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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

New Belgium La Folie: New World Rodenbach?

Sometimes I approach reviews with trepidation--generally when I'm less familiar with a style than I should be. In the case of La Folie, I am quite familiar with the style--it's perhaps my very favorite, the red beers of Belgium (called variously "Flemish" or "Flanders" or sometimes just "Belgian" reds). The classic beer of the style is Rodenbach, but in Portland, you may be more familiar with Verhaeghe's magnificent Duchesse de Bourgogne or perhaps Roots' or Cascade's Mouton Rouge. But the classic--by a country mile--is Rodenbach. The only other analogue for a beer being so singularly associated with a style is Guinness.

So why would I worry about reviewing La Folie, New Belgium's version of a Flemish red? Because it was brewed by Peter Bouckaert, the man who, until he left Belgium in 1998, used to be the brewmaster at ... Rodenbach. If I weren't a halfwit, I'd call it a new-world classic, a Pierre Celis-like recreation, a sublime beer that all you Rodenbach fiends should go suck down (it was until recently--and may still be--at the Green Dragon). But, as my sticke gaffe ably shows, I am a halfwit. Or better yet, a blogger stricken with "the madness." (Another translation of "folie" is folly, so prepare your barbs.)

La Folie is not Rodenbach. It's just not. Rodenbach has three main beers, and La Folie takes after Grand Cru. It is dry and unsweetened and just about the same strength as the original. It has that same color Rodenbach has, not exactly red but not exactly brown, either. The aroma is sharply sour, and the palate is, too. In fact, this is the problem; it's too sour. Most of the character of the beer derives from this single note, and the lack of complexity was where it fell down for me.

Rodenbach, which is the sourest of the Flemish Reds I've tried, is not solely sour. It has a rich complexity that includes sweet fruit notes, dry tannins, and a very severe, tart-dry finish. Both beers are way beyond the pale for most Americans, even those who like a nice weisse or even a sweetish fruit lambic. But for those who delight in the funk, like cheeseheads and their limburger, Rodenbach is wonderfully complex. Compared to it, New Belgium is atonal. (To really go out on a limb, I'll add that I find New Belgium's beer more acetic and less lactic than Rodenbach, and I think this is the issue. Perhaps all the qualities are there somewhere, but they were, at least in the pint I tried, overwhelmed by the sharp acetic souring. As a result, I give it a 4.5 on the Sour-o-meter.)

Obviously Bouckaert knows how to brew a Flemish red. How then does his fall shy of Rodenbach's? I won't guess except to add this observation. A key feature of the Rodenbach method involves its famous wooden tuns. These ancient vessels (the oldest is 150 years) are alive with wild buggies. It is they that define Rodenbach, a beer that starts out rather mundanely, with regular saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale) yeast. It picks up the funk from the barrels, some of which date back to the period, in the 19th century, when Rodenbach was spontaneously fermented. Those wild yeasts came from a different Belgium--a pre-industrial country far richer in fruit trees (on which reside brettanomyces) and far lower in industrial gunk.

Bouckaert has no access to 150-year-old barrels. He has to try to mimic the character of Rodenbach by other means. Of all the New Belgium beers I've tried, La Folie is the one that most impresses me--it's not a slightly safer version of the original, as are so many of New Belgium's Flemish re-interpretations. Bouckaert has gone for it. It is well-appreciated by beer geeks, who appreciate the effort. But to me, La Folie is too sharp and too young--by maybe a hundred years.

Have you tried La Folie? Your thoughts?



  1. Jeff,
    I think your review is spot on. I bought one bottle to review it myself and haven't been back. La Folie should be wonderful. It's not. After reading yours, I wish I would have been harsher in my own review:

  2. Nice article!

    Yep, it's all about "wood."

    La Folie is amazing wish it was more widely available, here. Had some at Green Dragon. @ $4.75 a pint it was a steal!

  3. Oh... Yes, I wouldn't call it a new world classic, but it's at the top of the heap for a US Flanders Red. It does improve with age too.... ;-}

  4. I've had tastes of it at festivals. I didn't realize it was a take on the Flemish Red style until recently, after having read that somewhere. The intense vinegary sour does not lend itself to easy drinking, which, even in the Rodenbach Grand Cru, seems to me to be an essential part of the style. So I agree with Soggy Coaster - spot on.

    I also have a bottle at home that a friend brought back from a trip to Colorado - I'm hoping Dr. Wort will be shown to be correct about its improving with age.

  5. Jeff,
    Funny, I just reviewed Rodenbach last night. I really enjoy La Folie, it does mellow nicely, but I dig acidic sourness, so fresh La Folie doesn't both me, but it is rather sharp.

    I haven't had a Rodenbach Grand Cru in a long time, but the regular Rodenbach had a big of a vinegar taste to it, maybe caused by Acetobacter? Maybe they are trying to avoid that in La Folie? I need to find another bottle to compare.

    Oh and Doc, it was just released in bottles here.

  6. If you've ever read or heard an interview with Peter B. you'd know his brewing philosophy is, roughly stated, "be not a slave to style." No surprise, then, that he does not aim to "knock off" Rodenbach. Craft brewers take INSPIRATION from tradition, they don't try to RECREATE it! Check out

  7. I thought La Folie is excellent and a lot better than what Rodenbach is producing these days. Perhaps the beer could benefit from more "complexity" but this should be achieved through skillful blending and choice of barrels, not by making it sweeter (the current trend in Flemish Reds).

