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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Remarkable Rodenbach Brewery

When Rudi Ghequire, the master brewer at Rodenbach, took Sally and me on a tour of the brewery, we spent less than ten minutes in the actual brewhouse. We spent a similar amount of time on the history of the brewery (history is a big deal at Rodenbach) and a few minutes on fermentation. But our tour lasted two hours. The remainder of our time? We spent it inside the maze of cellars that contain the massive vats of aging beer.

This is not incidental. Rodenbach takes care making its beer--the new owners, PALM, just spent a boatload of money on a beautiful new brewery--but what happens in the mash tun and kettle aren't primary. The real action happens in those famous wooden vats. Rodenbach brews a single base beer--a sweet, red ale made with 20% corn and roasted barley. Fresh, it is very sweet, and in fact, the hops are used to retard bacteria, not balance the beer (they fall below the threshold of taste). A portion of the beer is then put in the vats and left to age there for a full two years. When it has fully ripened, it's blended back with fresh beer to make regular Rodenbach (25% aged beer) and Grand Cru (67% aged beer). What makes Rodenbach Rodenbach is what happens in those vats.

There are 294 of them altogether, and they're housed in ten vast cellars that can hold up to 33 each. Many of them are very old--the brewery says "older than 150 years" but they've been saying that for awhile. The three oldest date back to the 1830s, if I'm hearing my audio tape correctly [!]. The brewery has its own cooperage, not for building the vats, but maintaining them. This is how their version of an acidified red ale has been made for well over a century. Inside the vats, a happy little colony of wild yeasts work away for months, adding lactic acid to the beer and dropping the pH. This is where Rodenbach is truly made.

For those who know their history of English brewing, Rodenbach's methods will be familiar. It's how the great London porter breweries made beer two centuries ago, aging their beer in immense vats until wild yeasts had given it a refined, mature finish. I was surprised and delighted to learn that this isn't a coincidence; in the 1870s, Eugène Rodenbach went to England and learned to brew porter. He brought the techniques he learned there back to Roselare, where they're still practiced--long, long after the English abandoned those methods in porter-brewing.

When it comes time to bottle the beer, Ghequire leads a team of tasters who blend the vintage beer to get the character they want. Each vat is its own ecosystem, so the beer coming out will taste different vat to vat. (Brettanomyces is not the main culture in the vats, though when we tasted beer from one, Rudi detected it in the sample. It was too subtle for me to locate, but he knows his beer pretty well.) Once they have a final blend of vintage stocks, they will blend that back with fresh beer to make Rodenbach and Grand Cru.

Rodenbach's baroque production methods would only be worthy of a footnote if the beer were ordinary. Of course, they're not. Rodenbach is a lovely session tipple that has surprising versatility with food (the sugars and slight acid work in tandem to team up with a wide variety of flavors) and Grand Cru is simply one of the world's best beers. Americans are adept at recreating most styles, but approximating Rodenbach is tough; Rudi believes this is entirely due to the wood. Without the interaction of wild yeasts and the tiny bit of oxygen that permeates the grain, beer can't develop the depth and character Rodenbach has.

Of all the breweries I toured in my three weeks in England, Scotland, France, and Belgium, Rodenbach was the most awe-inspiring. Every older brewery I visited discussed the balance between tradition and efficiency--such an important consideration for a commercial enterprise. Rodenbach is off the charts in terms of the expense and inefficiency it takes them to produce a single bottle of beer. No modern company would or could consider the Rodenbach model. The vats alone cost thousands (tens of thousands?) of dollars, never mind the cellar space. Add to that the notion of vatting beer for two years--it's an absurdly expensive venture. And yet here the brewery is, putting beer in vats and then trying to compete in a marketplace where industrial lagers can be made for a tiny fraction of the cost.

It's no surprise that the sour beers of Flanders are on the endangered species list. Very few make authentic sour red (or red/brown) ales, and none make them the way Rodenbach does. (De Struise, though it makes a tiny amount, produces a totally traditional, wood-aged sour called Aardmonnik that gives me hope--it's authentic and an exceptionally good, complex beer.) It is almost impossible to imagine any brewery will join Rodenbach in the near term, either. If we could designate breweries "world heritage" sites that could somehow never fail because of commercial pressures, I'd put Rodenbach at the front of the list. In the world of beer, there's nothing like it, and we are fortunate indeed it has survived the vagaries of wars, depressions, and modernization. If you haven't had a bottle recently, go find one and remind yourself what a remarkable beer it is.


Here are a few more photos of the brewery:

The modern brewhouse overlooking the historic brewery compound.



From the right comes "bier" (fresh, unaged) and on the left "oud bier."
They are blended here before being sent to packaging. (click to enlarge)



Like many old breweries, Rodenbach used to malt its own grain.
(Like many old breweries, the maltery used to catch fire.
Now they buy their malt.)



Oak drying before being milled into staves for the vats.

4 comments:

Soggy Coaster said...

One of my favorites. Rodenbach is pretty tough to find in my neck of the woods, but I loved the couple of bottles I've had. I'll have to hunt down the Grand Cru somewhere.

Jack R. said...

@Soggy Coaster
Intrigued by comment, I search for web presence of Rodenbach in major Boulder and then Denver area, Colorado, liquor stores [05 total] to no avail.

Soggy Coaster said...

Yeah, I live in Durango, Colorado, and I've never seen it locally. The bottles I had were picked up on a trip to Phoenix.

Zach B. said...

This is a great post, and thank you for it! Rodenbach Grand Cru is perhaps my favorite beer (if it is indeed possible to have just one) and its a pleasure to learn a little more about the history and commitment behind it. I think more people would appreciate these beers if they better understood the distinction between the process behind an "industrial lager" and a true "craft" (to steal a buzzword) beer. Cheers to you for helping in that effort!

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