Belgium is best known for punchy Blonds and Trappist and Abbey Ales, but what’s the story behind the Flemish Red? Or, perhaps more importantly, what sets it apart from the Belgian beer pack? Here’s a clue: if dark, fruity aromas and intense sour flavours are your thing, the Flemish Red will be right up your alley.
Let’s start with a glass of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru. It’s the colour of an aged, stained, weathered wooden floor (oak perhaps?), with flashes and tints of crimson-red flashing like signals in the night; the aroma is a co-habitation of tingling sourness and warm fruitiness, alongside a honeyed sweetness. Sipped, for this is a beer to sip and contemplate, a yin and yang of acidity and fruitiness work together, like the strings and woodwind joining each other in a great orchestra; there’s also a hint of the wood in which the beer has slept the sleep of the just within, an undercurrent of sweetness and a soft tartness that refreshes the palate. The finish is sour and sweet and lingers long enough as you prepare for the next sip (for let us not forget we sip not slurp this elegant beer).
Glass and bottle emptied, the next step to take is board the train from Brussels to the West Flemish town of Roeselare, home to Rodenbach, a Camino de Santiago of beer pilgrimages; a journey I have taken several times. Memories flash back: standing in a petrified forest of monstrous oak foeders, tubby and tall, dark and seriously brown in colour, girdled with red metal bands, lying upright and silent beneath the ground, the contents of which one day would soon be blended and brought together to make one of the greatest beers to come out of Belgium. Here in this space, sleep the young and the old whose ultimate destiny will be to become Rodenbach’s Flemish Reds, beers such as the Grand Cru and Vintage, the latter being an annual release of the brewers’ ‘cask of the year’. Here in this silent space these beers wait for the day when they can be blended and brought together under the watchful eye of brewery Site Manager Rudi Ghequire.
There are nearly 300 foeders in this space with some of the beers being held within for up to two years. Up above ground, the beers have been brewed with a grist of pale and coloured malts plus a minimum of local hops (from Poperinge), added for foam stabilisation. The brewery’s own yeast strain adds the coup de grace, before the liquid is transferred to conical fermenters where, after a week of fermentation and then a month of conditioning, the beer finds its way into the foeders, where yeasts and bacteria within the wood work away and produce lactic acid and lower the ph of the beer. This is brewing as an act of faith, or maybe the culmination of nearly 200 years of brewing (the oldest foeder was built in 1836).
Sour beers keep you young
‘Rodenbach is the missing link between beer and wine,’ Rudi once told me as he handed over a taster of a five-month-old beer (balsalmic, apple, grapefruit notes, refreshing in its sourness). He then added with an impish grin, ‘sour beers also keep you young’. The afternoon had been spent talking about the structure, the brewing process, the history and the gastronomic possibilities of Flemish Reds; of how this unique beer style is made and of its essential place on the dining table. However, one moment stood out in Rodenbach’s history.
Sometime in the 1870s, Rudi told me, a member of the Rodenbach family travelled to England to study the brewery industries’ blending processes. No one knows for certain which brewery was visited, but Michael Jackson and several other beer writers have speculated that Greene King was the host, especially given that its Strong Suffolk remains a blend of freshly brewed ale and a beer aged in wood for two years.
The English Exchange
Naturally, there are other Belgian beers such as Duchesse De Bourgogne and Liefmans Goudenband which like Rodenbach reveal the joy of time and blending, but what about the English? In recent years, this exchange of views in the age of Victoria has been rediscovered by British breweries, who have remembered they once blended beers, they once merged the young with the old and they let in various yeasts and micro-organisms. If you want to experience that sour/acidic/aged/blended journey further then join with Wild Beer’s Modus Operandi, whose generously complex nose earthy, chocolaty, vinous and balsamically sour, while there is chocolate, cherry, soft vanilla and a generous bitter finish on the palate. Oh and yes, this is a beer to sip not slurp.