The sweet taste of sour

The sour ales of West Flanders are a delight waiting to be rediscovered. Alan Hope suggests a few places to start

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Imagine there was a new kind of beer you’d never heard of. Imagine it was made in just one limited part of the country but enjoyed by even fewer people than that. Imagine it was much less popular than it used to be, but fans would speak about it in voices of hushed reverence or zealous excitement, or sometimes both one after the other.

It’d be hard to keep you away from a beer like that, wouldn’t it? You’d be going crazy for an opportunity to try it, right?

Well, there is a beer like that. Not exactly new, but certainly limited in its production and its consumption. Something only the initiated know about, which fans treat with an almost religious veneration. Nobody quite knows what to call it. Old Brown, Flemish sour ale, Flanders red, Belgian red.

In April last year, four breweries in West Flanders joined together to promote the Rondje Roodbruin, or Red-Brown Tour: on one weekend (which happened to coincide with the Zythos beer festival at the other end of the country) the breweries Omer Vander Ghinste (formerly known as Bockor), Verhaeghe, De Brabandere (formerly Bavik) and Rodenbach opened their doors to the public, who were free to tour all four by bike or by bus, something thousands chose to do.

The event was dreamed up to publicise Flemish red-brown ales and bring them to the notice of the wider world. Ironic, because this type of sour ale is how beer used to be drunk in a large part of Belgium.

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“Historically, West Flanders had the tradition of conserving their beer with acidity,” explains Rudi Ghequire, manager of Rodenbach in Roeselare. Rodenbach, owned by the Palm brewing group, is generally considered to be the gold standard for this style of beer. “At the other side of the Scheldt river you had the influence of the Germans and the use of hops for preservation. So the area of Aalst and Asse was well known for hops in the Middle Ages, but West Flanders wasn’t,” he says. The question of what type of beer the people drank was decided, quite simply, by who their rulers happened to be. Although Poperinge in West Flanders is now the hop centre of Belgium (as we reported at length in our last issue) that was very much not the case in the early Middle Ages.

“Hops were not growing here in this area, so on the west side of the Scheldt river, people didn’t know about the healthy work of hops,” Rudi says. “When you go to Bruges, there you will find the Gruuthuse: it’s a museum now, but in the Middle Ages they were the people who sold herbs and spices to the people to flavour their beers – and food – but there were no hops among those herbs and spices.

“So they discovered another method of conserving beer, storing it apart in wood for quite a long time. Then it became a very sour flavoured beer and they blended that sour beer with young beer to reduce the pH of the blend. That achieved a pH of around 3.5 and that’s an optimum pH, because under 3.5, beer bacteria won’t grow so easily. That was a way to stabilise and give a longer shelf life to the product, and that was the type of beer that was common between the Middle Ages and modern times.”

Rodenbach is still made that way: by a process of mixed fermentation. The beer is brewed normally, using caramel malts to help fight oxidation; they also give the beer a reddish colour. Once brewed, the beer is then stored in huge oak vats called foeders.

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“A foeder is a standing vat, and why? Because when you have a vat lying down, you can top it up to avoid acid formation and sourness,” explains Rudi. “For our type of beer you need a certain acid, mostly lactic acid, to bring more flavour to the product. But for such a type of beer you also need a little bit of acetic acid. A standing vat has more head space, which allows the formation of acetic acid. In our beer that’s important. In other beers or in wine you do your best to avoid it. We want the acid to be there, but of course it has to be controlled.”

It may sound odd in this day and age, but hops are not a feature of this beer. “We use hops, but under the taste level,” Ghequire says. “There are six or seven reasons why you use hops. Conservation, bitterness or dryness, hop flavour, foam stability, cling, trub formation during the cooking process, polyphenol precipitation. So there are several reasons for using hops. But when we use them it’s for all the other reasons, not for hoppiness or bitterness. You can’t have bitterness with a sour product.”

The foeders are home to a culture of yeasts and bacteria including lactobacillus, which create the lactic acid which gives the beer its characteristic tart flavour. The word most commonly used is ‘sour’, but that word has negative connotations for most people, and brewers of this type of beer worry – with reason – that it might put people off.

However ‘sour’ is not only the taste that gets the milk in your fridge thrown out: it’s also one of the five major tastes detectable by the human palate (together with salt, bitter, sweet and umami) and as such an essential component of what we eat and drink. Sour is the taste of acidity, the characteristic of many fruits. Acetic acidity is the taste of vinegar. Lactic acidity is the property of cheese, yoghurt, sour cream and kefir, as well as non-dairy foods like sourdough bread. Whatever you’ve had to eat today, the chances are that sour foods were part of it; the flavour is particularly common in condiments such as ketchup, balsamic vinegar, vinaigrette and pickles. Acidity, besides being a flavour component of its own, also enhances other flavours. It’s no accident that sour ales, with their palate-cleansing and flavour-enhancing properties, are perfect beers to accompany food.

