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/// BELGIAN BEER
 
AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2008
 
Brouwerij Rodenbach
Masterpiece of Roeselare
 
 
Rodenbach’s historic malt kiln (no longer used)

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Rodenbach. The very name is synonymous with the tart, refreshing red ales of Belgium’s West Flanders region. The burgundy-colored Rodenbach Classic and Grand Cru are benchmarks of the style.

The Rodenbach site — a 15-minute walk from the train station in the town of Roeselare, near Brugge — is a complex of ancient and modern buildings with various purposes. Rodenbach is one of the most impressive breweries I have had ever the pleasure to visit. In late May, Brewmaster Rudi Ghequire greeted me and two friends — including Daisy Claeys, owner of the famous beer café ’t Brugs Beertje in Brugge — and gave us a superb tour.

“You can see Roeselare here” Rudi told us, pointing to a spot on a very rare map of Belgium dating to the 1830s. “Over there are portraits of the Rodenbach family. The family played an important role in the creation of the country of Belgium.”

Much of Rodenbach is a museum. Even in the office spaces there are memorabilia and display cases with items related to the history of the family and brewery.

“Let’s have a look at the old brewery first,” Rudi said as we entered hallowed ground. “This brewhouse dates to 1864. The two copper vessels are among the very few in Belgium that survived the occupation of the Germans in the First World War. The Rodenbach family paid the Germans 26,000 gold coins not to take away these brew-kettles to make armaments with,” Rudi told us. “The filtration kettle dates to 1929,” he added.

The old brewery building is several stories tall and also houses dozens of copper-lined open fermenters, rooms with stained-glass windows, beautifully painted Rodenbach advertising plates, colorful old flags and other breweriana.

“The first brewery on this site was called Brouwerij et Malterie St. George. Alexander Rodenbach purchased it in 1821, and another relative purchased it from him in 1836,” Rudi told us. “There is a coolship on the roof. A gueuze called St. George used to be brewed here.” I had no idea lambic and gueuze had ever been produced in Roeselare, but this information came from the source!

Another historic structure on the brewery grounds is the old coal-fired kiln, recognizable by its cone-shaped black roof (see cover photo). “The building dates to 1864 and is protected by the government due to its historic significance. The brewery did its own malting until 1974. The kilning was done on two levels, which helped the malts achieve a darker color,” Rudi explained. On the walls of the kiln, there is a history of the malting process in English, Dutch and French.

“Well, let’s have a look at the new brewery now. Note that 21 people work here at present,” said Rudi. The Meura brewhouse, installed in 2001 and located in a cube-shaped building, is visible through clear glass windows from the outside. It has a batch size of 250 hectoliters. The brewery produces about 75,000 hl per year, of which about 5 percent is the superb Grand Cru. Most of the rest is the Rodenbach Classic, a mildly tart, highly drinkable beer with just under 5% abv. The late author and beer historian Michael Jackson called it “the most refreshing beer in the world.”

Rudi told us, “You have to have a philosophy to make beer.”

Rudi continued our tour. “For our purposes, the most important thing about the brewhouse is to produce a very good wort. It’s really the wood aging and mixed yeast culture that gives our beers most of their distinct character. For the primary and secondary fermentation in stainless steel vessels, we use the same mixed fermentation culture that has been used here for 150 years. It is a blend of top-fermenting yeasts and lactobacillus. We never restart the yeast culture!” Rudi exclaimed.

And then there’s the wood: the heart of Brouwerij Rodenbach. After the first and second fermentation, the beer is transferred into wooden barrels (called foeders in Dutch) for maturation. These very large barrels (also referred to as vats or tuns) are made from oak and are capable of holding thousands of gallons of beer.

“The majority of our 294 foeders hold 180 hl of beer,” said Rudi. “They are 80 mm thick, weigh nearly 5 metric tons each, and hold 18 tons of beer when full. We also have 18 foeders that have a capacity of 650 hl each. They weigh about 10 metric tons empty and can hold 65 metric tons of beer!”

