Sunday, 30 August 2015

Ask for Rudi

You know that beer tourism has become a mass phenomenon when you check into your hotel and there’s a notice in the elevator trying to sell you grey-market Westvleteren.*

Roeselare is a smallish town, a bit out of the way but surprisingly easily accessible by train from London. Jump off the Eurostar in Lille, change at Kortrijk (it is essential when checking the departure boards at Lille to know, or learn very quickly, that the French railways list Kortrijk only by its French name, Courtrai) and you’re there.

Outside Belgium, Roeselare is probably recognised more by homebrewers than drinkers, as it’s the name under which one of the American yeast suppliers sells a particular blend of microorganisms. But mention the name Rodenbach, and eyes light up. This is the small town that is home to the world’s most famous oud bruin.

We are unsure whether it’s possible to visit the brewery – the website is rather vague and suggests you can book only in a group of 20 – but when we ask at hotel reception there is a satisfyingly stereotypical Belgian response. Should not be a problem. Ask for Rudi. Everyone in the town knows Rudi.

When we roll up at the brewery there are a few other would-be visitors milling about. We don’t need to ask for Rudi – it turns out to be no problem to join a tour. Hooray! First of all we are offered (excellent) coffee in a room a little like a university lecture theatre, and shown a film about the history of the brewery. The film dwells heavily on the great historical achievements of the Rodenbach family. The family has not controlled the brewery for ages – if they did the hagiography in this part would be just a little bit creepy.

Then it’s into the brewery. All you think you know about Belgian beer goes out of the window here: no cobwebs, definitely no monks, no blokes in flat caps turning antiquated cast-iron wheels. The actual brewhouse itself is so modern and fully-automated that it’s not worth showing to us, and we just get to peer through the windows from the brewery yard.

Rodenbach pre-maturation sounds like a pretty dull beer, to be honest. A basic top-fermented beer with not much in the way of hops, made from a grist of malt and about 40% maize. The magic takes place later, in the foeders, huge oak vats where the beer undergoes a second fermentation with lactic and acetic bacteria. At Rodenbach they call this regime mixed fermentation (gemengde gisting in Flemish).

A tantalising glimpse of a time when
Rodenbach made something other
than Oud Bruin.
I was surprised to learn later that there are several ways to produce Flemish red and some other producers have quite different fermentation regimes. At least one is made by blending a straightforward brown beer with lambic.

Expansion over the years means that there are now several levels of foeder storage. The smell of the foeder rooms changes the further down you go. On the top floor the aroma is fresh oak and acetic acid; as we descend it becomes mustier until in the oldest cellar a rich, balsamic-vinegar scent fills the air.

At the end we get to sit at tables between the foeders and sample the beers. From the brewery we try standard Rodenbach and Grand Cru, as well as the latest new product, Rosso.

We are sitting with an American couple who have also made the pilgrimage to Roeselare; one of them holds a position with the US Brewers’ Association. They want to see Rudi too. Sadly Rudi has gone home for the day. He is off on a trip tomorrow and probably packing his suitcase, explains our guide. The Americans are disappointed, for they have a gift for him: a bottle of a special Allagash beer. They give Rudi’s bottle to us instead rather than schlep it back across the Atlantic.

Perhaps strangely, there’s no foederbier – the straight, unblended aged beer – on offer at the brewery. We track that down at Kornbloeme, one of the town’s better-regarded beer cafes. Until fairly recently there was a cafe on Groter Markt which offered this on handpump, but this has apparently gone and the version we encounter in Kornbloeme is from a keg. Maybe a slightly wider distribution of this beer is planned in the future? 

The foederbier is accompanied by two ubiquitous features of Belgian cafes that the guidebooks don’t tell you about: spaghetti bolognese, and a menu in Comic Sans. 

If you ever see this post, Rudi, I’ve got a bottle of beer for you.

* It’s actually a very nice hotel, and the staff were very helpful when I needed a phone call made in Flemish. The resale price was also only around half of what you would shell out in the tourist shops of Brugge and Brussels (which are awash with the stuff).