In college, for some reason I can’t recall now, I bought a bottle of a brown ale from Liefmans. This was 15 years ago, and at the time, my only knowledge of any sort of sour beer was Lindeman’s Lambics, which is technically a lambic, but not very traditional. I had no idea that other sour beers even existed. However, I do remember drinking this bottle, expecting something more like an English brown ale, and coming away thinking…Wow, this was pretty damn good. I really was not sure what I enjoyed about it at the time, but I do remember thinking I would buy more if I ever saw it…which I never did. A few years ago, I had a taste of Duchesse de Bourgogne, and the bell went off in my head. Duchesse is red/brown Flemish ale, sour, sweet, and with a very distinct balsamic vinegar taste to it. Then, a bit later, I had a chance to try two more flemish reds. The first is Cuvee des Jacobins, which I had on draft at the Lions Pride in Brunswick. It is now my wife’s favorite beer. I took my parents there for lunch, and my mother tried a sip of the beer, promptly declared it “vile” and spent the next 15 minutes trying to get the taste out of her mouth. My wife and I now refer to it jokingly as “that Vile beer” and hope it is on draft when we go down for a meal. The second beer was Rodenbach. This is finally distributed to Maine, and I had a chance to try it, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I think I agree with my wife, as I slightly prefer Cuvee des Jacobins over Rodenbach, I find it has a bit more going on in the glass.
After trying these, my wife deciding that I had to start making these. Of course this requires the onerous task of researching the style more. I have had a chance to try various sour’s inspired by these ales, such as Jolly Pumpkin,Monk’s Cafe, Petrus Oud Bruin, and Ommegang Zuur. I also read Wild Brews by Jeff Sparrow, which is probably the best single book on brewing sours out right now. I also listened to some podcasts from the Brewing Network regarding this style.
Flemish reds come from the western part of Belgium, which used to be the Kingdom of Flanders. Right across the channel from Britain, the brewing tradition of sour beers reached across the channel. In the UK, the tradition of barrel or vat aging beer to make it “old” or “stale” had a long tradition, which has sadly mostly died out in the UK. In the process, the beer would be fermented, and then would be put in vats or barrels to age, where it would sour from the bacteria in the wood. Then this aged beer would be blended with “young” or “fresh” beer and sold on draft.
The process is practiced still in Flanders. The brewery still in existence that typifies this approach is the Rodenbach Brewery. Founded in 1821 by the Rodenbach family when they bought the St. George’s Brewery in Roeselare , a son of one of the original founds, Eugene Rodenbach studied brewing in the UK, and came back and instituted the process of aging and blending used now. The “yeast” from Rodenbach is actually a mixed strain, with lactobacillus and various brettanomyces yeasts mixed it. This mixed strain was taken to many breweries in Flanders, where they established the basis of other “acid” ale breweries. Most recently, the culture from Rodenbach was used by de Dolle to make Oerbier, but they can no longer get the culture from Rodenbach (now owned by Palm brewing) and instead propagate it themselves. Rodenbach pasteurizes their beer, so you can’t actually get cultures from the bottles, but there are a few select taverns in Belgium that sell the raw stuff straight from the cask, and at least one enterprising microbiologist has managed to get a sample and propagate it for reuse. The cultures derived from this have been mixed in East Coast Yeast #2 Flemish red blend.
So, anyway, brewing a Flemish red at home is not an easy proposition. These are blended ales, where the brewery mixes and matches lots from different aged barrels or vats to get the flavor they want. Also, the culture is a complex assortment of brewers yeast with wild yeasts and bacteria. Wyeast makes a blend called Roeselare, which I used for this. I also followed the advice of a Mr. Jamil Zainasheff using his suggestions and fermenting it first with a clean yeast initially, then racking to secondary and adding the culture, and let it sit for a long time in a plastic bucket. Anyway, here is the recipe for 6.25 gallons.
2.00 lb Pilsner Malt Extract (2.5 SRM) Dry Extract 16.67 %
5.00 lb Vienna Malt (3.0 SRM) Grain 41.67 %
3.00 lb Munich Malt (9.0 SRM) Grain 25.00 %
0.50 lb Aromatic Malt (26.0 SRM) Grain 4.17 %
0.50 lb Caramunich Malt (56.0 SRM) Grain 4.17 %
0.50 lb Special B Malt (180.0 SRM) Grain 4.17 %
0.50 lb Wheat Malt, Bel (2.0 SRM) Grain 4.17 %
1.00 oz Goldings, East Kent [5.00 %] (60 min) Hops 14.0 IBU
1.00 oz Oak Chips (Secondary 7.0 days) Misc
4.00 oz Malto-Dextrine (Boil 15.0 min) Misc
1 Pkgs Roselare Belgian Blend (Wyeast Labs #3763)Yeast-Ale
1 Pkgs Safale (Fermentis #05) Yeast-Ale
The grain was mashed at 158F for 45 minutes, trying to get more dextrines in the beer for the bugs to chew on. OG: 1.062, FG: 1.012, IBU: 14.0.
The beer was fermented with Safale 05 first for about 1 week, then the Roesalare blend was added, as I stated above. This beer was racked over after primary was completed. I added the oak at that point with the Roeselare blend, and I let it sit for 1 year before I bottled it. I was a bit worried about the high gravity, most sours are not really something you want to bottle with a SG above 1.010, but it had not moved in 8 months, so I figured it was safe to bottle. To bottle this, I mixed the priming sugar with 3g of rehydrated champagne yeast.
Tasting — The beer is essentially flat. It is a brown color with red highlights when held up to light. It has a distinct “funk” to the aroma, that barnyardy, horsey smell with some cherry. The brettanomyces was doing its job. The is a hint of sourness to the smell, as well as some caramelly maltiness. No hops. Tasting it, the first thing I get is some caramelly maltiness, with a slight prickly, acidy tang. The esters come through toward the end, the cherry taste comes out, and you really get it in the aftertaste with more of the acidic tang. There is not really much acetic character to this at all. It is not particularly sour, but quite cleansing. The mouthfeel was a bit thinner, but with some nice smoothness that coats the mouth well.
Critique — I let my wife taste it, and she gave it her seal of approval. The color is on, and the maltiness balanced with the slight acidity is quite nice, I really enjoy this beer. Of course, it could be a touch more sour. I was also disappointed by the lack of carbonation, and am going to have to figure out how to solve this problem in the future. Overall, it is good, but not as intense as I would like. I had a bottle of Rodenbach, and popped it open to compare side by side. Mine is more “bretty” with more barnyard smells. Rodenbach has a very deep, malty aroma up front, almost bock like, and then you get the acetic smell at the end. Mine is slightly lighter in color, and not as sweet as Rodenbach (which is pasteurized and backsweetened so it does not continue to ferment in the bottle and make bombs). Overall, while I enjoyed my beer, doing the side by side points out the lack of the intense malty aroma and taste that I enjoyed very much from the Rodenbach. Mine was far “funkier” then the Rodenbach, and by comparison the Rodenbach almost seemed “clean”, which is not a description often applied to Flemish ales. I am still pleased with mine, this is my first try, and I am comparing it to a benchmark that the brewery has been making for well over a century, but I will endeavor to get a more intense maltiness to the beer in the future. I have also decided to brew this several times a year, with the idea that down the road, I may try blending batches to see how that works. I have also decided to add the culture at the start of fermentation, to try to get more tartness.