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Classic Beer of the Month December 2009: Rodenbach Grand Cru

Rodenbach Grand CruRodenbach Grand Cru, 6% (Belgium)

I first visited Rodenbach in 1990. It was my earliest trip around a Belgian brewery. What a place to start. I learned right then that this was a country that played by its own rules when it came to beer.

Rodenbach is famous for its oak-aged brown ales, also known as Flanders reds. If you don’t know what to expect, they will seriously confuse you. If you do, you can anticipate a real awakening of the senses. Not for nothing did Michael Jackson call Rodenbach ‘the most refreshing beer in the world’.

Rodenbach’s home is in the provincial town of Roeselare, West Flanders – about 50 miles north-west of Brussels. The Rodenbach family emigrated here from the German Rhineland, beginning with Ferdinand Rodenbach, who had been held as a prisoner of war in the area, in the mid 18th century.

His descendents certainly made themselves at home, playing major roles in society and culture, writing poetry, entering politics and standing in the forefront of the movement to secure the independence of Belgium.

Brewing connections began in 1821 when Ferdinand’s grandson, Pedro Rodenbach, took an interest in a Roeselare brewery. By 1836, he had become the owner.

English Experience

The course of the brewery’s future, however, was mapped out when Pedro’s own grandson, Eugene Rodenbach, who managed the brewery from 1878, spent some time in England, studying the art of making porter, and particularly the role of wood-ageing, blending and acidification. Rodenbach had been making such beers for some time, but now it became the essence of the business.

Despite the upheavals and advances of the 20th century, the company clung like a limpet to wood-aged beers. The siren call of lager fell on deaf ears and instead the Roeselare brewery continued to embrace the art of ageing and blending ales.

By the time the world awoke to the joys of Belgian beer – largely because of Michael Jackson’s discoveries in the 1970s – it had cemented its place as one of the great breweries of the world.

In 1998, Rodenbach was taken over by Palm Breweries. There was initially suspicion among connoisseurs that Palm would not do the right thing by Rodenbach, but this has been proved unfounded.

Instead, Palm has invested in Roeselare, installing a state-of-the-art brewhouse and making a tourist feature of the premises’ astonishing cellar, where nearly 300 giant wooden tuns – some dating from the 1830s – stand in rows, with the beer maturing quietly inside.

Although Rodenbach has played around with adding fruit to beers and extending the range, there are two main beers in regular production, both derived from the same basic brew. Pale and coloured malts are combined with a small amount of corn grits in the mash tun and then the extracted wort is boiled with pelletized hops from the local Poperinge hopgardens.

These are not young, green hops, but are up to two-years-old, deliberately chosen so that their sappy freshness has been lost. Rodenbach is a beer that needs no obvious hop profile: its character comes from something else.

That ‘something else’ begins with the fermentation. From the copper, the wort is pumped into cylindro-conical vessels and pitched with the unique Rodenbach yeast mix, one that contains at least eight different strains of yeast as well as a lactic bacteria culture.

After a week’s primary fermentation, the green beer is drawn off into horizontal lagering tanks where it sits for four weeks.

In the Oak

Where the beer really picks up its individuality, however, is in the oak tuns in the cellar, where it matures for up to two years at a temperature of around 15º C. The porosity of the oak allows in a little oxygen, which is seized up on by microflora living in the wood.

These then create fruity esters in the beer and turn the beer acidic. I’ve tasted the beer straight from the tun after its two years, and the beer is flat and extremely tart, with a pH of around 3.3. A ‘normal’ beer would have a pH of around 4.5.

This core beer is also sold under the name Foederbier locally (it’s a rare find), but the two main expressions of Rodenbach are Classic (5.2%) and Grand Cru (6%).

To prepare Classic for sale, the brewers blend the aged beer with fresh, young beer, at a ratio of one part aged to three parts young. This ensures it is less acidic, sweeter and has more zip.

For Grand Cru, the blending is far more subtle, with just a little young beer topping off the aged ale. Sugar and carbonation are also added, but these do no more than take the edge off the aged beer, making it palatable to a wider audience.

Drinking Grand Cru is an experience every self-respecting beer lover must embark upon. The almost-claret colour in the glass looks appealing, perhaps even deceptively sweet, but then the aroma starts to grab your attention, with its vinous, tart fruit notes, and you know that this is going to be no ordinary beer.

One sip and your tastebuds burst into life. Instead of shrill, tangy hoppiness or deep, chewy malt, flavours major on sharp fruit, oak and a decidedly acidic consistency, one that burns the throat as you swallow, leaving a dry, tart, fruity finish.

This is a seriously challenging beer but one that – I certainly found – does not take very long to fall in love with.

My first beery visit to Belgium seems a long time ago now, but I learned something then that I have used to my great benefit on countless occasions since.

When long evenings in the bar or café begin to lose their sparkle, and the full, nourishing brown ales or the hoppy tripels start to weigh heavy, a glass of Grand Cru shakes you back into life. And after that, the night is young.

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