Bouilleur de Cru (Burgundy)

By Bertrand Celce  2010-1-19 16:15:44

An artisan distillery in Burgundy

Morvan, Burgundy
Traditional distillers or bouilleurs de cru are  very difficult to find in France. Even though they work legally, their activity is strictly reglemented and as they don't sell alcohol but only provide the distillation service to those allowed to make alcohol from their fruits, they don't need to have a street shop in plain view. Many of them do that as a side job during the winter time and thus make the distilling in an outbuilding in their farm. In short, outside of their clients, the bouilleurs de cru rarely see visitors.

This story takes place in a lesser-known region of Burgundy, the Morvan. Morvan is a thickly-wooded and sparsely-populated region of central Burgundy. Its winters are known to be very cold, and as it is the only area in Burgundy with altitudes over 700 meters, it has features closer from the central plateau than from the rest of Burgundy, with many rivers and streams originating from the area (see on map, the green patch). Morvan is also an ancient Celtic land, the Celts having settled in these mountains as early as the last centuries B.C. (Morvan actually means "black mountain" in Celtic).

When I visited Joël Soilly's distillery in the Morvan, the region was thick with snow and along my drive from further east I went through beautiful landscapes with hills, forests and winding roads. I barely came across any other vehicule on my short drive as people prefered to avoid these side roads under the icy conditions.

The hero of this story is Joël, the man on the right on the picture above. Joël has a very busy life : in addition to his day job in the French Railways (so to speak, as he is doing the night shifts) and his position as city counselor in the village administration, he is a bouilleur de cru, that is, he distillates alcohol for people around his village.

Rushing wood into the wood boiler

The law is very strict in France (as elsewhere I guess) for alcohol making or distillation, and the bouilleur-de-cru status makes it very  difficult to set up an artisanal distillery from scratch. To complicate things, the law has been changing regularly since its creation under the Napoléon times and I'm thankful to this absinthe website for its page (in French) summing up the regulations for the bouilleurs de cru as of today. To sum up the regulation in English, you are allowed to ferment some of your fruits if you own an orchard, you must for that bring the plastic barrel full of your fermented fruits to a communal distillery (named atelier public) or to a registered bouilleur de cru like Joël, to have the distillation of the fermented fruits done. You cannot legally distillate yourself at home, you must make beforehand a formal declaration to the French Customs and you will have the job done in a sanctionned artisanal distillery. There will be a fee to pay to the French Customs and another one for the bouilleur, for his service and work. It may sound strange for some readers to hear about the French Customs in this matter, but in France this administration is the one which deals with everything alcohol-related, be it taxes, enforcement of rules and checks in the accounting books and in the facilities.

Another thing about the bouilleurs de cru : You may have heard about the privilège : this is an ancient allowance for orchard owners to have their fermented-fruits distilled without having to pay the tax (in this case there will be only the fee for the bouilleur to pay). Privilèges aren't granted anymore and the number of exemption holders is dying off with time.

The linked page ends with an interesting consideration : it says that the distillery rights for orchard owners plays a positive role for the conservation of these old-time, rural orchards. That is an interesting subject that I addressed recently in my apple post. Now, that is a good slogan : let's drink booze to save our orchards....;-)

Unloading a barrel of fermented plums

After reaching La-Roche-en-Brenil, a village in the Morvan, I took a very small road to the hamlet of Romeneau. I can't tell if it was a paved road or a gravel road as it was thick with packed snow. I drove very carefully, reaching a community with scattered farms and asked in a couple of houses for directions. At the end and after a couple of enquiries and knocking of doors, I found the place : walking in the courtyard of the farm, I recognized the unmistakable smell of an artisanal distillery.

Joël Soilly was busy in the distillation room at the end of the long farm house. He welcomed me friendily in spite of the different tasks he had to take care of. Local people were present, some to check the process of their own distilling, some to bring their fermented fruits for the next batch, like this farmer on the picture above who is unloading from his pickup truck a plastic barrel full of fermented plum (there were two such barrels in the truck). The cow in the background must have been wondering what we humans were doing outside by such a cold weather...

Transferring buckets of plums to the alambic

The fermented fruits inside the plastic barrels sometimes don't look like fruits anymore and have  the appearance of an orange/brownish syrupy mixture. Sometimes you still distinguish something vaguely resembling fruits in the syrup.

