In this discreet microbrewery on the eastern edge of the 20th, Bruno Torres bottles his beers “on lees”
Under the high-rise apartment buildings of the Python-Duvernois neighborhood, where the rue Henri Duvernois curves around the tennis courts, and just after the blue mural at the corner of the rue Joseph Python, Brasserie La Baleine sits almost invisible from the street. Shaded by several trees and set back on a small parking lot, the space looks like a service entrance. A small wooden bottle opener hanging on the door is the only hint at this space’s true use. Here, at 17 rue Henri Duvernois, Bruno Torres brews and bottles his natural beers “on lees”.
“Lees”, Bruno explains, is yeast sediment. After fermenting their beers, many brewers filter out these yeasts and other sediments. They then carbonate their beers by injecting CO2 before bottling them or serving them on tap. This process quickly creates clear beers with stable flavors. “But it removes a lot of the virtues that a beer should have naturally,” Bruno says, noting that brewer’s yeast is considered a health food and beauty product.
“I think it’s silly for craft brewers – even worse for organic brewers – to use force carbonation. It betrays and deteriorates the product. I can’t imagine making a beer that isn’t natural,” says Bruno, who uses local malts and hops. Instead of filtering them out, he leaves these yeasts and uses them to carbonate his beers naturally. “When I finish my fermentation, I transfer my beer back to a tank. And I add sugar to reactivate the yeasts so that they will naturally produce CO2 once the beer is bottled. This takes a good two to three weeks longer,” Bruno explains, “But why buy CO2 when you can make it naturally?”
A former photographer, Bruno began brewing at home some seven years ago when he was looking for a job change. He briefly considered learning to make wine before wondering how beer was made. He picked up a couple of books on brewing at the FNAC and “read a lot” before deciding to pursue brewing as a career. “I learned that beer is an extremely healthy product that has really benefited people’s health historically. When there were problems with water, it saved entire populations,” he says. “So the story interested me. And the product interested me because it’s cooking and it’s really creative.”
At the time, craft brewing hadn’t taken off yet in France. So he practiced at home and took a training course at the French Beverage, Brewing and Malting Institute (IFMB) in Nancy. Through networking, he met a craft brewer from Lyon who had built his own microbrewery and who helped Bruno turn milk cooling tanks into brewing tanks.
Bruno opened his microbrewery in June 2013, calling it “La Baleine” after a whale-shaped fountain in the square Saint-Éloi in the 12th, where he lives. “My kids spent most of their time playing in that park. And the idea of a park, an agora, a gathering place, conviviality, that’s the spirit of the beer. Plus it made me laugh to put a whale on a beer label in Paris.”
Today, Bruno’s bottles with a whale on the label are on the shelves of some 200 or 300 supermarkets, fine groceries, beer and wine caves, restaurants, and bars across the Île de France region. He also sells at the brewery on appointment. “We should have surpassed 600 hectoliters last year, but with Covid, it was a bit complicated. We sold more in supermarkets and local shops, but that hasn’t made up for the lack of restaurants and bars,” Bruno says. “It’s not a lot. But we don’t get bored. We try to develop amusing beers. I’m always looking for new and interesting tastes, flavors and textures.”
In seven years, he’s created almost a dozen recipes including the blond with citrus notes La Lucite, the smoky amber La Gitane, and the four-grain white La Picaro. He’s also developed two beers using yeast from Benoît Castel, a famous baker-pastry chef of the 20th: the white Cru 1910 and the dark Cru 1924 (a play on words with a wine “cru” and two major floods, “crue”, in Paris). In another tribute to the 20th, he uses grape must from the Belleville vineyards to make a beer called Mou’v.
“I really love the 20th. It’s lively. It’s a complete mix of everything,” Bruno says. He’s happy in the Python-Duvernois neighborhood, which is set to see some major redevelopment in the coming years. “My building is set to be demolished in 2023. So I’m looking elsewhere, but I’d really like to stay here. Maybe I can have a place in the new buildings,” Bruno says.