Category Archives: Sour Ale

#195 – Rodenbach

#195 - Rodenbach

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.2 %

Rodenbach is a name that many beer afficionados will immediately get excited about, primarily for the highly rated Rodenbach Grand Cru (#17) which is likely the finest example of a Belgian Sour ale that is known to man. There also exists the standard Rodenbach which was to pass my palate on this particular occasion.

Now, where the Rodenbach Grand Cru relies upon the finest matured vats of sour ale from the cellars to be mixed together, the standard Rodenbach mixes the old with the much younger which inevitably results in a more subdued flavour as you might expect. Essentially what this means is that after the original beer has had its main fermentation, it is then conditioned for around four to five weeks in casks, whereby the beer starts to acquire its sharp lactic flavour. The brewery are not particularly open in terms of the exact time they leave the younger beer to develop, however it is fair to say that the longer a beer is left in this fashion, the less likely it will be to retain its fresh clean taste. It is likely now that for the standard Rodenbach offering a period of four weeks is given to condition the “younger” beer.

Once the brewers are able to nail down the younger beer, they are able to play around with different varieties of the matured casks to create different strains of beer. A number of these efforts already sit in my cellar waiting to be drunk on a special occasion. The key to the development naturally comes not only from the various ages of vats, but also from some very special and unique varieties of yeast. Rodenbach tend to play with around twenty different strains, which include lactobacilli and Brettanomyces – reknowned of course for their important role in the production of lambic beers. A number of very reputable breweries, including De Dolle and Westvleteren used Rodenbach yeasts for around twenty years!

This particular beer was always going to be a little bit of a step down from the Grand Cru, however it was far from being the ugly sister. It had all the same colour and consistency that graced the Grand Cru, and poured without virtually any traces of head. The flavour was naturally sour but without the lip smacking tartness which I had previously encountered. It was a very pleasant start to the evening and a great example of a typical standard Belgian sour ale which many other local breweries have not been able to produce so appealingly.

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#146 – Vichtenaar

#146 - Vichtenaar

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 5.1 %

The claim to fame often laid at the feet of the Flemish oud-bruin Vichtenaar, is that it is the family favourite. This isn’t just any old family either, when you consider that since 1817, the Verhaeghe clan have been brewing in this area of West Flanders. Even now they dominate the local culture and own approximately 15 pubs and bars in the local area.

The name of the beer is in reference to the tiny village of Vichte, which has been the home to the brewing operations since 1875. Before this, the Verhaeghe’s were holed up in the village of Kuurne. The present owner of the brewery is Karl Verhaeghe and he is extremely keen to keep the family traditions running. It was his great-grandfather who started things off at the brewery in Vichte, armed with his own maltery and copper brew-kettles. These were removed by the Germans during World War I, when Paul refused to brew for the occupants, and the maltery has long since been closed, but much else remains the same – this includes many of the large oak casks, and the koelschip, although this is no longer used.

Paul Verhaeghe carried on the running of the brewery until 1928 when he handed it over to his two sons, Leon and Victor. It would then be another 44 years until they handed over to their sons, Jacque and Pierre. I just love the way that this arrangement is still present in so many breweries in Belgium. This isn’t just a nostalgic look at the way breweries used to be; this is real life, and this is a proper brewery. Beers like Vichtenaar win prizes and turn heads.

The brewing and fermentation process for Vichtenaar is virtually the same as the Duchesse de Bourgogne (#105), except that the beer remains unblended. It is aged in oak casks for eight months and then simply bottled. The result is a typical sour red-brown ale which tantalises the tastebuds. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the two but I would venture that the Vichtenaar is somewhat sweeter, although without the two together it’s hard to compare. I will save that for another night.

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#105 – Duchesse de Bourgogne

#105 - Duchesse de Bourgogne

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 6.2 %

My third beer of the night, and something of a switch after two heavy tripels. I had heard a lot about the Duchess of Burgundy, and was served this one up by Andrew in its rightful glass. I had only possibly drunk two Belgian beers loosely named after a woman. One was a statue in a Park in Ostend (#43), and the other was a witch (#79). Surely here was a proper Belgian heroine?

