Flemish Sour tasting
Last Updated : 31/05/07
t’s a funny beast is our cellar; it contains a whole load of alcoholic goodies (not drunken pig-ugly thick-as-shit racists / crap slapstick flare-wearing 1970’s birdwatchers – just in case you got that impression) just waiting to be cracked open and a rather feeble description of their contents scribed into my big orange scooping book. The wine, port, Lambic and 75cl bottles of beer are kept down in the murky depths with only the deafening roar of the dehumidifier for company whilst four shelves of undetermined vintage (and structural reliability) at the top of the stairs hold our smaller Belgian/German/anywhere-else bottles, bolstered by a few crates stacked below as we don't quite trust the integrity of said shelves to support our stock of winners after a visit to Beers of Europe or Belgian Belly!
Anyhow, back to the point of this article. It was the late may Bank Holiday weekend and we were trying to work out what the evening's beer tasting theme would be - or at least Sue was, as I prefer to do blind tastings where I don't know anything about the brew being consumed and therefore have to use my powers of taste and deduction without the preconceptions of knowing what any of the beers are, giving potentially crap examples (such as Chimay!) a fighting chance of achieving their correct score with no deductions just in case I happen to see the label…
Sue normally springs the tasting on me with absolutely zero information regarding the beers, but tonight she asked, as none of them were scoops, if I’d like a Flemish sour session. With being one of my favourite breweries anywhere in the world, and armed with the knowledge that examples of at least two of their oude bruins were just begging to be supped on shelf 3, I happily agreed to the idea and soon the welcome clinking of bottles being selected was emanating from the cellar.
The tasting soon rattled it's way to the table and comprised of several bottles which I’d have put money on never having seen anywhere near our cellar; all had been bought from either Beers of Europe or Belgian Belly and had been kept in darkness since purchase. The motley collection of bottles (mainly 25cl, strangely) was a decent cross-section of commercial and traditional brews with the running order being -
Not a bad list to give a broad sweep of the different hues of the Flemish oude bruin/red styles I’m sure you'll agree! Before I continue, however, a small paragraph on what a Flemish Sour is; be aware that different people have different views on this and the one you read/hear somewhere else may totally disagree with what I’m writing now – great things, opinions! All I can say is that I base my style guidelines on numerous visits to Belgium plus reading of lots of style guidelines such as Josh Oakes’ from Ratebeer and the somewhat more bizarre BJCP ones. Try the beers, visit Belgium, and decide for yourself is the best advice I can give…
Gazza’s Flemish Sour style definition.
If you believe some people then there are two distinct styles within the umbrella of “Flemish Sour”, namely Vlaamse Bruin and Rood, or Flemish brown and red to those without a grasp of Dutch. I see where this idea comes from, but with the loss of many examples over the last 20 years – the beers are simply too expensive to make, needing six months minimum maturation in oak tuns, plus the changing tastes of drinkers who simply want something with a name they’ve seen on TV and without too much challenging character – I’d say it has become far easier to lump them all together under the Flemish Sour category and let the slight differences speak for themselves; to be honest, there’s not a great deal of noticeable variation between the beers anyway!
The basic premise of a Flemish Sour is that it’s a deep ruddy-amber to brown brew made from (ideally) plenty of Vienna malt and very little in the way of hops taste although there is some bitterness lurking in the background which shows hops are doing here what they were originally intended to do in keeping the beer infection free (although this may seem a strange thing to say in a style which actually tries to introduce some measure of lactic infection into the beer…!).
The major flavour, however, isn’t the usual malt/hop combo which we expect in most beers but a sour, woody (ideally the beer is matured in wood, but not all are these days) and quite musty character derived from a minimum six-month rest in a wooden cask or tun; obviously the larger the tun the less woody tastes the beer will have, but all should have this woody twang to some degree. Some measure of sourness is also imperative for any Flemish Sour (kind of obvious by the name, but I’m covering all bases with this) yet the beer shouldn’t be as sour as a Gueuze, for example; the sourness should simply be one more part of the complex jigsaw which makes up these multi-faceted, interesting and sadly rare beers.
