Rudi Ghequire of Rodenbach Brewery in Belgium is sometimes referred to as “the father of sour beer,” but he’s very careful to correct anyone who would refer to his beers with that description. For that matter, he says it is Rodenbach Brewery, not him, that should receive any paternal credit. He regards maintaining Rodenbach Brewery's beers as his mission and duty. The brewery was founded in Roeselare by four brothers in 1821.
“Our beers are less sour than most white wines,” said Ghequire. “This is ‘acceptable sour,’ and we call them red-brown beers. We don’t use the name ‘sour’ because it can have a negative connotation.” This type of beer is also called a Flanders Red Ale.
Rodenbach is produced using an ancient process. Ghequire said that brewers didn’t learn how to preserve beer with a sufficient quantity of hops until the Middle Ages. “In our country, and in England, some people had the mettle to preserve beer using acidity, as we still do today,” said Ghequire. The bitterness introduced by hops isn’t loved by everyone, so it’s good to have an alternative.
Twenty-five percent of the classic version of Rodenbach is aged on wood, and 75 percent is new lager. The natural lactic and acetic acids in the aged beer become softer and fruitier. Adding the old beer to the young lager preserves it, and the blended result is less sour than the old beer is by itself.
The end result is more reminiscent of tart wine than it is of beer. For that reason, it’s a great gateway for wine lovers who believe they don’t like beer.
Ghequire says he became a brewer by “dedication, interest and passion.” He started at Rodenbach when he was 23, learning under the brewmaster at the time, Jacques Lambert, who had in turn learned from his father, Leon Lambert. (Jacques’s son, Bernard, would later set about rebuilding the brewery.)
Being the head brewer of a Belgian beer company as old and well-regarded as Rodenbach has its own special set of challenges. “It’s a very complex thing,” said Ghequire. “You’re dealing with a fast-moving consumer group. You’re dealing with nature. You have a product in the market, so you’re sensitive to what people think about. It’s working with nature. With raw materials, it’s always something else. You’re maturing on wood every time. The beer comes from the vat and you have to make a stable flavor and stable taste. Consumers want to have always the same taste.”
It’s a taste many beer connoisseurs in the United States are familiar with, as Rodenbach has exported the classic version of its beer here since the 1960s. Consistency is one of the hardest things to accomplish in craft brewing. Ghequire listed what he believes are the keys to consistency: “Knowledge, experience and being a good brewer. The only one who can prove that is your consumer.”
Yeast strains can be tricky to manage, and more than one brewery in the United States ended up with an unexpected flavor profile thanks to the unintended introduction of wild yeast. “Each yeast has its own flavor profile and also fermentation profile. As brewers, we have to know which strain you need for making the product you want,” advised Ghequire.
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Rodenbach also pairs wonderfully with food. Ghequire described each of the beers in the line and what foods he believes each pairs with best.
- Rodenbach Classic: (25 percent old beer; 75 percent fresh lager): shrimp, seafood, fish, chicken.
- Rodenbach Grand Cru (66 percent old beer; 33 percent new): more sour than Rodenbach classic. Peppery and very spicy foods.
- Rodenbach Vintage: more of a green apple flavor. Sour nose. Pairs well with fatty foods like duck liver and foie gras. (Author is dying to try this with smoked Texas brisket.)
A full chart of food pairing suggestions can be found online at Rodenbach’s website.
Ghequire has made brewing and blending Rodenbach his life’s work and it is something of which he is very proud. “I think it’s one of the most beautiful breweries in the world, with its own cooperage, with its own roots and knowledge.” Conversely, the brewery is fortunate to have Ghequire as the mediculous caretaker of a beer that has stood the test of time so well as to be a gold standard.