Before my infatuation with Belgium I would often struggle to be able to name many famous Belgians, let alone a female one. I’m still trying to think of one now. Even TinTin and Asterix were completely male orientated! Ask any Belgian however, and many will point to the good Duchesse – and with good reason.

Mary of Burgundy was born at the Castle of Coudenburg in Brussels in 1457, to be the only child of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and his wife Isabella of Bourbon. She was instantly the heiress to a vast swathe of Burgundian land stretching from the Low Countries deep into France. She instantly became a hit with the fellas, even at the age of five when her hand was sought for the future Ferdinand II of Aragon. Later suitors included King Louis XI of France on behalf of his son, the Dauphin Charles. Mary managed to hold off the attention, although things came to a bit of a head in 1477 when her father infamously died at the Siege of Nancy. France suddenly saw an opportunity to secure the inheritance of the Low Countries through the union with the 19 year old Mary.

It is perhaps fair to say that the Duchesse de Bourgogne is so popular in the modern era due to her snubbing of the French. Later that year, she opted to take the hand of Archduke Maximilian* of Austria, aligning herself to the Hapsburgs and changing the fate of history for the Low Countries. What followed was about two hundred years of relative peace. The French were spurned, and civil strife was abated. It wasn’t something however that Mary could spend her later years looking back on fondly. Tragically just five years after marrying Maximilian she was thrown from her horse while falconing and trampled. It was to break her back and she survived no more than a few days. The artwork on the label is a famous Flemish portrait of Mary and her falcon photographed by Hugo Maertens.

The beer itself is a Flanders sour red ale with plenty of bite, which gets its unique flavour through a primary and secondary fermentation, followed by eighteen long months maturation in oak. The final mix is then blended with a younger eight month beer. Its well worth the wait, but like anything in 250 ml bottles its over in the shake of a lambs tail.

* You may remember Maximilian from drinking Brugse Zot (#36) – he suggested that the people of Bruges were all mad fools !

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#102 – Echt Kriekenbier

#102 - Echt Kriekenbier

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 6.8 %

Echt Kriekenbier is a famous traditional Flemish cherry ale made by Verhaeghe, and is based on the brew Vichtenaar (#146). After being matured in oak casks for about eight months, in a similar style to the Rodenbach Grand Cru (#17), a batch of the Vichtenaar is not taken for sale, but is left to mature in the oak casks and filled with very local and very sour cherries. A selection of different aged casks of this fine concoction are then blended together (usually between one and three years) and then bottled for our delectation.

It is worth making the point here and now that this is a kriekenbier and not a kriek! There is a subtle difference as all aficionados will tell you, in that one is not officially allowed to call a kriek a kriek unless it contains lambic beer. Kriekenbier refers to any other possible fusion – which I suppose could include steeping in sour ales, stout or even wheat beer. Like the Bacchus Frambozenbier (#38) the Echt Kriekenbier is mixed with an Oud Bruin. It is worth making the distinction as other sour ales exist which are known as red ales, such as the Duchesse de Bourgogne (#105), also from Verhaeghe.

The Echt Kriekenbier is an impressive brew, actually not unlike the Rodenbach Grand Cru, although there is slightly less of it in the 250 ml bottles. The Echt in the title refers to the adjective in the German and Dutch languages meaning ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’. My mum will vouch for this through her screwed up face on having a sip of what I cheekily told her was a cherry beer. At least I didn’t have to waste any more, and it’s a good sign as if my mum likes a beer you know its probably bad !

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#42 – Bacchus

#42 - Bacchus

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 4.5 %

We have already come across a Bacchus (#38) whereby raspberries were added to brown ale – well this is the brown ale in question – Bacchus Vlaams Oud Bruin. ‘Oud Bruin’ is Flemish for Old Brown, distinguishing the colour from other local sour ales like Rodenbach, which tend to be red, and ‘Vlaams’ is Flemish for … well ‘Flemish’ – Flemish Brown Ale.

When we drunk and purred over the Rodenbach Grand Cru (#17), we learnt that the sour ale is made by oak-aging the beers in order to mature them. It is this process which gives the beers of East and West Flanders their unique acidity. The oak-aged conditioning introduces a similar lactate fermentation to the lambic beers (#12) except that there are less natural yeasts around thus the product isn’t quite so extreme. The brewers also add a dab of acetic acid at this stage to get the flavour going – something taboo for lambics.

