Mention Belgium to a beer lover, and that person is likely to think of the quirky and diverse brews of a nation that fairly thumbs its nose at convention. While individuality is certainly at the heart of Belgian brewing, its artisans are also as beholden to tradition as any other brewers around the world. Many Belgian beers are unique simply due to a tenaciously held connection to the past.
Examination of the two styles, red and brown, reveals a shared philosophy and an adherence to the time-honored practice of inviting an eclectic population of influential organisms to the fermentation and maturation party.
No beers personify the attributes of territory and anachronism more than the untamed, sour brews of Flanders known as red and brown ales. Like their close relative and revered neighbor, lambic, Flanders red and brown ales offer a technological glimpse of centuries-old brewing practices. Multi-organism fermentation, shrewd blending, and extensive, patient aging all contribute to the character of these brews.
Belgium is geographically divided into two sections. The northern half, Flanders, is Dutch-speaking; the southern half, Wallonia, is French. Because of its close proximity to Germany, The Netherlands, and England, Flanders historically developed a multicultural character that is very much in evidence today and is manifested in its approach to brewing. The willingness to adapt and adopt from other countries would also help shape the character of the red and brown ales.
To say that the red and brown ales of Flanders are archaic would be an understatement. It is commonly accepted that centuries ago, all beers were dark and spontaneously fermented. That is to say that the fermentable liquid was at the mercy of the organisms that inhabited the fermenting vessel or were swept into the mixture via the air. Naturally, this muddled blend of wild yeast and bacteria exerted some influence on the flavor of the beer. It is hard to imagine what this might have tasted like, though the predominant characteristic was a powerful sour disposition, though to say it was simply “sour” would be an over-simplification.
During storage, wooden casks added yet more flavors to the brew. Porous casks were the perfect medium for housing any of the organisms that have been identified as contributing to the character of beer, wine and spirits. Additional contributions from Pediococcus and Brettanomyces made the beer complex.