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Though France shares a border with Belgium and sits across the English Channel from the UK, the country doesn’t have as big a beer culture as its neighbors. The French consume less than half of the European average of seventy liters per person. Even their most-quaffed beer, Heineken, isn’t made on their soil. The Dutch behemoth resembles France’s most popular beer, 1664 – both innocuous, pale lagers sipped for refreshment rather than taste.

The trends have been shifting over the past few years, however, spurned by the deluge of microbrews in the United States and elsewhere. From 246 microbrasseries in 2016, France now has a whopping 1653 since the start of 2020. Marseille’s first microbrasserie, La Plaine, set sail in 2013 (the industrial La Cagole – whose bottles sport the city’s clichéd bimbo – doesn’t count). La Minotte followed in 2015. Then, in April 2018, we got our first bona fide brewpub: Zoumaï.

The name is a mash-up of the Provençale dialect that owner Jérôme’s grandmother spoke at home. “Zou” signifies “let’s go” while “maï” means “more” or “again.” In other words, Zoumaï embodies a “desire to share their creative and generous beers” – as the bottle label touts. Jérôme felt “it was important to have a local identity.” So, all of their beers are named after the tiny Mediterranean islands off Marseille’s coast.

The born-and-bred Marseillais got his first whiff of brewing at the ripe old age of 10. On a road trip, his dad pulled over beside a field of hops, plucked off a few cones and rubbed them in his hands. The pungent, herbal scent cast a spell over young Jérôme.

After reaching legal age, he joined friends on pub crawls around England, sampling pints of locally brewed farmhouse ales in wooden casks. These powerful fruity and bitter flavors gave Jérôme the desire to try brewing British-style beers at home. When we asked how his home brews fared, his smile confirmed their success. “That’s where I first made our Gaby,” he shared, using the zest of combava, Thai lime, grown in his garden for the popular white wheat ale.

Frustrated with his job as co-owner of a CGI company, Jérôme decided to pivot into the brewing business. Most importantly, he wanted to recreate the convivial pub culture he had witnessed in the UK. It was equally essential to assemble a local distribution channel to maintain the “freshness of the beer” that industrial brews lack. In this same sustainable spirit, Zoumaï’s beers are organic, too.

He partnered with Rémi, an expert in commercialization, and Geof, a former organic agriculturalist-turned-brewer. To soak up as much brewing know-how as possible, Jérôme apprenticed across the region at Sulauze in Miramas, La Minotte in Marseille and Toulon’s Bière de la Raide. Specifically choosing these micro-brasseries for their brewing style and/or their equipment, he learned what didn’t work (La Minotte was too tiny) and what did. Bière de la Rade, whose soaring warehouse had both brewery and pub under one roof, made a big impression.

It was equally essential to assemble a local distribution channel to maintain the “freshness of the beer” that industrial brews lack.

An old body shop near Jérôme’s former office caught his eye. Since the hipster industrial aesthetic hasn’t taken off in Marseille, the space was “a gamble,” he admits, in spite of its central location near the Castellane metro stop. Once inside Zoumaï, you can see he bet smartly.

Recycled wooden tables are scattered beneath a vaulted ceiling, whose skylight streams in dappled daylight. They sit besides a wall of giant steel tanks, often fragrant with the yeasty aromas of fermenting hops. Plants that hang from metal ducts and on the wall add a homey feel.

At the large L-shaped bar, certain design features pay tribute to Marseille. The 13 taps represent the number of the Bouches-du-Rhône department. Behind them, wooden planks form the city’s famous skyline – with the Bonne Mère, the tallest point, at its peak.

On tap you’ll find Riou (an amber ale), Maïre (a rye IPA), and the Planier, a single-hop, single-malt beer named for the island that house’s Marseille’s historic lighthouse. The most popular, Tiboulen, is a dry-hopped (houblonné á cru) pale ale. Jérôme explains that adding the hops later in the brewing process allows for their aromatic floral notes to shine instead of the bitterness that results when they’re boiled with wet hopping.

marseille beer made by zoumaï

The hops come from France, Belgium, Spain and the United States. While Jérôme would love to source more locally, he admits that that the Americans are “way ahead of us” in terms of quality. Using large tanks from Manchester, the brasseurs stick to a British method of brewing – in layman’s terms, the beer filters by gravity to preserve their flavors.

From apples and quince in the winter to apricots in the summer, Zoumaï’s seasonal Pomègues beer brims with fresh fruit. Last autumn, they used just-pressed rolle (vermentino) grapes from a friend that runs the popular Cassis vineyard, Domaine Paternel.

This community spirit courses through Zoumaï’s veins. The Torpilleur Café stout is infused with coffee from nearby artisanal roaster Café Corto. Bison Bleu, a creative collective next door, designs their eye-catching labels. The brewery donates spent grain to local farms for animal feed and partners with Le Carillon, a non-profit that supports the city’s homeless community.

Zoumaï also supports their fellow brewers via rotating guest taps. If you’re not a beer fan, the brewpub also pours wine, cider and non-alcoholic beverages (including a house made combava limonade). Snacks include planches (boards) of charcuterie, veggies or dips. Or, order Marseille’s most beloved dish via nearby pizzeria Mia Nonna. Go local with a moité-moité, half anchovy, half cheese.

Inspired by Jérôme’s past life as a former stand-up bass player in a jazz band, Zoumaï hosts an eclectic line-up of live music – from country and Brazilian funk to Afro-American soul and swing dance parties. This sociability, and Covid-19 social distancing, has sparked a second, summer-only locale, the BeerGarden in Mazargues, that’s more spacious than the brewpub’s sidewalk patio.

You can also find Zoumaï’s brews at shops, restaurants and bars about town. Rémi, who handles sales, says his job is easy since “the beer sells itself.” At the beginning, the brewpub produced around 400 hectoliters. Two years later, they’re at 1,000 –around 33,000 bottles of beer. Business is going so well they’re expanding next door. Doubling their production space to make sure the Marseillais don’t go thirsty.

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