Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Rodenbach Grand Cru: An ancient beer style for the new world

By William Brand
Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 10:10 am in what's on tap.



A glass of Rodenbach Grand Cru in the main square in Ghent,
Unfortuantely, I don’t know know who took it. I got it off an old
Trappist Beer Network e-mail. Really nice photo and I’ll gladly
buy the photographer another glass. Or a whole lot of glasses.
Great photo.

Sour beer story with a sweet conclusion

Article Launched: 01/23/2008 09:29:26 AM PST

THE FINE BEER WORLD IS A MAZY PLACE.. Great brews appear, they draw fans, they can even achieve cult status. But they can also break your heart when they disappear, or worse, when they’re changed beyond belief by an army of cost-cutting bean counters and focus-group gurus.

Consider our Beer of the Week: Rodenbach Grand Cru (****). About everything that can happen to a great beer has happened to it.

Brouwerij Rodenbach in West Flanders, Belgium, enjoyed a worldwide reputation. Michael Jackson, the English beer journalist, said Rodenbach Grand Cru would feature in any connoisseur’s list of the world’s Top 10 beers. The beer achieved cult status; importers listened, and it began reaching the United States in decent quantities.

It’s a sour, dark, 6-percent-alcohol-byvolume ale, the tartness deftly balanced by a subtle malty character. Aged for two years in ancient wood barrels, it’s a beer of many levels: vanilla from the oak casks, and a pleasing acidity that Jackson compared to sour cream. I find that sourness thirst-quenching and refreshing. Wine lovers often find its complexity compelling, sour or not.

But life can be a crapshoot. In 1998, Palm, a large Belgian brewing company, bought family-owned Rodenbach. The bean counters marched in.

Tim Webb, author of the authoritative “Good Beer Guide to Belgium,” said they built a new brewery and scrubbed out those old oak fermenters. The new plant changed the beer subtly, but enough that fans howled the beer was utterly changed. Fortunately, the bean counters realized they had tinkered with the soul of the beer, and any ideas of modernization such as eliminating those old wood fermenters ended.

Eventually the original character of Rodenbach returned. Revived Rodenbach has been a long time coming to California. Joshua Charlton of Pacific Libations, the importer’s representative, has been trying to get the beer here for a solid year. He actually had some for tasting last February. But getting a beer, even a world-classic beer, through American customs, label approval, and convincing the zany barony of distributors that customers would go for a weird,
dark, sour Belgian beer took time.

All the dominos finally lined up; retailers swear the beer is arriving in stores this week. I await it with fingers crossed. (UPDATE:  The importer dropped Rodenbach; now, there’s a new importer and it’s coming back again. See update below.)

There’s another beer — Rodenbach (***). It lacks the wood aging of Rodenbach Grand Cru, and has a very mild sourness that’s pleasant but “watery” compared with the Grand Cru.

Both are brewed with a blend of pale malted barley and Vienna “Red” — a type of malt that delivers the reddish color and balancing maltiness, according to English Campaign for Real Ale writer Roger Protz. The mash includes about 17 percent corn, Protz says. Hops are mild Belgian.

It’s fermented with an extremely old, complex ale yeast using decoction: an ancient
method in which part of the beer is removed, boiled vigorously, caramelizing the malt, then returned to the brew. Wild yeast and bacteria lingering in those oak casks produce the added sourness. Sugar is also added to both beers at bottling to cut the acidity, Protz says.

Reach William Brand at or call 510-915-1180 and ask
for his Retail Beer Store List or Good Pub List.

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