To mark the 10th anniversary of legendary beer writer Michael Jackson’s death, we’re republishing some of his historic columns which appeared in What’s Brewing over the years
Any list of the world’s greatest beers would include one of the Rodenbach products from Belgium. It is one of the world’s most distinctive styles of beer, even if it has no name (Flemish Red?) and at Rodenbach it is made in one of the most unusual breweries.
Now, there must be concern about the future of both the style and the brewery following the news in last month’s What’s Brewing that Rodenbach may be acquired by Interbrew, producers of Stella Artois (and, it should be said, of several speciality beers).
Rodenbach’s beers are made from reddish malts, which help impart a distinctive Burgundy colour and a suggestion of barley sugar in the background palate. There is nothing especially unusual about the hops (Belgian-grown Brewers’ Gold and Kent Goldings), though the yeast is a complex symbiosis of cultures.
The crux of the matter is the maturation procedure and blending.
There are three beers. After a normal top-fermentation, and a period of secondary, the product is called Rodenbach, Grand Cru is matured in ceiling-high oak tuns for not less than18 months and sometimes well over two years.
During this period there is a third sequence of microbiological activity, caused by lactobacilli and acetobacters. The wood, with its tannins and caramels, also makes a direct contribution to the beer’s palate and colour.
Rodenbach Grand Cru emerges with a startingly tart acidity that characteristics the range. It’s dazzlingly complex palate also includes a white range of fruity notes.
I have been teased for identifying passion fruit, but I stand by my description. There are also suggestions of Madeira and oaky notes.
The Grand Cru is bottled ‘straight’ at 5.2 per cent alcohol by volume and also made available in a blend with beer of the same type that is younger (about size weeks old). This blended version is called simply Rodenbach (4.6).
It has similar characteristics but is a little tighter in palate and body. Rodenbach is the most quenching beer in the world.
The third version is sweetened with cherry essence. With the acidity, Madeira notes and oakiness of its background, this makes an interesting desert beer. It is called Alexander Rodenback after the founder.
The Rodenback family can be traced to the Rhineland, near Coblenz. In the 1700s, during the rule of the Austrian Empire, they came to Belgium. In 1820, Alexander Rodenbach bought a brewery in the town of Roeselare and that was the beginning of the present enterprise.
Alexander Rodenback had been blinded in an accident at the age of 11, but that did not stop him laying the foundations of a great brewery devising a rudimentary form of braille, becoming a politician, and taking part in the movement for Belgium’s independence.
In the 1870s, Eugene Rodenbach came to England to study brewing techniques. What he learned here, especially about blending, helped to perfect the Rodenbach method. No one seems to know in which English breweries he worked, but it is interesting to note that the production of Greene King Strong Suffolk also involves a long maturation in wood and in blending.
It could be argued that the combination of these two traditional procedures defines a particular form of Old Ale, and that Rodenbach Grand Cru and Greene King Strong Suffolk are the classic examples (geographically in areas which have a great deal of shared history).
Rodenbach Grand Cru is much more intense in flavour than Greene King Strong Suffolk (which itself is far from bland. Equally, Rodenbach has about 300 of the huge oak tuns – they make an astonishing sight – while Greene King has only a couple.
Therein lies a problem. Rodenbach is a sizable brewery, with a capacity of 140,000 hectolitres a year, geared to produce a very distinctive style of beer.
Rodenbach grew to this size when beers of this type were the local brew in West Flanders (much as Mild was, and to some extent still is, in the West Midlands, or Dry Stout in Ireland).
The only way to justify that capacity today is to expand the sale of Rodenbach as a speciality. This is not out of the question.
Brewers and the buttock factor
Great beer styles can take centuries to develop, yet they are still subject to fashions that grip succeeding generations. In the period during which I have been writing regularly about Belgian beer – a little more than 15 years – that country has had fashions for Lambics, Rodenbach and similar brews, Ales and, currently ‘White’ wheat beers.
Rodenbach had one period of modishness, and its turn could come round again. The currently fashionable style ‘White’ wheat beer, was brought back from complete extinction by the Hoegaarden brewery. This company became so successful that it could not finance its own expansion and was acquired by… Interbrew.
The trouble with brewers everywhere is that they often communicate the values inherent in their products. This failing has characterised the Belgian industry to the point where many fine brewers have stumbled.
It was such a stumble on the part of Artois that led to a merger with its rival Jupiler and the formation of Interbrew.
The merged company’s chief executive comes not from the brewing industry but from Renault. At Interbrew, his biggest project so far seems to have been the cutting of costs in a plan that envisages the closures of some breweries.
This sort of strategy is always presented as though it were a new imaginative idea. In this country, it has made Sir John Harvey Jones a national hero, a sort of strict uncle for the British, who so love to have their bottom smacked.
Such a plan can save an obese compant that is heading for disaster but, once the offending buttocks have slimmed back into the pants, that next? Saving money is not a substitute for earning it.
Interbrew dealt with the falling sales of Artois in Belgium by upgrading the product, protecting its price against excessive discounting and accepting the fact that Jupiler is now the bigger volume brand.
The group has acquired Hoegaarden just at the moment when that product’s sales were soaring, I asked an executive what would happen when ‘White’ beer slips from the height of fashion, as it must one day, and he had no immediate answer.
Some months later I had a veiled hunt from the same executive that Interbrew might step in to ‘save’ Rodenbach.
The sensible middle-term strategy would be to develop secondary markets for Hoegaarden in other countries (the Netherlands, France, Britain, the United States), in preparation for the day when its sales calm down in Belgium… and to start looking at ways of developing a local fashionability for Rodenbach.
In the longer term, Rodenbach could also be exported on a serious basis (so far, its efforts have been piecemeal).
There are already some suggestions that this strategy could be introduced. If this is to happen there are two essential requirements.
The first is to explain to consumers the very special nature of these products. Both seem strange at first sip, especially Rodenbach but eccentricity has its followers.
People can certainly acquire a taste for Rodenach if they can develop a liking for Guinness, Beaujolais Nouveau, Laphroaig and Lagavulin malt whiskies, Stilton or Roquefort cheese… you name it.
The second is that both products can be successful in the long term only if they are seen to be made with integrity by very special methods. Characterful products are supported by sophisticated consumers who want to know that they are getting the real thing.
Interbrew has not been foolish enough to mess with Hoegaarden though the brewery is stretched.
Now it looks as if Interbrew has in its hands another great brewery making beer by an odd method. Can Interbrew do itself the huge favour of understanding the value of a company that takes 18 months or more to produce a beer?
Can it showcase this product, make it more widely desirable, maintain (even increase?) its price, and have the beer world’s answer to Cheval Blanc?
Or, after all that history, will bottom-line management make a buttocks of the whole thing?
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