Thursday, November 18, 2010

Brouwerij Rodenbach and Max's Taphouse Rollout Event

(Photo, top: Rudi Ghequire, Brewmaster, Brouwerij Rodenbach.
He has just pulled a sample of an eight month old brew from foeder
293. Yes, it was really good!)

Did I ever mention I like sour beer? Sure I did.

On Tuesday December 7, you can too. Barring any unexpected
developments, Devin Arloski of Latis Imports and yours truly
will host the Maryland rollout (well, re-rollout, so to speak)
of Rodenbach. The venue: Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Yep,
the same place that holds that superb Belgian beer fest in

(Photo, above: A row of massive 650 hl foeders. That's
over 545 US barrels of beer per barrel.)

I plan to show some of the 500+ images I have from my 2008 and
2010 visits to the brewery, as well as talking about the history of this
Belgian national treasure. I'll also discuss the brewing process.
There should be Rodenbach, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Vintage 2008
on hand. Several Steenbrugge Abbey Ales and Palm will also be
available that night.

Rodenbach is one of the world's great Oud Bruin breweries.
Yep, Old Brown Ales. Michael Jackson called them Flemish
Red Ales: he coined that term.

'Vlaamse Oud Bruin' is what the locals call them in Belgie. That's
tradition. Call them what you like, these refreshing, tart, dry brews
are a real delight. Rodenbach is the benchmark. Let's have a look
(and read) below.

This article article was first published in Celebrator Beer News in August 2008.

"Brouwerij Rodenbach: the Masterpiece of Roeselare"

Rodenbach: the very name is synonymous with the tart, refreshing
red ales of West Flanders, Belgium. The burgundy-colored Rodenbach
Classic and Grand Cru are benchmarks of the style.

(Photo, above: you can see Rodenbach written on roof of the
old brewery in this photo.)

The Rodenbach site-a 15 minute walk from the train station in the
town of Roeselare, near Brugge-is a complex of numerous buildings
with various purposes, past and present. Rodenbach is one of the
most impressive breweries I have had ever the pleasure to visit. In
late May, brewmaster Rudi Ghequire greeted me and two
friends-including Daisy Claeys, owner of the famous beer cafe,
't Brugs Beertje in Brugge-and gave us a superb tour.

(Photo, above: Rudi with an 1830's map of Belgium.)

"You can see Roeselare here" Rudi told us, pointing to a spot on
a very rare map of Belgium dating to the 1830's. "Over there are
portraits of the Rodenbach family. The family played an important
role in the creation of the country of Belgium."

(Photo, above: images of some of the Rodenbach family members.)

Much of Rodenbach is a museum-even in the office space, there
are display cases with items related to the history of the family
and brewery.

"Let's have a look at the old brewery first" Rudi said, as we
entered hallowed ground.

(Photo, above: these copper brewkettles date to 1864.
They are among the oldest in Belgium.)

"This brewhouse dates to 1864. The two copper vessels are
among the very few in Belgium that survived the occupation
of the Germans in the First World War. The Rodenbach family
paid the Germans 26,000 gold coins not to take away these
brewkettles to make armaments with." Rudi told us.
"The filtration kettle dates to 1929" he continued.

(Photo, above: the filtration kettle, dating to 1929.)

The old brewery building is several stories tall, and also houses
dozens of copper-lined open fermenters, rooms with stained-glass
windows, beautifully painted Rodenbach advertising plates, colorful
old flags, and other breweriana.

(Photo, above: inside the old brewery.)

(Photo, above: stained-glass window in the old brewery.)

(Photo, above: old signs in the old brewery.)

"The first brewery on this site was called Brouwerij and
Malterie St. George. Alexander Rodenbach purchased it
in 1821, and another relative purchased it from him, in
1836" Rudi mentioned. He continued: "There is a coolship
on the roof. A gueuze called St. George used to be brewed

(Photo, above: the koelschip/coolship on the top
floor of the old brewery. It was used until 1990.)