The best sour ales of this kind are made in oak-vats and usually kept for two years, although some breweries might resort to using steel casks, or even trying to get the oaky effect by suspending particles of wood in their brews. Van Honsebrouck are reliant on a ‘koelschip’, which is essentially a large vat in the roof where the wort is left to attract natural yeasts just as lambic beers do. It all adds to the breweries attempts to recreate the good old days – even the new paper label of the old bloke with the beer is a typical Flemish old-time image.

The label also reflects the aging process used with the quotation ‘met wijnsmaak’ – meaning ‘with wine taste’, and its fair to say this brew is a little similar. My over-riding impression was that this was like a fruit beer without the fruit – a frambozenbier without the frambozen. It’s certainly sour on opening, and it rightly pongs but it isn’t overpowering on drinking. It looks the part, is pleasant to drink, but it doesn’t really set any standards – unlike the Rodenbach Grand Cru.

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#38 – Bacchus Frambozenbier

#38 - Bacchus Frambozenbier

Size: 375 ml

ABV: 5%

Raspberry beer – it might sound odd but historically raspberries have often been added to beers after initial fermentation. Lambic beers in particular, where the term ‘steeping’ is used to describe the process of adding bucketfuls of fruit into beer and then leaving to further ferment for about six months. Bacchus Frambozenbier isn’t really a traditional lambic fruit beer, but the lauded quality of these has led to many different brewery experiments over the years. Bacchus (#42) is actually a sour brown ale, and the raspberries have been added for a secondary fermentation. It tends to work pretty well, and Van Honsebrouck and Verhaeghe are good exponents of the fruity sour ale style, with the Echt Kriekenbier (#102) being a perfect example.

The popularity of raspberries in the history of fruit beer is that they are a particularly pungent and aromatic fruit, and it doesn’t take too many to make an impact on the flavour, even in a sour ale. Raspberries and cherries have for this reason been largely used, however in recent times a number of other different fruits such as peaches, apricots and blueberries have been utilised. Largely they aren’t as pungent, but sadly they are much cheaper. As we have already mentioned in other posts (notably #24) syrups and cordials have largely replaced the real fruit to the detriment of the fruit beer, but real fruit lambics and sour ales are a treasure, and often only found in Belgium of course.

I wasnt expecting great things but was happily surprised by this. Where Fruli is bright and radioactive, the Bacchus Frambozenbier was dark and brooding in colour. The smell and flavour was clearly aromatic raspberries but it really didnt overpower me. I could still taste beer in the aftertaste and although it faded and tasted a bit artificial in the end, I really did enjoy drinking this. The stock of fruit beers has risen; albeit a sour ale. Arise the raspberry!

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#17 – Rodenbach Grand Cru

 

#17 - Rodenbach Grand Cru

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

Rodenbach is an extremely unique brewery in that after brewing and fermenting in the normal fashion, the beers are aged in oak casks – something of a Flemish tradition. There are about 300 ceiling-high oak wooden tuns on the premises, all of various sizes, and each gives the contents a slightly different taste and colour.

Rodenbach age the beers for two distinct periods of time. The “young” beer tends to mature for four to five weeks to give it the sharpness, however the “old” beers tend to mature for about two whole years – although this is by no means official information such is the secrecy instilled within the brewery.

The key to the production of the Rodenbach beers is that the contents of these tuns are mixed together to create the different Rodenbach beers. The standard Rodenbach (#195) beverage mixes the young and the old together for bottling, whereby the Rodenbach Grand Cru uses only the finer mature tuns.

The end result is that of a red Belgian Sour Ale, that the sadly departed beer guru Michael Jackson labelled “the most refreshing beer in the world”. From my experience on a warm night in, she poured a dark crimson, with a lacy head and a real pungent aroma immediately pleasured my olfactory senses. With a fine amount of fizz, the beer stayed both immeasurably fresh and sour from start to finish. It has a fairly odd taste to your normal beer, but you really can’t help but enjoy it. For anyone who doesn’t like this, then surely it must be a case of sour grapes.

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Filed under 8, Rodenbach (Palm), Sour Ale