The profession of bouilleur de cru is a very seasonal one : As the fruits have been put to ferment since the picking season by the orchard owners, they melt and ferment quietly in their plastic tank before the last stage, the distillation, can take place, in the middle of winter. This means that roughly, a bouilleur de cru is active between november and march. When they feel that the fermentation is completed, the vineyard owners contact the artisan distillery to set up a date for the distillation. These workshops don't have usually a big capacity and can't handle many clients on the same day. The orchard owners contemplating a distillation of their fruits must also get a permission from the French Customs.

To rewind back in the history of this family distillery, it all started with Joël's grandmother who came here long time ago with her alambics from another part of the Morvan (she had a privilège too). His father (her son) then followed suit for years until he passed away last march, and that's when Joël decided to keep the tradition alive in spite of his job and responsability in the village administration. To run such a distillery, you need to go to the Chambre des Métiers, an administrative entity overooking the businesses in France, and you need to get an agrément at the Préfecture and the French Customs. This agreement took 4 months to come, the administration checking that there is no morality problem or criminal record attached to the future bouilleur de cru. The agreement can be suspended by the Préfecture in case of breach of the rules.
On the Chambre-des-Métiers side, the administrative entity where he went for the setting up of his new business, the hassles and the delays were so huge before he could envision to set up shop that he nearly gave up, then a friend told him about a new governmental initiative to facilitate micro entrepreneurship (the "statut d'auto-entrepreneur") and he could legalize his activity overnight directly on the Internet.

The clients bring their own wood for the boilers

What I love here is that  the customers don't bring only their fermented fruits, they bring also the wood for the alambics and pile it up in a corner of the distillation room. This reminds me of what our elders say about the life in the countryside in the first half of the 20th century : the school children usually brought a few logs each for the wood stove standing in the middle of the classroom. Because as you noticed, all these alambics and boilers are authentic, vintage tools working with wood. Joël estimates that these distillers date from the 1920s', they have been doing a great job through several generations in the family and have just needed an occasional repair, usually some welding when some worn-out metal parts get leaks. Let's for example consider the distiller above, which you see better on the picture on the left, as it is in two pieces, the left part with the boiler, and the next part immediately on the right with the coil and cooling water : this small distiller is made by Maresté Frères in Cognac, a town of course reknowned for its distilleries. This small distiller is convenient for the small volumes. Note that the cooling water is poured into the funnel that you can see hanging over the coil. Now they hold a garden hose a few minutes over the funnel to bring the water temperature down but in the past there was no plastic hose (and no running water), and Joël's mother told me that in winter, they'd just renew the water with a couple of buckets, the water being so cold that it would do the job perfectly. And these alambics were thought as being easy to transport because then, the distillation was often an itinerant activity.

Otherwise, there are two other, bigger distillers, each with its wood-boiler underneath and its alambic with cooling coil. You can see them better on the picture below. The boiler on the right has also its cooler/alambic (you can see it on the second picture below, it's the black thing behind Joël), Joël just disconnected the two as the distilling has just finished, and he let the thing coold down.

Joël Soilly in his farm distillery
The boiler behind Joël on this picture as well as the one on the right are made by Egrot & Grangé, a Paris-based maker that doesn't exist anymore and which was known for its absinthe distillers (see linked page - Pdf). On this picture, Joël is taking away a nearly-full bucket and replacing it with another one (the green one). You can see the alcohol dropping into the green bucket. The alcohol coming out of the alambic doesn't have a similar alcohol level all along the operation. If I understood correctly, the high proofing will be at the beginning and somewhere toward the end this will be tamer alcohol coming out, which will help Joël make the alcohol strength that the customer want. Either the customer wants a 50-something alcohol and he will stop the distilling in time, either he wants something easier to drink like a 40° alcohol, and he lets the tame distillate of the end go into the bucket until the desired proof is reached.

This bouilleur-de-cru distillery is very close in aspect from what would be a communal distillery operated by a village (named atelier public or alambic communal) except that the latter is owned by the village. In this case, the orchard-owner just reserves the distillery for a given day, makes a formal declaration to the French Customs (which is the administration in France dealing with everything alcohol-related), and makes the distillation himself when the appointed day comes. Look to this utmost interesting page with videos about the distilling done by an orchard owner at his village's public distillery.

