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.
Beer, in general, was a product of its own immediate surroundings, be that microbiological or agricultural. Some environments lent themselves better than others to providing the necessary components for great beer, and those environments undoubtedly endured as brewing centers. Except in areas like Germany and Bohemia, where brewers were actively selecting pure, bottom-fermenting strains of yeast, beer was (for the most part) expected to be somewhat sour and musty, especially in England and Belgium.
As fermentation became more controlled and thus, refined, most brewers sought to eliminate those flavors that they considered undesirable. English brew masters, especially those in London, had established complicated schedules of aging and blending their ales in the 17th and 18th centuries. The natural, expressive contribution from the top-fermenting ale yeast was augmented by the more traditional practice of aging in wood. Young and old beers were blended to get the desired qualities.
Likewise, Flanders brewers aged and blended their ales, a practice that may have been learned from the English or vice versa. Eugene Rodenbach, of the brewery that bears his name, is known to have studied brewing in England. Also common to both areas was a preference for flat, or lightly carbonated, cask beer.
At any rate, blended ales eventually fell out of favor in England but not in Flanders. Later, the preference for light, bottom-fermented beers in Europe either forced brewers to make something similar or give up part of their market share. Similarly, many brewers throughout Belgium adopted the scientific advances in yeast propagation but shunned the trend toward lighter beers. The brewers of Flanders red and brown ales resisted both movements, further insulating their brewing preferences.
Bacteria, Barrels and Blends
Further examination of the two styles, red and brown, reveals a shared philosophy between the two and an adherence to the time-honored practice of inviting an eclectic population of influential organisms, other than Saccharomyces, to the fermentation and maturation party. The metabolism of these nontraditional organisms produces a highly attenuated beer. This is due to the fact that the extraneous organisms take over where the normal Saccharomyces fermentation leaves off, either by fermenting compounds in the wort that aren’t normally broken down, or by further fermenting by-products of Saccharomyces metabolism.
The addition of adjunct, such as maize, to the recipe in some cases would add to the high attenuation. Acetobacter, the bacteria responsible for converting alcohol into vinegar, can also be present in either, adding another dimension of tartness beyond that of Lactobacillus, which is the organism of yogurt and sauerkraut.
This seemingly incompatible panoply of organisms leads, in fact, to quite the opposite with regard to synergy in the final, well-aged product. The complexity is above and beyond that which would be expected from each contributor. Combined with the fruity, estery profile of the Saccharomyces ale yeast, or yeasts as the case may be, it is enhanced even further.
As both styles are well aged, the selection of the maturation vessel is of utmost importance to the footprint associated with the style. Much attention is placed on the flavor, porosity and permeability of the wood used in the casks.
The porous cells of the wood provide microscopic grottos and increased surface area for better contact with the aging beer. The cells also harbor the bacteria that enliven the maturing beer. The permeable wood allows a gas exchange between the atmosphere and the beer. Oxygen, in scant supply in fully fermented beer, is allowed to cross the wood barrier from atmosphere to beer. Aside from the oxidative notes that this adds, oxygen is also an essential nutrient for Brettanomyces, which gives the beer a horsy or musty character. Cask aging can last anywhere from one to several years.
Oak is the preferred material, as it is with wine and whiskey makers. Literally dozens of compounds lend their flavor to some degree or another, but two are the most important, as they impart a tangible element to the finished product: vanillin and tannin, which convey vanilla and earthy notes, respectively. The wood itself provides, for lack of a better term, “oakiness” during aging. Flanders ales have often been described in the same terms as wine for this reason.
Both Flanders red and brown are blended and, as such, require much skill to achieve a certain consistency from release to release. Small variations are common and wholly anticipated; nevertheless, the product must retain its signature profile. The blender must have an acute sense of taste to combine the sweet, young beer and tart, complex, fully aged beer, as well as those in between in maturation. Even though the aging process is far from haphazard, there is a small measure of serendipity involved, thus, little formulaic blending. For the most part, the finished blended beer is then prime-dosed and bottled, though pure cask beers exist at the source.
Bottled beers can be sampled shortly after release or aged up to several additional years, adding yet more of the mystique that is unparalleled in the world of beer.
While the red and brown ales may share a pedigree and some recognizable similarities, they warrant a look individually. Flanders brown would be considered a more “modern” interpretation of the two, as it has a period of aging in stainless steel. Flanders red is perhaps the more assertive and complex of the two styles. Part of the reason lies in the dominant acid bacteria that put a stamp on the flavor. Flanders red relies heavily on Acetobacter, which produces acetic acid and a piercing acidity in the presence of oxygen. Flanders brown relies more on Lactobacillus, producing a softer acidity in the absence of oxygen during maturation.
Another major difference is the attenuation factor. Red can be attenuated as much as 90 or more percent, while brown is a more standard 80 percent. Several things contribute to this. Red, which is exposed to a more diverse microflora, is therefore subjected to a much more complete fermentation. Additionally, red contains less caramelized malt than brown, rendering the wort more fermentable to begin with. The dark caramel malts in Flanders brown not only put the malt character more in the forefront, but also give it the deeper color that distinguishes it from Flanders red. The red has a reserved malt background and gets its color from Vienna and Munich malts, similar to Vienna and märzen beers.
Brown traditionally has more hop bitterness, pulling it away from the “wine” character of the red and more toward that of sourish brown ale. That Flanders brown retains more of its sweet malt character also makes it a perfect brew to blend with fruit, most frequently cherries.
In the end, a Flanders red is an intensely sour, wine-like beer, while Flanders brown is more of a tart dark ale. Red is startlingly quenching; brown, more soothing. The alcohol content in a red is generally a standard 5 to 5.5 percent, whereas a brown can vary between 4 and 7 percent. Red has a bit more head retention and beautiful lacing. Red is occasionally referred to as West Flanders red, and brown as either East Flanders brown or Oud Bruin (old brown).
Flanders red and brown ales are an acquired taste—embraced immediately by some, never by others. They present flavors and aromas that are often not associated with other brews, but for an adventurous beer hunter, they may be that last frontier. Flanders red and brown ales are as rare as they are unusual, so consider yourself lucky if you are one of the many who can and do fully appreciate them regularly.