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Surprisingly, wine drinkers can be more open to the experience of a sour ale than beer drinkers unfamiliar with the style. Whatever the connotations of the word ‘sour’, this beer is in fact no more acidic than a glass of white wine, while endowed with the depth of flavour and complexity of a red. So what went wrong? Bert Van Hecke trained at Rodenbach and also served an internship at New Belgium in the US, one of the several American brewers now trying their hand at this most difficult of beers to get right. He thinks the brewers have themselves to blame.

“At the height of this beer style’s popularity, the brewers had the idea it would last forever, and they started to have difficulties supplying enough, so they started to be less careful about the quality,” he explains by email. Also, other beer styles are less capital-intensive – foeders are costly to obtain, and to store. Visitors to the Rodenbach brewery are invariably astonished by the avenues of red-brown standing vats stretching into the distance. Other brewers have fewer, but they still need to be housed in a building in which basically nothing happens. Beers that cost less to make, Bert says, allowed their brewers to spend more on marketing, and to cut the price of their beers. But things are looking up. “The brewers have recognised their mistake and are back producing to a very high standard of quality,” he says

The foeder storage is an essential step in the development of this beer’s unique flavour, and each one is different; each its own ecosystem producing a unique result. To ensure consistency, the beer is blended. The Vanderghinste Oud Bruin, for example, is 65% young beer and 35% oak-aged beer. That’s not always the case, however.

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The Petrus Aged Pale produced by De Brabandere had an interesting genesis. English beer guru Michael Jackson used to be a frequent visitor to the brewery, which used the sour ale for blending to make its Oud Bruin. “He asked my father three or four times if he could have it pure, but my father didn’t want to do it,” Albert De Brabandere explains. />“He said ‘I need this for my Oud Bruin and it’s way too sour to bring on the market,’ but that’s exactly what Jackson understood long before anyone else: that this is something very unique and very special. In those barrels there are fourteen families of bacteria and yeasts that have been living there in old Calvados barrels since the sixties. For that reason it takes eighteen to twenty-four months to get the beer to the level we want it. The beer decides when it leaves.”

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The Cuvée des Jacobins from Omer Vander Ghinste is also not blended. “It’s a beer style that’s a little bit forgotten, because when pils came along the market wanted more and more sweeter beers, and this style, which is a little bit sweet and sour in one, was forgotten,” says Nicolas Degryse, the brewery’s marketing manager. “But for us it’s important that we keep on brewing this type of beer, because it was the first product we made and it represents authenticity. It’s a very good product and we believe there will be a revival.”

Both Cuvée and Aged Pale are superior beers, as is the unblended Rodenbach Grand Cru and the same brewery’s vintage, which is the product of the best foeder of the year.

It does seem as if all that’s required to convince people of the quality of this style is to let them taste it. I’ve seen it among my own friends, including people who wouldn’t normally drink beer at all. How do other people react?

Nicolas: “People who are interested in beer love it. Foreigners also like it very much, but it’s not a beer for a wider public, more for people who like speciality beers, who like the taste of something other than a regular lager or a regular tripel, and who want a new flavour experience.”

Albert: “It’s a very difficult beer to describe, fresh and sour at the same time, with so many layers of complexity. Nine out of ten people hate it. It’s too sour for the average Belgian beer consumer, but for beer lovers it’s always a big success.”

Bert: “It’s a difficult style to make well, with consistency and a good sweet-sour balance. Only a few brewers are able to do this using the real old fashioned production methods. It’s a very refreshing beer, simple but still complex. It’s probably a good step for wine drinkers to discover the beer. It’s complex without the need for incredible amounts of hops. It’s good when it’s young but with ageing can be as good as a fine wine, with a Madeira-like flavour.”

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April’s Rondje Roodbruin was a small success, and is likely to be repeated (although perhaps not next time to coincide with Zythos?) if Rodenbach has any say. “The Rondje Roodbruin was an idea that came from myself two years ago,” Rudi says. “Rodenbach is the most important brewery in this area in this type of beer. This is our bread and butter, our raison d’être. For the other breweries, it’s just one of their brands. But you can’t make a tour on your own, so that’s why I motivated the other breweries to take part. It’s in everyone’s interest.”

The beers
DeBrabandere: Petrus Aged Pale, Petrus Aged Red
www.brouwerijdebrabandere.be
Rodenbach: Rodenbach, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Rodenbach Vintage, Rodenbach Caractère Rouge
www.palm.be
Omer Vander Ghinste: Vanderghinste Oud Bruin, Cuvée des Jacobins
www.omervanderghinste.be
Verhaeghe: Vichtenaar, Duchesse de Bourgogne
www.brouwerijverhaeghe.be

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