Unloading the must at the end

Estimating that the boiler cooled enough, Joël  proceeds to the emptying.  It seems relatively easy, thanks to the ingenious tilt system : in the middle of a steam haze, the hot cream flows into the wheelbarrow. He then pushed the whole thing outside, I forgot to ask what he did with it, if he just dumped it somewhere or maybe used it as compost for his crops.

Joël explains to me that the last people who were given the exemption from the tax for the distilling of their fruits (the privilège) got this right after WW2 (this right was also valid for their spouses and maybe their children). As this exemption is not heriditary anymore, there are less and less such benefiters as time passes. His mother still has this privilège, and at 72 today, she is probably one of the youngest having been granted this right. The privilège or tax-exemption is limited to a maximum of 1000° proof though, which is the equivalent of 20 liters at 50° proof. Beyond this volume, the tax will be levied.

The other people, the majority, pay the tax from the start. These orchard owners pay for example in 2010 to the French Customs a tax of 7,57 per liter of pure alcohol, which comes actually to a tax of 3,78 per liter with a alcohol content of 50° proof. When you know the quality of your fruits and of this whole distilling, that's not too bad a price. Of course, they also have to pay Joël for the service, something like 3,8 per liter. This makes a total of 7 something per liter, which again is good value, and you don't down this overnight. In French, we dont call this alcohol simply alcool, but goutte, which means also drop in French. So, if someone offers you une petite goutte ("je vous sert une petite goutte ?") after dinner, you'll know what this means. And it could even be one of these moonshines that are undoubtly made here and there in the country, even if in a smaller extent than in Russia. I had several times the opportunity to drink home-made moonshine in the Loire and even if you're not a hard-spirit drinker, this thing is so aromatic that it's worth a try.

Checking the alcohol level

On a typical distillation, Joël will transfer the fermented fruits from the plastic barrel to the big boiler/distiller (the one in the middle or the one on the right). The first distillation will not succeed to separate properly the alcohol from the water resulting from the condensed steam. The 30 to 50-liter result of a full plastic container of fruits will barely be 30 proof and will no be drinkable. This first distillate is then going through a second distillation, in the small alambic on the picture above, which has a maximun capacity of 60 liters. This time, the liquid flowing out of the coil will be at a much higher alcohol level. It will be 70° at the beginning, then at some point there will gradually be more water coming out of the alambic, with also all the fruit aromas, and it will help Joël get the type of alcohol wanted by the customer, like 50 proof or 40 proof for example. He will just have to stop the process when the right level is reached. He just checks regularly the distillate with his alcoholometer, like you can see on the picture above.

It's easy to calculate the final alcohol when he has completed the first distillation : let's say he got 30 liters at 25 proof. It means a total of 750 ° As he will adjust the second distillate at 50 proof, these 750 ° will translate into about 14 liters.

The goutte flowing out of the alambic

An interesting detail about the pouring of the fermented fruits into the boiler : he puts first a layer of straw (oats straw) on the circular metal net in the bottom. As the metal net can be moved up and down, it helps keep the thick must up from the hot base of the boiler, especially at the beginning. If not, it could result in these solid parts being burned or charred, and releasing bad aromas. Later, when the whole of the fermented juice is boiling, this is not an issue anymore, so the metal net with its thick must can be dropped back at the bottom.

See this page with pictures of home distillery tools.
On the moonshine-vodka subject, watch again this burlesque Soviet movie of the 1960s', Samogonshtshiki, it's a Soviet classic of the genre. It features three guys making vodka illegally in an isba in the middle of nowhere. The actors were very famous and are fondly loved by the average Russian until today. Watch how one of them calculates the amount of sugar...

This video was shot in central Burgundy, east of the Morvan. The whole thing has an almost fairy-tale feel : imagine a medieval castle which until recently was completely abandonned and overgrown by bushes and trees. It sits in the middle of a hilly wooded area and it's wonderfully quiet. I've been there twice, the first time was in november with B. and each time there was nobody around.

The Chateau de Rochefort is in the slow process of being renovated thanks to a non-profit group made of volunteers who get a few subsidies from the region. Working on weekends, these people first cleared the trees and bushes which endangered the structure and they have already begun repairing certain parts of the building like the former drawbridge. Kudos to these volunteers who come here in summer to give their energy !

Link to the Chateau de Rochefort rescue group. Click on the different "Vue" pages above the plan to see how this place looked like in the past. 

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