The rest of the flavour components vary between brewers but should include a touch of acidity (lactic preferably, although a little acetic is okay), a gentle sweetness with toffee from Vienna malt, and maybe some tannins from the wood casks – whatever the end result, if made properly these beers are some of the most complex and underrated in the whole world and one of my personal favourite styles. The predictable modern trend towards “speeding up” the 6-month+ process by chemically adding the sourness (it’s usually obvious as a harsh, caustic taste), using oak chips or even “oak extract” (harder to tell) and then by high-temperature fermentation and then short conditioning in the wood (if wood is actually used at all) has had the result of demeaning the entire genre of Flemish Sour and making a mockery of several brewers which used to produce good examples, such as Liefmans, but that’s progress for you.
With our trusty t’Ij glasses out of commission waiting to be washed we gave a rare outing – from deep in the glass cupboard – to a pair of “tourist export quality” Proef Reinaert glasses; by the tourist quality jibe I merely mean that these aren’t the heavy-duty proper glasses you might encounter in some Belgian bar, but instead are paper-thin cheap vessels which would probably be shattered within the evening if used in a proper pub environment and so I deduce that they were never really meant to be used, instead simply put on a shelf and admired! We do use them occasionally, but it’s always accompanied by extreme care when putting them down or pouring from a bottle into them just in case they actually do smash at the slightest touch as they always threaten to!
Vlaamse Bourgogne is a strange beer from a strange brewer. Van Steenberge make a huge range of beers and seem to be another of those “doer of all, master of none” type producers who will have a go at anything but can be almost guaranteed to make less than a great job of the finished product – although they are a damn sight better than the likes of Huyghe! So it was mixed emotions that I began the tasting with this reddy-amber, crystal-clear brew which had a surprisingly sour, lactic and inviting aroma, then a decent enough initial sour taste of caramel and malt with a rather industrial sourness and still some lacticity hanging in there, but this promising beginning quickly faded into a rather nondescript, dull, plain sweet malty flavour with the vaguest suggestion of cobwebby wood and still a lingering twang of lactic acid – but not much.
Bacchus was next and, besides suggestions of Dave Brown, what the name conjures up is images of bucolic peasants armed with brimming jugs of locally-made ale… hopefully the aforementioned jugs aren’t full of this dross then, with it’s toffee/caramel aroma with only the vaguest suggestion of mustiness, a sherbety mouthfeel (and, strangely, taste) then a dry, thin, rather unpleasant aftertaste with hardly any of the required flavour components leading me to question whether this beer should, in fact, be classed as a Flemish Sour – why should it, when it doesn’t have any sourness?
Bavik Oud Bruin followed and, sadly, this wasn’t much better; a reddy/brown colour with a slight lactic and wood hint over a sweet caramelly maltiness. The body was fairly thin with too much caramel and syrup before a sweet aftertaste with just a tiny suggestion of lactic sourness; just what’s the point of making this kind of beer? If you’re going to make a Flemish Sour then at least make a decent attempt or just don’t bother! I can see this particular beer falling between the stools of those who want traditional sour beers (nowhere near sour enough) and normals who fancy a local beer (what’s that strange musty taste?) which leads me to suggest they either do it properly or don’t inconvenience themselves.
I was far more hopeful with the next beer; Rodenbach went through a very bad phase in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s but now seems to have regained some of it’s previous character and complexity. This example was in a 33cl disposable bottle (a 6-pack bought from Topsham the previous summer) and was a lovely reddy-brown colour but the main difference from the previous three beers was the aroma of acetic acid and a prickle of sourness on the tongue – just what a Flemish Sour should have! The beer also had caramelly malt, a sweet/sour character with the toffee malt and acetic sourness (not really the sharp lactic kind, more of a vinegary one - in the nicest possible way!) with noticeable tannins and soft woodiness, although a strange hint of acetone (nail varnish remover) removed some polish from the beer’s score (!)
Rodenbach’s bigger brother followed but, surprisingly, didn’t go down as well as they younger beer had due, in my opinion, to it having broadly the same flavour as the original but then with the tangy, youthful zip removed and replaced by more toffee and acetone. Granted, there was an increase in complexity, but I felt that it was at the expense of the freshness of the younger beer and so, despite Grand Cru being a complex, fairly sour brew I preferred the young version – I’d never have believed that before drinking them side-by-side!