    As a general rule, I think the Americans have started making better Reds than the Belgians (Russian River, New Belgium).

  8. I haven't had it, but I think I'm gonna go pick me some up now. Thanks for the review!

  9. Whoa--great discussion!

    Derek (and Ank), I'm also working from memory on the Grand Cru, though I think it was left intact after Palm bought the brewery. Perhaps that's wrong. I should pick up a bottle and see what's what.

    Anon, while I agree with the sentiment you cite, I don't know that Bouckaert follows his own advice very well. NB beers often do hew to established styles pretty closely. Flights of fancy are great, but when you are brewing beers like Frambozen, dubbel, Tripel, and wit, you are marking the territory your beer falls into. And except for the wit, those beers I just mentioned don't really compare to Belgian standards. (I do like the wit, though.)

  10. My understanding is that Rodenbach Classic has a higher ratio of young to aged beer nowadays to make it more acceptable to the average Belgium beer drinker.

    Rodenbach Grand Cru is a lot better but it is no Supplication, in my opinion.

    Is Rodenbach filtered and pasteurized? In that case, aging it to obtain a dryer and more complex character (as can be done with the Dissident, for example) is not really possible.

  11. Re: Abbey & Tripel not comparing to "standards" /ABBEY first captured gold at GABF in 1993, when there was no separate category for Belgian-style beers. The GABF created a Belgian category in 1994, and Abbey has since won nine more GABF medals, four of them gold plus a gold at the World Beer Cup in 2004./ Trippel got a gold in 2001./

  12. Ank,

    Yah, the Rodenbach I had last night said 75% fresh, 25% barrel aged.

    Also it is filtered, there was no yeast sediment in the bottle, probably pasteurized as well... or else I might have tried to culture the dregs.

  13. Hey anon, who are you. You seem to know an awful lot about NB. Come out from behind the pseud--we're all barley brothers here.

    I stand by the characterization of the tripel, though it does seem to undermine your earlier point. I find it lackluster and underpowered. Different strokes, right?

  14. I think blending is becoming a more positive trend in the US. American brewers of Belgian beers, espiecally Flanders, Guerze and other such styles are starting to realize the benefits of blending new and aged. La Folie could definitely gain from blending or if they are currently blending, possibly more blending.

    DA: "Acetobacter".... yes. Vinegar profile. There were at least 3-4 lectures on brewing and blending Belgian beers at the Oakland, CA. AHA Homebrewers conference. Some real interesting stuff from guys like Vinnie from Russian River who have the experience. I'm sure the audience was filled with professional, as well as, home brewers. ;-}

  15. While we're on this, I should mention Jeff Sparrow's Wild Brews, which I was coincidentally reading when I tried Rodenbach. Extremely interesting info on the various elements that contribute to sourness.

  16. Great book, Jeff!

    Might I suggest "Brew Like a Monk" by our sometime commenter Stan Hieronymus. :-)

    MJ's books on Belgian beers are also a staple to understanding Belgian beers and their local history.

  17. Jeff, can you please explain which point was undermined and by what: "I stand by the characterization of the tripel, though it does seem to undermine your earlier point." Thx.

  18. Not a fan of this one... and new to the style myself. I am more anxiously awaiting my bottle of Consecration which for some odd reason after reading a lot about sours and the style.. I wanted more wood flavor.. and La Folie had none... just vinegar.. and yes, it attracted the fruit flies from god knows where.. and killed them.

  19. You should try the New Belgium Bottleworks 10th Anniversary Wild Ale, its definitely more complex than the La Folie and has some balance to the sour flavors.

    Note: New Belgium isn't bottling in that great 750ml bottle anymore? I've been seeing it in the lame Lips of Faith bottles lately. Cool photo by the way.

  20. "Note: New Belgium isn't bottling in that great 750ml bottle anymore? I've been seeing it in the lame Lips of Faith bottles lately. Cool photo by the way."

    I read yesterday that they are distributing in bombers and will still have a limited supply of the 750ml bottles at the brewery. The claim is that the 22's allow wider distribution.

  21. I too love Rodenbach Grand Cru Jeff, more so than LaFolie. But first I wonder if it is fair to compare the two beers just because Peter brewed both. And second, I understand NB Foeders came right from Rodenbach, meaning he does have the same "history in the wood", right. Finally, I hear a lot of arguement that Rodenbach has changed a lot from the original. PErhaps it was more like La Folie is now? unsure? Interesting discussion though.

  22. It seems that none of the commenters so far (including myself) have tried either Rodenbach Foederbier or Rodenbach Vin de Cereale, both unfltered and unpasteurized, the Foederbier is often found via hand pump in the EU while Vin de Cereale was a onetime bottling of beer straight from a single foeder that reached 10% abv. I get the feeling that the truest essence of what Rodenbach means is to be found in these two beers. I myself recently tried the La Folie at Belmont Station and found it quite complex and not too sour, definitely preferable to just about every other attempt at the style out there, ESPESCIALLY Duchesse...

    Mike Stender