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Friday, January 16, 2009

Roots Flanders Red - Or, How Do You Know if It's "Good?"

I come to this review with some trepidation. First because the entire range offered in the traditional Flanders Red style (made famous by Rodenbach) is about six beers, only two of which I've seen in America. Also because Roots has spent more time and money trying to brew a version of this style than they can ever recoup (though do a search on the terms "Flanders Red" and you'll see that they may make it up in advertising), so they don't need me nitpicking. Yet that's why I get paid the big bucks, so here we go.

1. What's the style?
There are a number of sour Belgian styles, and one could easily complain that parsing the difference between a lambic, Flemish Red, and Flanders Brown is--as far as the tongue's concerned, anyway--a pointless game of semantics. In one sense this is true, but you could complain that the difference between pale, amber, and brown English-style ales is really a matter of art, not science--but who in Beervana would sign on to such a crude view?

The "red" ales (Jackson calls them "Flemish Reds," distinct from "Flanders Browns"--aka "oud bruins--though the reds are also made in Flanders and have a lot of brown in them) all take after the ur-red, Rodenbach. Although the brewery pre-existed the style (as did all the Flanders breweries currently producing reds), it probably started to take form with the arrival of Eugene Rodenbach in the 1870s.

The grist of the beer is 80% malt, 20% corn. It is aged for months or years and then blended to produce the standard version of the beer (about 5% abv). The straight aged beer is sold as "Grand Cru" is stronger at 6%. None of the traditional Belgian versions exceed 6.2% alcohol by volume. The beer is aged in massive wooden tanks that are scraped between each batch so there's always new wood to season the beer. Finally and most importantly, the yeast, which has funkified through the generations, contains as many as 20 distinct strains (!), including a range of lactobacilli.

It is these yeasts that dictate much of the character of the beer, which is tart and sharp but not overly dry; even the Grand Cru, which is rather intensely sour, has some residual sugars which allow layers and depths of flavors. It is the sugar that distinguishes the style from lambic; where the latter dry out, sometimes to dust, reds have a wonderful roundness and sweetness. In fact, Rodenbach's cousin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, is quite sweet. The style is referred to as the "Burgandy of Belgium" because of this balance.

2. Roots Flanders Red
So this brings us to Roots' version, which was two years in the making--clearly a labor of love for this wonderful, innovative brewery. I will now roll the tape from an interview Craig Nicholls did on Libation Station (mp3) for a description of the beer:
"We took three-quarters of this beer, that was brewed two years ago, and we threw it on French pinot noir oak barrels and let it sit there for about 11 months. Then we took it and re-blended it with the rest of the beer that had been sitting in tank and went through a secondary fermentation for the last year."
The result is a 9.2% beer that falls fairly far outside the style on a number of dimensions--it's substantially drier, obviously a lot stronger, and the glass I received yesterday had no head (the pic at right is slightly misleading on that score) and was nearly still. But let's leave aside the style consideration--Belgians are not much for style, anyway. The real question is how it tastes.

Sadly, for me the beer was a near miss. As you can see from the picture, it was a bit murky, though the color was nice (to my color-blind eyes, anyway). When cold, the aroma was inhibited--faintly sour with a cherry/fruit note. As it warmed the nose opened up into a cellar-y lactic bouquet, more lambic than red as the fruit fades back.

Flavor: first comes a dry, minerally tartness. There's a strong mid-note, which grew as the beer warmed, of peppery heat. It might be fusel alcohol or some other by-product of yeast action. The beer finally tapers to a bone-dry tartness characteristic of some lambics.

I call it a near miss not because it's out of style (actually "Flanders red" is as good a description as any), but because the final presentation was overly dry; that hot middle not also tends to nuke other, more subtle flavors. In this way it lacks the depth you'd like to see--there's not enough sugar to buoy the heft and acid. My guess is that the beer actually sat too long--months or even a year ago, would some of the remaining residual sugars have brought it into balance?

That said, I hope the Roots men ignore my comments and keep brewing the beer. It took Rodenbach decades to arrive at a system where they had the right number and kind of resident yeasts in their barrels to create what we now think of as the standard of the style. Roots can hardly be expected to hit the mark on the first batch. It takes a great deal of courage to put the time and effort into a beer that may be only 75% where you want it, and then maybe even more courage to keep trying. Still, this is the only way these kinds of wood-aged beers will ever come to be. A brewery has to be willing to invest years and years into the experiment. Here's hoping Roots already has batches two and three sitting in a nice, cool place in the brewery.


  1. I'm not even going to pretend to have the beer vocab or experience to properly evaluate this beer. But I agree with the near miss evaluation. I would have preferred a tarter beer with a bit more acidity. That being said, I enjoyed it and that is all that really matters.

  2. I have yet to taste the Roots Flanders Red, but I respect your honesty! Nicely done, nicely written. Never be afraid to be honest with the public. Bravo!

    BTW, don't scare me saying you can't taste the difference between a Lambic and Flemish Red.... I may take back my KUDOS... ;-}

  3. "There are a number of sour Belgian styles, and one could easily complain that parsing the difference between a lambic, Flemish Red, and Flanders Brown is--as far as the tongue's concerned, anyway--a pointless game of semantics."

    Lambic is made by *spontaneous fermentation* and contains unmalted wheat. The difference between the red and browns is more puzzling to me.

