Jun. 21, 2011 - Issue #818: Brian Wilson
Respect your Duchess
Flanders sour is not for everybody, but it is interesting
Brouwerij Verhaeghe, Belgium
$21.99 for A 4 pack
If I asked you to describe the taste of beer you would likely come up with some combination of these descriptors: malty, hoppy, crisp, grainy, sweet, roasted, chocolaty and so on. One word I can guarantee you wouldn't use is "sour."
Normally sourness sets off alarm bells that a beer is hopelessly, palliatively infected. However, there are two styles in the world intentionally designed to impart a tart sourness to beer. The first, Lambic, I spoke about last year and it is so out-of-the-ordinary you would be justified in saying it is not beer at all (although it is). The second contains enough beeriness to force you to acknowledge it is beer despite its tartness. That is what makes it so special.
I am speaking of Flanders sour—more accurately divided into Flanders red and Flanders brown. This style of beer is aged in oak barrels to expose it to good bacteria in the lining of the wood that will, over a two-year aging period, sour the beer. Yes, they do this on purpose. Usually these beer are blended at bottling time—an older, more tart version with a younger, sweeter vintage—to balance the sour with the sweet, and to keep some beery character.
The best example I have ever tasted was in Brussels. Alas, Rodenbach Grand Cru—which is not blended but instead is a pure-sour beer—is not available here. However, the close second place is. Duchess de Bourgogne is a great example of a Flanders red, and it demonstrably proves that beer can be sour and remain beer.
It pours a deep mahogany red bordering on brown, with a light tan head of middling character. The aroma first presents a clean sourness, not vinegar-y but more like sauerkraut. However, a soft malt, fruity sweetness sweeps in to keep the tartness from trashing the joint. There is clearly a struggle going on between the earthy tartness and a raisin-like malt sweetness. Just as you capture one on your palate, the other bursts in to complicate the picture. The tussle continues across your tongue. Only near the end does the tartness finally emerge victorious, leaving a dry, lactic acidity in the aftertaste.
My experience is that not everyone likes this beer, although red wine and other non-beer drinkers are often surprised by how much they like it. This is not a beer with which to bang back a few. It takes slow, deliberate intention. There is no ignoring the flavour in this beer—especially since it is unlike any other you will ever have. I encourage you to try it, just once. You may not like it, and that is fair. You may find, however, that you appreciate the clean sharpness of the beer and before you know it the Duchess will have grabbed you, just like she did to me. V
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