Flanders Red Ale or Flemish Brown Ale?? Two styles of beer which can be a little confusing sometimes, (even to us whilst we try to explain which is which) and can quite often be blurred into one as they're usually very similar to each other.
They have their differences though, so I wanted to look into what makes them different, that called for a little dip into Michael Jackson's 'Beer Companion' - the ultimate tome for beer geekery.
He states that;
"The sweet-and-sour character is common to the brown ales of East Flanders and the 'red' of the West, and the two are brother brews, but there are differences between them. One is obviously that the brewers of West Flanders seem traditionally to have used malts that provided a redder colour. Much more significantly, the classics among the redder brew, while having their primary fermentation in metal, are aged in uncoated wood (not casks, but ceiling-high vertical tuns), and this makes for a teasing blend of caramels, tannins and acidity. As the brew matures, lactic acid begins to build up, and there is some interaction with acetobacters in the wood itself. Some of the lesser producers use metal tanks, but add lactic cultures. Unlike the most famous browns, the classic reds are stabilized by pasteurization."
It seems to me that there is a bit of an East-West divide going on in Flanders, with the East making Brown ales (or provision beer) like Liefmans' Goudenband, and the West making the Red Ales like Duchesse de Bourgogne for example. Michael does also go on to say that "There is no acknowledged appellation to identify the style" although the book is getting on in the years now, and this may have possibly changed.
I'd like to take you through a few of the Red Ales we have been stocking at the shop for as long as I can remember, (probably since we opened about 12 years ago) but because of their shelf location, they often get overlooked. This is a massive shame because these three are probably some of the most complex and deeply intriguing beers we sell, and their shunning is something that needs to change. They can be slightly challenging to a first timer, but if you stick with it, you'll be hard pressed to find anything else like it that you can enjoy.
I'm starting out with The Rodenbach classic. It's a 5.2% Red Ale which is produced by blending 3/4 of "young beer" and 1/4 of beer that has matured for over 2 years. It has a distinctive dark red/brown appearance and a very inviting cherry aroma. The first sip and flavour takes you a little by surprise. It's very dry and incredibly moorish and refreshing, with a lot of that sweet and sour-ness that Michael was talking about. It's slightly vinous with a long lightly tart finish. Apparently the slight acidity of the beer suits shellfish dishes and salads, and to be fair, I reckon it would go fantastically with some jumbo king prawns... This would be a perfect beer to start out with if you've never had any Flanders style Red Ales, although it may put a few people off if I said it smelled a little like smelly socks! ( I suppose that will be the Brettanomyces...)
To complicate things a bit more, next comes along Petrus Oud Bruin (Old Brown). It's complicated because, while it may be called Petrus Old Brown Ale, and is rather brown in appearance, it's actually part of the Red Ale family. It smells quite sweet, with notes of candy sugars and caramels. It has a big sweet and sour effect going on, but also has a big drying earthy/woody flavour too. Lots of fruits like cherries and grapes add to the sweetness and it's matched excellently by a big moorish sour dryness from lots of oak.
The beer is apparently aged in the huge 25000l casks "during 20 months". I'm not sure what they mean by 'it's aged during 20 months' though, I'm just going to tell people it's aged for 20 months in wood...
Last but not least is the big daddy, one for the more adventurous; Rodenbach Grand Cru. Pretty damn dark brown, with only slight hints of a red tinge coming through under the lights. This 6% beer is produced using a blend of 1/3rd "young beer" to 2/3rds beer which has been aged for over two years. It truly is a fantastic and amazingly complex beer. It's like Stout meets Gueuze! You get a much bigger slightly sweaty 'horse blanket' Brettanomyces aroma and flavour to this beer, and much more sourness too. Funky cherries, earthy drying wood, vinous, but wine beating complexities, acidic and magnificent. I've put down a few tasting notes here, but in truth this beer is really hard to describe, it's something that really needs to be experienced first hand.
These beers have a reputation. A reputation for being awesome. If you've not tried them before then they are a must for the adventurous beer geek out there.
So in conclusion..... what are you waiting for??