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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Sour Beers of Flanders - Liefmans

In the past few weeks, we've seen the emergence of a wonderful trend in brewing: sour Belgian ales. This is the latest stage in an evolution that has taken us from witbiers to tripels to strong goldens (last year's trendy beer). The sour barrier was breached long ago (the mid-90s saw New Glarus's Belgian Red), but it remained an incredibly obscure tributary in the currents of American brewing. But in the past year, we have seen at least a half dozen acclaimed sour beers brewed or debut in Beervana: Cascade/Raccoon Lodge's line-up of many sour ales, Double Mountain Kriek, Russian River Supplication, Walking Man Blootvoeste Bruin, BridgePortStumptown Tart, and now Deschutes Dissident.

But not all sour Belgians are made the same. Their are of course the spontaneously-fermented lambic family, but also these two beers that are hard to distinguish--browns and reds. It doesn't help that there's no consistent method of naming. You hear "Flanders" or "Flemish" used interchangeably as modifiers, and "brown" and "red" used inconsistently. Generally speaking, browns are referred to as either "oud bruins" or Flanders browns (except Liefmans, the standard, which refers to itself, contra world opinion, as a "Flemish brown"). Reds are generally referred to as Flemish reds.

(In a separate post, I will review Dissident, but it's useful to situate it in a style. Deschutes has brewed a beer very much in the classic brown style, something of a cross between Liefmans' Goudenband and Kriek--reviewed below).

Things become a little clearer when you start looking at the world standards which define the style. In the case of browns, Liefmans pretty much has the the field to themselves. Reds comprise a broader field, but they are dominated by Rodenbach. Although both styles have many similarities (color, a balance of sweet and sour, strength and age), when you compare Rodenbach and Liefmans, you see some obvious differences.
  • Reds - the sourness here is acidic and tart. It is a clarion sour that cuts through other flavors. While these beers aren't without sweetness, it is the sweetness of wine--subservient to the balancing acid. Rodenbach, in fact, used to advertise itself with the phrase "It's wine." The body is thinner than browns, befitting a beer known as the "burgundy of Belgium."
  • Browns - The sour here is balanced by a heartier, maltier sweetness. Brown ales are thicker and sweeter, more like desert than a wine. They have a creaminess that is accentuated by flavors like caramel, dark fruit, nuts, chocolate. While the sour note may be aggressive, the sweeter, heavier body makes the beer more approachable than red ales, which are a leaner, more spare beverage.
Now that I've possibly added some clarity to the distinction, let me muddy the water: the yeast strain used in Liefmans came originally from ... Rodenbach. It has changed in the ways I describe above, but the final point is this--these old beers, from neighboring provinces in a small country, have long parallel histories that informed one another. So, to the reviews--

The brewery at Liefmans has been around since 1679. The Liefmans family operated it from 1770 to 1905. Through most of the century, it labored on as a small, antiquated brewery, but was acquired by Riva in the 1990s. It was bankrupt by 2007, and the world was close to losing a world classic--fortunately, the independent company Moortgat (brewer of Duvel) bought it earlier this year, and apparently, all is a go.

Goudenband (strong brown)
This is a beer for laying down and comes corked. Although effervescent, the cork comes out gently. It pours somewhat thickly and with a nice latte head. The color, as I mentioned earlier, isn't exactly brown. Hold it up to the light and you see a cranberry red at narrow parts of the glass, especially if you've decanted into a Rodenbach tulip glass, as I did. So here we enter the murky waters of what distinguishes brown from red...

The aroma is among the most distinct in the world--man, is it complex. You pick up a lot of the astringent brett notes in the chilled version. They are funky to the point you wonder if it's off, but as the beer warms, sweet chocolate and raisins. The funkiness becomes vinegar. Of all the sour beers, Leifmans alone has an aroma of age--Jackson calls it sherry, but it seems more like tawny port to me. Age and sweetness, yes, like port wine.

The flavor is simultaneously aggressively sour (I'm going to have to change the sour-o-meter--I hadn't recalled it being this sour) and comfortingly sweet. It is a thick beer, and meaty, not just in density but flavor, with a juicy, savory (salty?--yes, see below) quality. Alcohol is present, accentuating the port quality, and there are nuts and chocolate in the finish. Also, a distinct cherry note, but where does this come from? They make a kriek, but Goudenband Jackson mentions that the water used to brew Liefmans is high in sodium bicarbonate, lending a fluffy body. The body is near froth at all times, but even more, the bicarbonate may contribute a drying (and salty) quality in what is otherwise a very chocolately, long finish.

The Flemish word for cherries confuses the beer world--a kriek lambic is substantially different from Liefmans, made with the brown ale base. Liefmans Kriek pours orange/red, like an autumn maple leaf. The head is pinkish-white, and the nose is cherry with a cellar astringency.

An approachable beer, with the cherries out front. They create a major sweet note. The sour is less pronounced, perhaps because unlike the provision Goudenband (8%), this is a smaller 6%. The sour is on the tart side--not so much of the funkier brett you find in Goudenband. Underneath the cherries are a resonant rooty (barklike) bitterness. The effect it produces is a cherry-chocolate creaminess.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhhh.....Goudenband!

    Now, that's an adult dose of Belgian Beer!

    No girlie, Fruit lambic-ish, light spritzy subtlties in that beer!

    Looking forward(?) to trying Deschutes "Dissident." It may be the first "REAL" Quality SOUR Belgian beer locally brewed...

    I just read a Beer Advocate review for Dissident, where the reviewer states he could "Toss back a few of these if warmed up..." That's a little scary! I don't relate Sour Beers to being a gluttonous slammer! Of course, maybe this guy drinks shots of lighter fluid for a primer.... ;-}

    Other Oud Bruin/Flanders Brown of note for readers to try...

    Westvleteren 12 (The King!)
    De Dolle Oerbier

    ....and here's a nice beer....

    Brasserie Des Rocs - GRAND CRU.

    According to the breweries web site:

    Brasserie Des Rocs has a rich, complex fruit aroma of cherries, golden raisins, peaches, and assorted dried fruits, laced with honey and caramel. The taste is smooth with rich flavors reminiscent of cherries dipped in caramel, finishing with notes of chocolate, roasted almonds, and a hint of molasses.

    "Grand Cru" there's a fun Belgian Style that's interesting!