Now we were onto the serious stuff; Verhaeghe Vichtenaar was opened and immediately the aromas of acetic acid and woodiness rolled from the bottle – this was going to be good! I must admit to a slight conflict of interest here as Vichtenaar is probably one of my top ten all-time beers and ideally the tasting would have been blind, but it’s such a distinctive brew that I’m relatively confident that I could pick it out amongst almost any other beers – including those we were tasting now! The beer was deep russet in colour with a sweet caramel and acetic woody aroma. A thick, sweet-ish, rich and complex brew with lovely poise and balance, it has malt, caramel, sourness, a hint of “age”, lots of wood, acidity, fruitiness, toffee – basically, it has everything a Flemish Sour should have but with balance, although I’m not sure if I detected a slight twang of aspartame in the finish? I shall have to try Vichtenaar again to see, but one thing is for sure, it’s a cracker of a beer and a world classic.
Vichtenaar’s older brother, Duchesse de Bourgogne, was next and first I opened the year-old UK Europe release bottle. The aroma wasn’t too promising with hints of acetone followed by wood and caramel, but once I got into the flavour everything was glorious; it was far more acidic and “older” than the Vichtenaar with a lovely acetic sourness and sweetish caramel-malt body which lead on to a lactic-sour very complex musty, woody finish. I savoured every drop of this glorious fluid and thought how much better the beer was for a year in our cellar as, on release, it’s too sweet and hasn’t developed the lacticity it needs to achieve a near-perfect balance such as the bottle we drank.
The American version was next, in its 33cl bottle, but even though this example was only around four months newer than the European version the taste was light years apart: lots of acetone dominated the aroma, and the taste was far, far sweeter than the previous bottle we’d drooled over not five minutes previously. It was still a lactic, woody and complex brew, of that there was no doubt, but the sweetness wiped out the finer aspects of the complexity under a veil of syrupy malt and marked the beer down significantly in my opinion.
Finally, it was time for a tongue-cleanser in the form of Verhaege’s Echte Kriek. I’ve drunk the unfiltered draught version at Reading beer festival a number of times and it’s simply stunning, but this bottle left us slightly disappointed when we considered just how good it can be, although if I forgot the sublimity of the draught and took the beer as I found it I had to admit it wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t as good in bottle as it can be. For what it’s worth, the brew had cherries, cherry stones (almonds) and acetone on the nose with a balanced, cherried flavour including more lovely almonds and a hint of woody sourness although not nearly as much as in the world-class draught version. The finish was malty, fruity, woody and interesting and made a good finish to the evening’s tasting session.
This tasting only served to bolster my opinions on the Flemish Sour category of beers, namely that Verhaeghe are superb and most of the others complete rubbish with the notable exception of standard Rodenbach! I’d love to try some American takes on this type of beer to see if they can reach the same level of perfection Verhaeghe manage, although subtlety and poise is rarely an American trait and I suspect the beers will be overly woody and tongue-curlingly sour – maybe one day I’ll find out!
So, here’s the final results table with scores (out of five) and it’s a disastrous season for Bacchus as they come last, relegated to the Nargis Kebab Sunday league 6th division for sure, but championship felicitations must go to Verhaeghe and, in particular, the European version of Duchesse de Bourgogne. Rodenbach original also finished respectably and I see no reason why, with a caring manager, they shouldn’t continue to improve; I hear great things of their “supersub” foederbier and would like to see him in action next year if possible… now that’s quite enough of football for one year!
Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne, aged 1 year (6.2%, )
Verhaeghe Vichtenaar, aged 18 months (5.1%, )
Rodenbach, aged 1 year (5%, )
Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne (6.2%, 33cl American export bottle, )
Verhaeghe Echte Kriek (6.8%, )
Rodenbach Grand Cru (6.5%, )
Van Steenberge Vlaamse Bourgogne (5.5%, )
Bavik Petrus Oud Bruin (5.5%, )
Van Honsebrouck Bacchus (4.5%, )
© Gazza 31/05/07