The Road out of Flanders

I saw an image about ten years ago in Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium: It was of the huge striped foudres/Foedern – the ageing vessels beer is stored in in Roeselare, Flanders. These giant oak vats stand in a hall worthy of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. The brewery was Rodenbach and my first taste of it was a few years ago in the Cafe Arcadi in Brussels. I ordered a bottle of the standard Rodenbach. The thing I remember most is the depth of the beer – it felt like I was draining through the larval galleries in an oak beam. It was sour just short of wincing. It was sweet in a way that sugar can’t be. There was something thin yet fulsome about it. For as many notes as you could chase in one direction, there were contradictory notes to pursue in the other.

Two of the brewers of today’s three beers in this vertical tasting are within spitting distance of each other in Belgium. The third is in Texas: Jester King from Houston is a self-proclaimed fan of Brasserie Thiriez and has taken inspiration from their brewery at Esquelbecq in the heart of French Flanders. Sadly I’ve never had any of their beers but now have a reason to hunt them down. There are few world beer styles that command the reverence of Flanders red ales.

I’ll start this taste-off with Rodenbach. The brewery has been absorbed by Palm Breweries.

Rodenbach Brewery: Grand Cru (bottle 6%)

It pours a dark crimson/rosehip red and has a brimstone oil of a head. On the nose are notes of red wine vinegar, raspberry balsamic, redcurrant and molasses. The first sip reveals that the fruit balsamic continues on the palate along with Port and blackcurrant jam. It’s carbonated like a Saison. There is a time lapse in the tastes in this beer – the notes come after a 2-second lull each time like cloves and allspice.

Its soul is the bletting and sharpening as well as the the turning and decaying of red fruit. There is also a toffee apple character and the stickiness associated with it. It causes a little post sip wince which just keeps sending you back to the glass.

As someone from Britain, I regard countries like Belgium and Ireland in a similar vein to us. We are each twisted cousins from the same dysfunctional background. I am struck by the familiarity and yet startled by the sheer alienness of both cultures. We were all weaned from the grain rather than the vine and all too aware of the hungry gap in winter and the skeletal trees. We’re acquainted to the cold and the damp – the mildew and the osmosis; all conditions that necessitated the brewing of our beers.

The Verhaeghe Brewery has a monarch depicted on the bottles of its best selling beer who looks just as depressive as us Brits. I feel sorry for the 15th Century Duchess Mary of Burgundy – she’s the goth on the label holding what looks like an equally moody sparrow hawk. Her face looks as radiant as a wet weekend in Ghent and to be able to enjoy Duchesse de Bourgogne fully, turn her bleak, judgemental stare away from you. She died after being squashed by a horse – her body possibly emitting a rasp in the process. There’s a mixture of sombre tragedy and cartoon strip humour that can only come from Belgium and its tradition of bandes desinees.

Verhaeghe Brewery: Duchesse de Bourgogne (bottle 6.2%)

The ale’s a dark resinous red like blackberry jam and sports a swirling khaki head. Bubbles can be seen erupting across the surface of the head – strong carbonation again. It’s verging on gassy. There is a restrained charcoal and clove aroma that keeps itself low. On the palate it’s very tangy with a taste like sarsaparilla or dandelion and burdock.

The lasting impression is of fig syrup, cloves and red wine going stale with a dessert wine stickiness. It leaves a sweet brown sugar coating on the teeth. You can actually taste sugar in this.
This isn’t the grand cru like Rodenbach – that needs to be taken into account.

The winter conditions in northern Europe that lead to the seasonality of beers like Saisons are pretty much absent for Jester King but it also proves that beer, even taken out of the narrow constraints of its origin, can be beautifully crafted thousands of miles away. The climate in Texas could hardly be more different to the overcast dome of Flanders and yet that’s where their inspiration comes from. The whole of Belgium could fit inside Texas about 10 times and yet the small Benelux kingdom constitutes an entire planet where beer styles are concerned.

Jester King is a mythic brewery that lives in the internet. The website’s rammed to the barn rafters with images of beautiful glowing ale in stalked glasses on hay bales, wooden tables, rustic fences and sun-bleached casks. The trees are always in leaf. Dappled sunlight is forever scattered across the yard. There is an abundance of fruit, of fungi, of squashes, of happiness, of everything. The images make me drool into my own lap.

Jester King maintains a brilliant website and blog. All ingredients and methods are published for each beer they brew and they raise the bar for beer artwork. I’ve only had a beer they’ve been involved in brewing once – Farmhouse Table. It was a collaboration brew with Kernel in Bermondsey. I got hits of hay off the aroma and a note of milk of magnesium. I’ve not had a beer like that since.

Jester King: Ambree (bottle-conditioned 4.5%)

This beer has spontaneously fermenting yeast in so what was bred in the Edenic garden of Texas has now passed through me. It decants a glowing apricot amber with a perfect white hop oil. Carbonation streams up the glass sides. On the nose, it’s a reminder of the other two but sweeter. I get toffee, pear drops and fruit balsamic. I can also smell malt which I couldn’t with the other two.
The first impression I get isn’t actually the taste but the sensation of the mouthfeel – it glides across the palate like silk. The carbonation effects this beer differently too – it really lifts it like a tonic water giving it a real levity.

It takes a few moments for the notes to register and I get orange and lemon flesh, star anise, dilute lime cordial. It’s not sticky. There’s no syrupy dimension to it. There’s also something on the palate or the nose like heather honey. It all resonates where it’s been lifted to – the roof of the mouth.
From the medieval catacombs to the Texan sun. Lighter fruits come through: apricots and peaches and a lemon squeeze finish. This brew actually reminds me of the restraint and fruitiness of a British bitter of all things! The flavour is accumulative like a pint of best. It even has a neat Assam tea/bergamot edge. 

The words “inspired by” are far superior than “re-creation”. With re-creation, you don’t have the parameters for experimentation the brewers who made the beer you’re trying to recreate had. The largely local ingredients, wood and microflora in Flanders produced the best product in their space and time only. Ingredients from a separate terroir, more modern equipment and a wildly different climate will paint a different picture though an expert brewer might still capture the original soul. Also, what comes about through inspiration can be greater than the thing that inspired it.

I announce a draw in this vertical tasting between Rodenbach and Jester King. The beers, though sharing some initial similarities, are wildly different. The aged red Rodenbach is the epitome of a grown up stale to be sipped. The Ambree opens up doors between that style and light sessionability and could act as a tasty table beer.

Here is the mad and inimitable Jonathan Meades with a short documentary he made on Belgium in 1994. Those of you indifferent to or ignorant of Belgium prepare to have your weekend enriched.

Other taste-offs:

Heavy Rye Beers
Black Roasted Beers
World Saisons
Tea-infused Beer
Strong Black IPAs

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