    "The beer finally tapers to a bone-dry tartness characteristic of some lambics."

    I am not sure if leaving more residual sugar in the beer defines a Flemish Red. But if that is the case, let's hear it for brewing traditional lambics!

    Personally, I think that the biggest flaw in most of the recent OR "tart" beers (Bridgeport, Deschutes, Roots) is the alcohol content. All these beers should be classified as "Imperial Flemish Reds". So far I have not been impressed with more alcohol in sour style ales. I have never seen traditional Belgium brewers like Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon do this, and perhaps for good reason.

  4. On the difference between sour Belgian beers. I was (apparently inelegantly) trying to say that for people new to the sour range, the differences among the styles can seem a whole lot smaller than the differences with other, non-sour beer. I don't remotely think an amber, pale, and brown are alike, but for a newbie, the differences may not be so obvious. It was inelegant because I do think the red style is coherent and distinct, and it's worth pointing out what those differences are before you dive into reviewing a beer.

  5. Jeff,

    Bravo for your review. I have been mulling over what the proper stance on the Root beer has been.

    I love that they attempted it, and bought 2 bottles to support them continuing their efforts, however I think people in the local beer community should be acknowledging that this beer doesn't stand up to the world standards (yet).

    I disagree with your suggestion that the middle is masked by the alcohol, but agree that the lack of a middle is one of the bigger flaws of this beer. What you referred to (properly, I think) as dryness, I thought of as thinness. I felt this beer was too thin in mouthfeel compared with either the Duchess or Rodenbach.

    Something I also ponder is the economics of purchasing a lesser beer at a substantial premium to those classics. I came to the conclusion that it is a necessary evil, as we consumers must put some level of funding into the process to have it continue and improve.

    And I did enjoy this beer, it just isn't quite there.

    On the other hand, I did have a taste of the 2008 EPIC, and thought, wow, that beer is young, green, needs to age, but still exceptional.

  6. Red vs. Brown?

    There is a clear difference, other than color.

    Check out this post:

    You may note, as Jeff did, neither of these styles are in the 9.2% alcohol range. Flanders Brown is rated at 4-8% Alcohol which might have been more in the ball park, but flavor wise not in the ball park according to the reviews and flavor profiles I've read.

    I don't think we're splitting hairs here. Belgians can be hard to categorized do to the vastness of varieties, but if you are going to name a beer based on a style name it should fit into that style profile. We wouldn't call a Russian Imperial Stout a Brown Ale... or would we?

    I don't think we'd be discussing style if this beer was called a Strong Belgian ale. Proper name tags do make a difference... ;-}

    Thin and/or dry may come from not blending a younger version with and older/drier version. A common practice in Belgium is blending a younger version of a beer which still has a degree sweetness, with an older drier version to create a balance in sweetness, sourness, texture, body and the like.

    According to

    Duchess de Bourgogne from Brouwerij Verhaeghe is the traditional Flemish red ale. This refreshing ale is matured in oak casks; smooth with a rich texture and interplay of passion fruit, and chocolate, and a long, dry and acidic finish. After the first and secondary fermentation, the beer goes for maturation into the oak barrels for 18 months. The final product is a blend of younger 8 months old beer with 18 months old beer. The average age of the Duchesse de Bourgogne before being bottled is 12 months.

    Beer Style:.....Flemish Red Ale
    Alcohol by Volume:.....6%
    Characteristics:.....Sweet, fruity ale with a pleasant sour finish, spicy hops with low bitterness

  7. "We wouldn't call a Russian Imperial Stout a Brown Ale... or would we?"

    Check out Beer Valley's fresh-hopped Black Flag Imperial Stout if you get a chance… it's on cask at Bailey's; that is the definition of a black IPA if ever I've tasted/smelled one - the hops utterly obliterate the stout, but on cask it's totally smooth (ie, not bitter) and is now my official favorite black IPA (though my newfound love of cask[/bottle?]-conditioned hoppy beers may be turning me a bit overzealous).

    Back OT, though… I've sadly [already] [recently] [quickly] reached a point in the beginning stages of middle-age where my stomach can't handle sour beers much anymore (or at least those with an overabundance of lactic acid - see Cascade). I can still get through a bottle of Dissident with little pain, and the last time I had Rodenbach Grand Cru (nearly a year ago?) I polished off the bottle like it was nothing (and yet it was everything! My first love, and still my favorite in the style and of sour beers in general); but with Roots', after just a wine glass… I wasn't quite bowled over in agony, but the acidity level did reach uncomfortable proportions. It wasn't nearly as bad as the pint of Cascade's Vlad the Imp Aler I had a couple weeks ago, but then it wasn't a pint… I wasn't about to invest in an entire liter.

    It sucks, because I still love the flavor of pretty much every sour beer I've tried - Roots' included - but much like overly gaseous beers (which for some reason are much more difficult to expunge than carbonated sugar water) I lack to constitution to consume them in the quantities I desire. :( I'm more than just a light-weight; I'm also a panty-waist. *shrug*


  8. Good call Megapolisomancy, not sure why all these pnwsours have to be so high in alcohol%. I really enjoyed the Roots beer, but like the dissident the alcohol overruns a lot of the subtlety that could be found, and once again it was served to cold.

    Do you think the brewers just want to make mega beers? or that consumers want high abv if they are going to pay top $?

  9. How does Roots FR compare to Racoon Lodge's Sang Noir?