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Brown ale and bike-barmy Belgians

What were once very local beers are now widely sold as something special

It could have been a little basic boozer in the Black Counnty. I thought I spotted a Wolves scarf (admittedly along with those of Celtic and Anderlecht) among the Soccer favours hanging from the ceiling. A card school was in the corner and a skittle alley round the back.

The giveaway was the previous day's placings in the Tour de France neatly set out like league tables on the wall.

I was in the Café Casino, in the village of Eine on the northern edge of Oudenaarde, the brown ale city in the "Flemish Ardennes".

The bike-barmy Belgians tell me their passion for pedalling has abated somewhat, but in my travels this summer that has appeared to be a matter of degree.

Basic boozers are also said to be in retreat, but Café Casino is a steadfast delight. Only in Eine - albeit, in every one of the villages it's 10 cafes - can the local Cnudde beer reliably be found. Café Casino is next door to the brewery.

Looking at the brewery, with its industrial style, I was reminded of an early English woollen mill.

In fact, it was built in 1919, and somewhat restored in the 1950s. It was established by Fons Cnudde then run by his son Omer and grand son Louis.

When Louis Cnudde became ill in the early 1990s , there was some doubt about the future of the enterprise. Now, while Louis' widow still occupies the white, shuttered house on the site, her three sons run the brewery.

Each has a "day job". Pieter is a lawyer. Lieven teaches maths, and Steven is an engineer. The three brew together, eight times a year. There are no employees.

The beer is brewed in a very simple way, to a gravity estimated at 1048, from Pilsner malt and caramel, with Northern Brewer and Styrian hops, the latter strained in a device like a pepper-pot.

The kettle has a dome, but with a hole instead of a chimney. The steam has to find its own way up the brewery's stack.

The character of the beer is undoubtedly influenced by the lack of refrigeration in the brewery.

The wort passes from the 60-hectolitre kettle to an open cooler, made of copper, in the gable of the roof, then to a Baudelot.

This latter system, looking rather like an old-fashioned radiator, is filled with cold water while wort flows over it. The wort is cooled but also exposed to the atmosphere.

There is an open, stainless-steel fermenter, and the beer is conditioned in metal tanks in a naturally cold cellar for six to eight weeks.

Cnudde Oudenaards Bruin has a claret colour; an alcohol content in the range 4-5 per cent ABV: and a fresh, light, cleansing dryness, with hints of iron and a faint tartness.

I had the sense of drinking an honest straightforward village beer from less self-conscious times.

Both the brewery and Mrs Cnudde's house face on to a small orchard with about 10 cherry trees.

There are enough cherries to make one brew of Kriek each year, and this is kept for the family.

The beer goes on to the cherries in plastic vessels. I tasted a two-year-old brew that was tawny red and sour-ish, with a beautiful balance of fruit, stones and beer.

This symbol of robustness appears in several places in the Oudenaarde area, recalling the heroism of the US military in World War I.

Also in the garden is a sculpture of a buffalo. This symbol of robustness appears in several places in the Oudenaarde area, recalling the heroism of the US military in World War I. Oudenaarde stands at a strategic crossing point, on the river Schelde.

The troops especially associated with the area were the Ohio National Guard, but the Buffalo was the badge of an other unit, the 92nd Division, comprising entirely Afro-American soldiers.

They fought in this part of Europe, but the records do not show them having been in Oudenaarde. When I raised this with an historian in Ohio, he speculated that a detached artillery unit of the 92nd might have been present.

On the eastern edge of Oudenaarde, at Mater, is the brewery of the family Roman. The village and the family names may have their origins in Roman times. Mater is on the old road from Cologne to Dunkirk.

The brewery is more recent, having been established by the family in 1545, as an inn and farm.

The 14th generation is now active. When I asked why Roman's brown beers were less tart than those of some neighbours, I was told - as though such distinctions applied only yesterday - that this was a result of their being on the "German" side of the Schelde in the 1300s.

The German Emperor issued an edict that beer be made with hops. The other side of the river was controlled by the French, who ruled for beer with herbs and spices rather than hops.

The brewery has imposing buildings set round a courtyard, with flower beds, a Romanesque stable block, and a tiled hall occupied by beautifully-kept ammonia-compressors, steam engines and early power-generating equipment.

Its copper brewbouse dates from the 1930s, but must have been very modern at that time. Different cellars, and five yeasts, are used for the various styles of beer.

Until the 1950s, the company made only brown beers. Roman Oudenaards (5 per cent) has a dark cherry colour the aroma of oranges in boxes; with zesty flavours developing against a background of smooth, sweetish malt, chocolatey flavours and roastiness.

The Burgundy-coloured Special Roman (5.5 per cent) is also spicy and chocolatey, but toastier and more textured, with hints of crisp tartness. The brewery has also produced a Dobbelen Bruinen (8 per cent), rounder and firmer, with cocoa, bitter chocolate and warming alcohol in the finish.

Where an arm of the river once flowed, and a Jesuit abbey stood from the 1200s, is a brewery tracing its origins from the 1600s. This brewery, in Oudenaarde itself, makes a brown ale under the name Felix. At one stage, the brewery was owned by a man named Felix, but it has been in the hands of the Clarysse family since World War II.

Although the odd abbey wall still stands, the brewery's buildings date mainly from the 1970s. The beer is very soft and sweet. The brewery also produces a perfumy Kriek.

By far the best known of the region's brown ales is today brewed by Riva, at Dentergem, in West Flanders, but fermented, matured, blended and bottle-conditioned at its original home, Liefmans, at Oudenaarde.

By far the best known of the region's brown ales is today brewed by Riva, at Dentergem, in West Flanders, but fermented, matured, blended and bottle-conditioned at its original home, Liefmans, at Oudenaarde. Riva, which was founded by its present proprietors' family in 1896, now owns Liefmans, which dates from at least 1679.

When I first visited Liefmans, in the 1970s, it was owned by Vaux, of Britain, and run by its legendary principal Madame Rose Blancquaert, a former ballet dancer.

It was a very old-fashioned brewery, and hard to operate. The mash tuns were too small to fill the needlessly large, open kettles.

It may have been the difficulty of heating these vessels that led to the simmering of the wort overnight.

Liefmans' tawny brown beers arc brewed from three malts: Pilsner-type, crystal and roast. They are hopped with Goldings and Saaz, in one addition, and boiled for two hours. Fermention is in open copper vessels with the house yeast.

The brown beers are produced in three versions: Odnar (4 per cent):

Oud Bruin (5 per cent); and Goudenband (in recent years increased from 6 to 8.5 per cent).

In making Goudenband ("Gold Ribamid"), beer of around four months old is blended with stock two or three times that age. The blend is centrifuged, primed with invert sugar, given a dose of the original yeast and bottle conditioned in cellars.

Goudenband, once very much a local beer, is now more widely sold - but as something special. That is why its strength was boosted.

When this change was first made, the beer was uncharacterisically rich and sweet. Riva now seems to have found a surer touch. Goudenband has regained some of its characteristic sour wineyness, iron, saltiness and toastiness.

These notes will develop with a few months', or even years', cellaring. The brewery still sells ten-year-old bottles of the older version, and sonic cafes have it at 25 years.

Published Online: APR 26, 2000
Published in Print: OCT 1, 1997
In: What's Brewing

Beer Review - Beer Styles - Brew Travel

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