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Rodenbach juggles its tuns

A visit to the brewery reveals some promising sensibilites

The famous Belgian brewery Rodenbach is working on plans which, if they are successful, will surprise and delight devotees of its sweet-and-sour Grand Cru. I hope to have more news before the end of the year.

The plans follow an outcry among beer-lovers last year when rumours spread that Grand Cru might cease production. Those stories arose after Rodenbach was subsumed into a group owned by the Belgian ale-brewers Palm. At the time, I wrote to the chief executive of Palm, with whom I am well acquainted, and was disappointed simply to receive in response a press handout -- albeit one denying that the Grand Cru would be withdrawn.

Recently, I was in Belgium, and visited Rodenbach. I was greeted by four brewers at different levels of management and given a detailed tasting, tour and review of some future plans. There seemed some anxiety to please lovers of the beer at its most intense, as well as catering to less mature tastes. One brewer spoke of the dilemma: How to produce "what we want" as well as "what many of our customers seem to want".

They agreed that the current bottlings of both Grand Cru and the regular ("Klassiek") Rodenbach were "milder" than they had been a few years ago, but rebutted my suggestion that they were sweeter. They argued that this was a return to tradition, largely achieved by a more disciplined approach to Rodenbach's distinctive process.

As many beer-lovers will know Rodenbach's products derive from both "young" and "matured" brews. Both are pitched with the same, multi-strain, yeast, which sets in progress a remarkable sequence of fermentations. There are about 20 strains, including lactobacilli and Brettanomyces.

The "young" beer traditionally had, after its primary (main) fermentation, a further period of conditioning, typically intended to last for four weeks, or perhaps five. This produces some of the refreshingly sharp lactic notes in the finished beer. During times when demand was slow, this conditioning, regarded by the brewery as a second fermentation, extended to six weeks and beyond. This may well have accounted for some "older" notes that I found in some bottlings during the 1990s. A more precise regime of stock control has now been introduced with a view to making four weeks the standard. This seems to produce a fresher, cleaner taste.

The "matured" beer has what the brewery regards as a third fermentation, in wood. For about a year, it develops both lactic and acetic flavors. Then, during a further six to twelve months, it assumes rounder, more fruity, "ripe apple" notes.

The regular Rodenbach is a blend of young and matured beers. Rodenbach Grand Cru is produced only from the matured beer.

The maturation takes place in ceiling-high oak tuns, of which there are about 300, in various sizes, in ten or a dozen halls. In each tun, the brew will evolve at a slightly different pace, and with a slightly different character. On my recent visit, I sampled from several tanks. Not only did the balance of flavors vary, but also the color.

Several tuns are combined to make each bottling. While the brewers do seek consistency in the end result, this technique of combining tuns is also intended to construct flavor.

A more painstaking stock management and selection is now being employed to ensure that matured beer with an especially fruity, estery, fullness plays an important part in each bottling. A process such as this may sound very strange to brewers outside Belgium, and to some consumers, but it is very familiar in another of my habitats: the world of malt whisky.

Distillers are increasingly finding ways in which to use their stocks of casks to make new "expressions" of their whisky. It will be interesting to see where Rodenbach's recent explorations take its products.

Watch this space.

Published: FEB 14, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

- Brewery Review

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