I had no idea Lambic and Gueuze had ever been produced in
Roeselare, but you learn something new every day!

(Photo, above: you can see the coal-fired malting kiln
at this entrance to the brewery complex.)

(Photo, above: inside the malting kiln.)

Another historic structure is the old coal-fired kiln, which is
recognizable by its cone-shaped black roof. "The building dates to
1864, and is protected by the government due to its historic
significance. The brewery used to do its own malting, until 1974. The
kilning was done on two levels, which helped the malts achieve a
darker color" Rudi said. There is a history of the malting process on
the walls of the kiln, in English, Dutch and French.

(Photo, above: the new brewery building. The brewhouse
is inside the glass at the left end.)

(Photos, above: inside the new brewhouse. The old brewery
is on the left.)

"Well, let's have a look at the new brewery now. Note
that 21 people work here at present" Rudi said. The
Meura brewhouse, located in a cube-shaped building,
is visible through clear glass windows from the outside,
and was installed in 2001. It has a batch size of 250
hectoliters. The brewery produces about 75,000 hl per
year, of which about 5% is the superb Grand Cru, and
most of the rest is the Rodenbach Classic, a mildly tart,
highly drinkable beer with just under 5% abv. The late,
great Michael Jackson called it "The most refreshing
beer in the world."

(Photo, above: Rudi discussing the types of fermentation
in Belgium.)

"For our purposes, the most important thing about the
brewhouse is to produce a very good wort. It's really the
wood aging and mixed yeast culture that gives our beers
most of their distinct character.
For the primary and secondary fermentation in stainless
steel vessels, we use the same mixed fermentation culture
that has been used here for 150 years. It is a blend of
top-fermenting yeasts and lactobacillus. We never re-start
the yeast culture! " Rudi exclaimed. After the first
and second fermentation, the beer is transferred into
wooden barrels, called foeders in Dutch, for maturation.

(Photo, above: the oldest oak barrel at Rodenbach,
dating to prior to 1836.)

Ah, the wood: the heart of Brouwerij Rodenbach. Foeders
are large barrels (also referred to as vats or tuns) made from
oak, which are capable of holding thousands of gallons of beer.
"The majority of our 294 foeders hold 180 hl of beer. They are
80 mm thick, weigh nearly 5 metric tons each, and hold 18
tons of beer when full" Rudi said. "We also have 18 foeders
that have a capacity of 650 hl each. They weigh about ten
metric tons empty, and can hold 65 metric tons of beer!" He
added. Rudi continued: "Let's have a taste from a few of them!"
Rudi's offer-a rare treat-was accepted without hesitation!

(Photo, above: a row of 180 hl foeders.)

The first brew was a very young beer, which had only been
in its vat about a week or two. It was evident that the
maturation process had started, but had a ways to go for the
kind of complexity and tartness Rodenbach is known for.
The next brew Rudi poured from a foeder was very fruity
and very complex, and a favorite of the four of us. A third
was very tart and acidic-and I mean Cantillon territory!
I quite enjoyed it. A fourth sample was in between-tart
and fruity, and also very good. All were different in their
own way.

(Photo, above: Rudi pulling a sample. For research
purposes only, of course.)

"As you have tasted, each foeder has its own flavor. No
beer is exactly alike. We achieve some consistency by
blending from different barrels. The Classic is a mix
of 25% old beer (matured for at least two years in
foeders) and 75% young beer, with less than a few months
of aging. The 6% abv Grand Cru is a blend from several
different foeders, averaging 18 months old. Additionally,
we add about 6 grams of sugar per liter to the Classic,
and 10 grams per liter to the Grand Cru, to balance out
some of the sharpness of these brews" Rudi stated.

Rudi continued "Note also that the maturation in the
wood is not really a third fermentation. We do not
add any yeast when the beer is put in the foeders, as
this tends to produce a bready taste, which can be
unpleasant. There is some acetic acid imparted by
the wood, and, as well, the burgundy color of the
beer is produced by both the dark malts we use, and
through contact with the oak. Tannins in the wood
create this effect, for the most part."