Rudi’s exciting offer came next: “Let’s have a taste from a few of them!” This rare treat was accepted without hesitation!
The first brew was a very young beer that had been in its vat only a week or two. It was evident that the maturation process had started but that more time would be required to reach the kind of complexity and tartness for which Rodenbach is known. The next brew Rudi poured from a foeder was very fruity and quite complex — and a favorite of the four of us. A third sample was very tart and acidic, and I mean Cantillon territory! I quite enjoyed it. A fourth sample was in between: tart and fruity and also very good. All were decidedly different from each other.

“As you have tasted, each foeder has its own flavor. No two beers are exactly alike. We achieve some consistency by blending from different barrels. The Classic is a mix of 25% old beer (matured for at least two years in foeders) and 75% young beer, with less than a few months of aging. The 6% abv Grand Cru is a blend from several different foeders averaging 18 months old. Additionally, we add about six grams of sugar per liter to the Classic and 10 grams per liter to the Grand Cru to balance out some of the sharpness of these brews,” Rudi stated.

“Note also that the maturation in the wood is not really a third fermentation. We do not add any yeast when the beer is put in the foeders, as this tends to produce a bready taste, which can be unpleasant. There is some acetic acid imparted by the wood, and the burgundy color of the beer is produced by both the dark malts we use and through contact with the oak. Tannins in the wood create this effect, for the most part.”

He continued: “We also offer Rodenbach Foederbier in a few select cafés in Belgium, such as De Zalm, here in Roeselare. This brew is a blend of beer from three to five different foeders with an average age of two years on oak. If you like the tartness and complexity of the Grand Cru, you should like the Foederbier as well, as it is even more tart!”

The late author and beer historian, Michael. Jackson called this “the most refreshing beer in the world.”

Like it? Absolutely! I had dinner at the excellent Belga Queen in Ghent the following evening and savored several glasses of Foederbier, served via hand-pump. Another Belga Queen in Brussels, ’t Vosken in Ghent, Grand Café Horta in Antwerp and Het Vijgeblad in Beringen also occasionally have this significant brew available, as well as unblended Boon Lambic and unfiltered Palm Pale Ale. Palm owns Rodenbach.

“We have two coopers on staff to repair and rebuild the oak vats. It’s a full-time job to keep so many barrels, some of which are 150 years old, in working order,” Rudi asserted.

When asked how the Rodenbach yeast culture might evolve over time, Rudi mentioned that the University of Leuven is currently studying the very same subject.

After the tour, we headed into the visitors center to savor a few more of the Rodenbach brews (in the interest of quality control, of course). Rudi told us: “You have to have a philosophy to make beer. Our overall philosophy here is to use modern techniques where it makes sense and to use traditional methods where it makes sense. It gives us the best of both worlds.”

He added, “My personal philosophy is to make beers with a lot of taste and flavor but without too much alcohol. It’s not too difficult to make a complex high-alcohol beer, and those beers are popular in Belgium. But I prefer beers such as our Classic and Grand Cru, as well as Orval, as they have lots of character but without overwhelming alcohol.”

Rudi continued: “However, “I do like to experiment. We just released a new beer, Vin de Cereale, last year. It’s a barley wine of 10% alcohol, packaged in corked 375-ml bottles. Reports have been very favorable about this brew. I think it has a slight honey flavor to it.” I found Vin de Cereale a very good, complex and flavorful brew. Seek it out!

Does Rudi have any more experiments in the planning stages? “Of course I have ideas and dreams. But I may not discuss anything until it is a reality,” he told us. I look forward to tasting whatever the next reality may be!

In the brewery complex’s visitors center, groups can visit (the brewery receives about 20,000 visitors per year) and parties are often held on weekends. “We have our own kitchen and well-equipped bar with, of course, our Rodenbach brews, as well as several Boon lambics and Palm beers. This hall is very popular, especially for wedding receptions!” Rudi told us, smiling.

Inside the visitors center hall, several of the large foeders have been cut open to create a museum, where a multimedia presentation about the history of the brewery and family can be experienced. The visitors center is the perfect place to savor the brews crafted just yards away! See palmbreweries.com for more info.

 

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