cagole beer in MarseilleCreated in 2003, La Cagole is a pleasant, Pilsner-style beer. A white (blanche) La Cagole beer is also available.

Its slogan calls La Cagole la bière du cabanon (the seaside cabin beer) and claims it evokes "the Old Port of Marcel Pagnol". You can buy its bright yellow merchandising spin-offs such as drinks trays and glasses from souvenir shops all over Marseille.

Actually, this is a triumph of misleading marketing. La Cagole is not brewed locally but in the North of France (and formerly even further from Provence, in the Czech Republic).

La Bière des Cigales was launched in 2008 by a drinks distribution company called DBS which also makes a locally branded soft drink, Provença Cola.

Salem Haji and Sylvain PerrotHowever these bigger breweries are less than half the story. A lively rival to the ubiquitous Cagole in Marseille is Brasserie de la Plaine.

This pioneering venture was set up in 2013 by Salem Haji, formerly a sailor in the merchant navy, and Sylvain Perrot, who had been a pharmacist for seven years.

Both men, pictured, wanted to branch out and do something different. The result is their own micro-brewery on the edge of the Cours Julien district at 16 rue Saint Pierre, 13006 Marseille.

It was more recently joined by a bistro-bar and retail outlet called La Piccoline just round the corner at 59 rue des Trois frères Barthélémy.

When we visited the brasserie, in 2014, La Plaine was producing seven types of beer (more are being developed all the time) in tall brown bottles with brightly coloured retro labels.

You can try these, either in bottles or - in some cases - on draught, in the bistro while snacking at lunchtime on simple home-made hot food or in the evenings on tapas. On some days, there's live music and the duo also run regular brewing courses.

Their beers are available at a fast growing number of other restaurants, shops and bars in Marseille, mainly in the 6th and 7th arrondissements, such as nearby Lacaille, the Bar de la Relève, and at Le Grain de Sable, a popular vegetarian restaurant in the Arab quarter in the centre of town. But even ritzy joints such as the three Michelin-starred Le petit Nice are stocking them now too.

Biere de la Plaine from MarseilleWe sampled a light, lemony draught blonde and a juicy, malty ambrée, a pale ale with subtle notes of cocoa, thanks, not to added chocolate, but to toasted barley.

La Plaine's other beers include La Blanche, made with wheat and American hops, and La Violette, a light, crisp beer flavoured with just what the label says. Sylvain admits it's a love-or-loathe recipe.

In 2015 La Plaine was joined in Marseille by another micro-brewery and brasserie, La Minotte, in the Saint Victor district at 12 rue Jules Moulet, 13006 Marseille.

And in 2016 a third craft brewery appeared on the scene in Marseille: Part Faite (located a little out of the city centre at 6 traverse de la Bounaude, 13011 Marseille.

Aix, too, now has its own craft breweries, such as the Brasserie de la Provence whose beverages are branded as Aquae Maltae.

We wondered to what extent Provence's brewers incorporate regional ingredients. In Miramas, a small town at the end of the Blue Coast train line from Marseille, Sulauze is a relatively new arrival on the scene and works with organically grown cereals and hops. Even the water is sourced from a local reservoir.

Just to the west of Provence proper (though its beers can be bought in Avignon, Arles and Aix), the Brasserie La Barbaude in Nîmes, uses Camargue rice and Ardèche honey and also produces one beer with a raspberry infusion, which is, Sylvain assures us, a lot nicer than it sounds.

The nearby Brasserie de Beaucaire also employs Camargue rice and local maize, and has a prize-winning beer using chestnuts from Carcassone. It's run, unusually, by a young female brewer, Johanna Petit.

And trust Saint Tropez to come up with something frivolous: there, the vintners Carteron and Desmarest have invented a pink beer, called La Trop, spiked with grape tannin.

Even the larger companies are at it. Over in Avignon, DBS has developed a white beer, La Cigalette, infused with thyme while La Cagole has plans to make concoctions with pastis, fig or pistou (basil), possibly at a Marseille-based micro-brewery. So far, thankfully, no-one seems to have developed a lavender beer.

Among the many other craft breweries in Provence, the Brasserie Artisanale du Luberon in Pertuis and the Brasserie des Hautes Vallées in Saint Paul sur Ubaye, which makes a beer called La Sauvage, are also worth a look.

For beer cellars, try Plaisirs du Monde at 77 rue Curiol, 13001 Marseille, a tiny neighbourhood shop just a few minutes' walk from La Plaine which turns out to have - alongside the usual groceries - a stock of some 300 beers from all over the world.

Also in this part of town is Fietje at 36 rue des Trois frères Bathélémy, 13006 Marseille, which as the name suggests specialises in Belgian brews but has over 300 craft beers from a range of countries.

Fietje now has its own beer bar too, at 143 rue Sainte in the trendy Saint Victor area of Marseille which is also home to a "cave-bistro" called Victor at 20 rue d'Endoume.

Near the Palais Longchamp, the go-to bar is the punningly named La Cane Bière (as in La Canebière) at 32 boulevard Philippon, 13004 Marseille. To the south-east of Marseille, Beer Center at 153 route des trois Lucs, 13011 Marseille sells beers from all around the world and offers limited tastings.

In Aix en Provence La Belle Mousse is a mysterious Mecca for initiates only; even its own website does not list its current address (it has moved several times), though it does give an email address and telephone number.

And, near the Town Hall, La Route des Bières offers beers from all over the world. 26 rue des Cordeliers, 13100 Aix en Provence.

Finally, a diary date for beer lovers: Southern Provence's beer festival, Provence Bière Connexion, in late April.

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