The question I pondered on while walking between the vast, oak maturation vats of Rodenbach was, ‘why here?’. The sour beers of west Flanders are another of the golden strands of uniqueness in the richly weft tapestry of Belgian brewing. But how? How did these insanely complex beers to brew, confrontationally surprising beers to drink, develop and thrive in this rather forlorn, horizonless town in the western reaches of Belgium?
This particular journey was something of an odyssey. In two days I had experienced breweries and brewers of Belgian special ale, lambic, white beers and now the sour beers. The connection was Palm, who had purchased the shares from the remaining members of the Rodenbach family in 1998 and were giving their time in order to strike a potential distribution deal. Rodenbach wasn’t on that agenda, but you could tell they were itching to show me the brewery when they learnt that beyond commercial considerations, I was also interested in their brewing heritage. We galloped across Flanders from north of Brussels to the east, past Oudenaarde, Bruges to Roselaere. I hadn’t quite appreciated what I was about to see.
Roselaere itself is industrial, located on a major canal that opened up the industry in the area, and played its part in later years in cementing Flemish identity. The landscape was lumpily flat; an occasional berg standing out afar; raised pavements curving sinuously over canal bridges, small copses of trees, the lower branches removed to give them an almost abstract, perfectly round-back Mister Men form. The buildings typically sported Dutch gables and the characteristic thumb high brown bricks that add extra emphasis to their mortar and horizontal plane. The influences on the beers of Roselaere were from all sides; from Flanders to the east, from the Netherlands to the north, France to the south and from England a short paddle over the water westwards, where at the time ageing beers in wood was most advanced and widely practised.
In comparison to the earthy plainness of the town and surrounding countryside, the brewery is arresting. I have visited brewing sites in the Czech Republic and Bavaria and stood in awe at cathedrals to brewing. The lager tanks below the Smíchov brewery in Prague; the billowing beer tents of Munich’s Oktoberfest or the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart; the medieval fairytale dreamland of Bamberg’s breweries; or the intimacy of drinking fresh Kölsch next to their maturation tanks in a bar in Cologne. This was something else though; a brewery of complexity and astounding, industrial design it left me dumbstruck. I padded round, head straining back and forth, I struggling to compute the intricate details of ingredients, fermentation regimes and processes, the effects of aging, the alchemies of blending. Yet the impact of the brewery hit home immediately; the idiosyncratically beautiful malt drying house and in particular, the halls of foeders, their huge oak maturation barrels. Thick vertical staves reach 15 feet up, more for some; with a burnished nutty complexion and stand-out grain more like chestnut or pitch pine and a sheen as if massaged with the natural oil from workers’ hands over countless years. Multiple bands of iron hold the pressured tanks together, picked out in letter-box red, whilst resting on small stone feet, picked out in whitewash, which allow air to circulate and tapping or moving the beer. Each was numbered with a wrought iron plaque like those on the side of a steam engine.
Later I attempted to decipher my mental notes: it is a mixed fermentation; the young beer is first fermented in stainless steel tanks with a mixed culture: a magical soupy catalyst developed from when Rodenbach cooled their beers in the large, shallow, open top coolships once used widely in Belgian breweries, less so today. The mix is a typically hungry strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae and bacteria which produce lactic acid. They ferment in that order too, the first producing the fruitiness, the second the more complex tangy, tart characters. But as if this wasn’t enough, most of the beer is then transferred to the foeders, where it matures for a further three years picking up the oaky tannins and retro confectionery tastes (Pear drops, Sherbet Lemons, and I even got a whiff of ‘Toxic Waste’ in there too (that’s sourness… if not that retro)).
The heart of the poet in me celebrated this wonderful beer shrine with its wonderful, distinctive beers; the hard commercial head fretted over how long it would last in the cut throat world of globalising brewing, where enzymes and ‘essences’ are used to mimic the complex flavours of genuine craft.
Perhaps though, the trenches of defence lie in the beers themselves. These are not easily attainable beers, not instant crowd pleasers. They all need a rite of passage; multiple attempts; repeated sipping through quizzical looks, gurning faces and sharp intakes of breath on encountering the sourness. They display layers of complexity which anyone with a normal food vocabulary would be unable to compute – ‘what was that?’. Biscuity malty notes; fruity spiciness; oaky tannins; cidery appley bite; the sour aromas of wine vinegars with the sharp tanginess of wild bacteria. Rodenbach is a reasonably sizeable brewery but their products are niche. Many brewers, trained in industrial scale lager and ale brewing dismiss them as undrinkable (undrinkable classics, perhaps). The beer writer Michael Jackson felt somewhat exploited when he was quoted ad nauseum by the brewery after describing Rodenbach’s beer (the Grand Cru) as ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’. Yet you can see where he was coming from; the complex fruitiness on first sip gives a layers of flavour reward whilst the tartness gives a pleasing sour pinch in the aftertaste. A virtuous circle of quenching drinkability and savouring reflection? In recent times, I read that the blend of Rodenbach original had been amended to make it slightly sweeter, less sour – a larger proportion of young to old beer and on drinking a bottle recently I would concur. The lines of defensibility though lie in remaining highly different, a difference which Rodenbach should both emphasise and treasure.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014