(Photo, above: Cafe De Zalm.)

He continued: "We also offer Rodenbach Foederbier in a few select
cafes in Belgium, such as De Zalm here in Roeselare. This brew is a
blend of beer from three to five different foeders, with an average
age of two years on oak. If you like the tartness and complexity of
the Grand Cru, you should like the Foederbier as well, as it is even
more tart!"

(Photo, above: Rodenbach Foederbier at De Zalm,

Like it? Absolutely! I had dinner at the excellent Belga Queen in
Ghent the following evening, and savored several glasses of
Foederbier, served via handpump. 't Vosken in Ghent, Belga Queen in
Brussels, Grand Cafe Horta in Antwerp and Het Vijgeblad in Beringen
also occasionally have this brew available, as well as unblended Boon
Lambic and unfiltered Palm pale ale. Palm owns Rodenbach.
"We have two coopers on staff to repair and rebuild the oak vats.
It's a full time job to keep so many barrels, some of which are 150
years old, in working order" Rudi mentioned.

(Photo, above: rooms where the barrels are made and repaired.)

When asked about how the Rodenbach yeast culture might
evolve over time, Rudi mentioned that the University of
Leuven is currently studying the very same subject.
After the tour, we headed into the visitors center to savor a
few more of the Rodenbach brews. Quality control, of course.
Rudi told us: "You have to have a philosophy to make beer.
Our overall philosophy here is to use modern techniques
where it makes sense to, and to use traditional methods
where it makes sense to. It gives us the best of both worlds."
"My personal philosophy is to make beers with a lot of taste
and flavor, but without too much alcohol. It's not too difficult
to make a complex high-alcohol beer, and these types of beers
are popular in Belgium. But I prefer beers such as our Classic
and Grand Cru, as well as Orval, as they have lots of character,
but without overwhelming alcohol" Rudi said.

(Photo, above: Vintage 2008 is the newest Rodenbach.)

He continued "However, I do like to experiment. We just
released a new beer, Vin de Cereale, last year. It's a
barleywine of 10% alcohol, packaged in corked, 375 ml
bottles. Reports have been very favorable
about this brew. I think it has a slight honey flavor to it."
I found Vin de Cereale a very good, complex and flavorful
brew. Seek it out!
Does Rudi have any more experiments in the planning
stages? "Of course I have ideas and dreams. But I may
not discuss anything until it is a reality." He told us.
I look forward to tasting whatever the next reality may be!

(Photo, above: inside the visitor's center at Rodenbach.)

There is a visitors center in the brewery complex where groups can
visit (the brewery receives about 20,000 visitors per year) and where
parties are often held on weekends. "We have our own kitchen and
well-equipped bar, with of course our Rodenbach brews, as well as
several Boon Lambics and Palm beers. This hall is very popular,
We host 70 to 80 wedding receptions a year, plus other events!"
Rudi told us, smiling.

(Photo, above: I visited on a Saturday morning in June, 2010.
They were getting ready for a wedding reception in the hall.
What a great place to have a reception. Anyone getting married
next summer???)

(Photo, above: foeders in the Visitor's Center.)

Inside the visitors center hall, several of the large foeders have
been cut open to create a museum, where a multimedia presentation
about the history of the brewery and family can be experienced. The
visitors center is quite a fine place to savor the brews crafted just
yards away! See for more info.


Volker @ Brewer's Art said...

What time, Chuck?

Chuck Cook said...

6 pm Volker!

Rick Garvin said...

Very nicely done. Cheers!

ben_2005 said...

I had a great time there in '09. The Grand Cru was world-class!

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Sorry I had to miss your presentation--work and all--but your post makes me think I probably didn't miss much--I mean, the blogpost is a whole show itself!

Tanya said...

That all sounds just reminded me I still have a Rodenbach in the cupboard.....