Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Beer of the Week: Petrus Aged Pale

WILLIAM BRAND: WHAT’S ON TAP

A sour ‘eau de barnyard,’ anyone?

Sour beers were a traditional drink in the Lowlands from the Middle Ages until the end of the industrial era, when the style died, drowned in a wave of Coca-Cola and fizzy lagers.

THERE WASN’T EVEN ELBOW ROOM the other night at The Trappist Belgian & Specialty Beer Bar in downtown Oakland. When I finally made it to the bar in this long, narrow, very Belgian-looking pub, I realized that – in a nod to a blue-collar beer-drinking tradition that’s rapidly dying, even in Belgium – I had to order a sour beer.

These are beers steeped in history: ales long-aged in ancient oak barrels, sometimes served straight — dry and mouth-puckeringly sour, more often blended with fresh, young beer for a tantalizing sweet-sour taste. They were a traditional drink in the Lowlands from the Middle Ages until the Industrial Revolution died in a wave of Coca-Cola and fizzy hog-wallow lagers.

Trappist proprietors Chuck Stilphen and Aaron Porter have an excellent selection of these increasingly rare brown ales from Flanders – the provinces between Antwerp and the North Sea. I chose a bottle of Petrus Aged Pale (****). It’s a 7.3 percent ale, made by Bavik, a large, family-owned brewery.  Global Beer Network, the importer, says it’s not blended. What you get in the bottle is a pale barley-malt beer, aged two years in large oak casks first used for white wine and Calvados, the apple brandy.

Aged Pale’s a deep golden brown color with a skiff of foam. The nose is sour: eau de barnyard – hay, straw and, er, animals, just a whiff short of a mild vinegar. Aren’t you intrigued? The taste is lightly malty, a faint sweetness and a lingering sour edge that intensifies in the tart finish. It’s a pleasing, refreshing tartness.

Petrus Aged Pale’s bottled with a bit of fresh yeast. Just like Champagne, fermentation continues slowly in the bottle, and the older your sample, the drier it will be.

If you try Petrus Aged Pale and like it, here’s some good news, perhaps: Tim Webb, author of the authoritative “Good Beer Guide to Belgium,” notes that many Belgian breweries turned their backs on the ancient style and chose not to invest in needed new equipment. Interbrew, the Belgian giant brewer that became InBev, wasn’t interested in old browns, and everyone thought the sour old beer style would fade into history.

A great deal happened. The late Michael Jackson wrote a book about Belgian beer and compared the sour beers of Flanders to the great Burgundies of France. Tim Webb also came along and began chronicling Belgium’s beers. Brewers and beer lovers in England, America and Belgium listened.

So now there’s a bit of a revival in Belgium, and as most of us know, barrel-aged beers here are a big and growing moving movement.

“The eventual fate of oak-aged ales is one of the pivotal issues to the future of Belgium beer,” Webb says. “It takes a lot of cash and even more faith to invest in regenerating a brewery that requires … huge, hand-crafted constructions in oak.”

The jury is still out, and the decision’s up to us. Well, this is my vote. Where’s yours?

Bavik named the line Petrus, honoring St. Peter, who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. What better name for a beer? Global Beer also imports Petrus Oud Bruin (**1/2), which is a 5.5 percent ABV blend of one-third oak-aged brown ale and fresh beer. Then there’s Petrus Speciale, a 5.5 percenter, and Petrus Triple (***1/2), also bottle-conditioned. It’s a beer that blends and improves as it ages.

It’s also impossible to write about Flemish sour ales without mentioning Rodenbach. Michael Jackson described Rodenbach as a Flemish red ale. The beer’s been through some travails. Sold to a large brewery, Palm, the company ditched the truly old oak tuns that gave Rodenbach its breathtaking sourness and tried to duplicate the effect in steel vats.

The project failed. Now Palm’s reclaimed those old casks, and Rodenbach lives again. The very best one’s Rodenbach Grand Cru (****). Sourness that takes your breath away, perfectly balanced by a solid malty sweetness that’s stunning. Importer Duvel Moortgat USA has finally secured a distributor for the Bay Area and the beer’s headed our way, the importer’s agent, Joshua Charlton of Pacific Libations, says.

Finally,  Tim Webb  says a new edition of his Good Beer Guide is coming out in a few months. you can order Tim Webb’s book at http://www.booksaboutbeer.com.