One of the areas of beer, style-wise, that Alberta has been fairly under-represented is sour beer. Recent years have improved, with the arrival of a handful of world class lambics, including Cantillon. In the Flanders sour department (EDIT: Flanders Red department, actually – as there are a couple of Oud Bruins available in the province), however, all we have had is Duchess du Bourgogne. Not that having Duchess to sip on is a bad thing, as it is a quality flanders red. However, since my trip to Belgium a few years back, I have an insatiable desire for Rodenbach Grand Cru, that is only met when a friend flies back home from Brussels.
Rodenbach, you see, is one of the oldest Flanders breweries, opening in 1821. Now owned by Palm, it still maintains a traditional approach to this rare and enticing beer style. Flanders sour ales are more “beer-y” than lambics are, but still accent a clean, lactic sourness.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, the observant of you will have noticed that bottles of Rodenbach Vintage (the 2009 vintage, to be accurate) appeared on store shelves just before Xmas. In the coming months, Alberta will also be graced by Rodenbach Original – but, alas, not the Grand Cru.
I will explain the difference. They are all the same recipe. the Original is a blend of 75% young beer with 25% beer aged for two years in oak barrels. The Grand Cru is a 33%/67% blend, favouring the old. The Vintage, self-evidently, is a single batch, aged for two to three years. In terms of sourness, obviously the Original will be least, the Grand Cru in the middle and the Vintage the most.
So getting some bottles of the Vintage seems to me like a damned fine consolation for not getting any Grand Cru.
I popped a bottle open last week, resisting my usual instinct to hoard such rare and fine beer. And I mean popped, as it is a wire-and-cork seal. In fact it is the oddest cork I have ever seen. The top is a standard champagne-style head, but the body is only a couple of centimetres long. Doesn’t seem long enough to be effective, but I guess the wire is really doing the holding, so maybe it is a clever way to reduce cork usage (a renewable but troublingly depleted resource).
The beer pours dark tawny red with a creamy, consistent off-white head. I find the head doesn’t build much, but neither does it disintegrate, creating a stable layer throughout the tasting. The aroma has hints of cherry, plum, red wine, all blended into a lactic tart blanket which sharpens the impression and makes my nose crinkle. I also detect light brown sugar, touches of raisin and vanilla. There is a lot going on, and this is just the aroma
A word of advice to new Flanders drinkers. Don’t judge it from the initial sip. It can take a couple of sips for your glands to adjust. They might rankle at the sourness at first, but will grow accustomed, and then the full complexity of the beer can be appreciated.
The front flavour presents some delicate fruitiness – cherry, plum, raisin, rich grape. There is also candy and bits of light brown sugar. But who am I kidding? This beer is about that clean, right-angled tartness. It rises quickly and floats assertively across the roof of your mouth. It can be hard to describe sour – this one is gentle, smooth and clean. The finish is surprisingly clean and refreshing. No lingering pucker, just a soft dryness and a quenching feeling. There are hints of oak in the finish as well. Despite tart being dominant, it doesn’t really come at the expense of sweetness, which is why the beer works so well.
This is truly an amazing beer. Assertive and surprisingly complex. It is not as multi-layered as my memories of the Grand Cru – such is the price of not blending – but it has a strength of conviction in its tartness that can only come from a single vintage. Throughout the glass I sit amazed at how sharply tart it can be without becoming puckering. It is a rare treat, one that satisfies my Rodenbach pinings.