My last official brewery trip of my Belgium vacation was to Brouwerij Rodenbach in the lovely town of Roeselare which is situated in the province of West-Vlaanderen. Since my first taste of Rodenbach Original and Rodenbach Grand Cru, this brewery resided solidly on my “must visit” list when I eventually arrived in Belgium. Rodenbach is probably the most famous of the Flemish Reds. The brewery was founded in 1821 when the Rodenbach brothers bought a small brewery in Roeselare. Eventually, Pedro Rodenbach and his wife Regina bought out the other 3 brothers. When Pedro was gone on military duties, Regina ran the brewery. They passed the brewery onto their son Edward. The brewery then passed through the various children until the current generation, having lost interest in running the brewery, sold it to the family-owned Palm Brewery.
The current incarnation of Rodenbach’s beer can trace its origins to a trip to England that Eugene, Edward’s son, took. He learned to age beer in oak casks and then blend the old and young beer together to balance the flavor. The oak tannin then took the brown beer of Rodenbach and added a red hue to it. This became the greatest influence on today’s flavor: the acidification and blending of beer. Today, Rodenbach is a world-wide standard for the Flemish Red/Brown sour ale.
I met Rudi Ghequire at his office after a 10 minute walk from the Roeselare train station. Roeselare is just about the end of the rail line for this portion of Belgium. It’s only a short distance to the North Sea and France. The day I visited was a half day for the brewing staff, but Rudi, who is the site manager, was working late to put together a budget. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to take me through his brewery. We started in their lab, which most larger breweries have so they can do on-site analysis of their beer and their microbes. We then headed to the relatively new brewhouse. One of the first things Palm did when they took over was upgrade the brewing equipment so they could increase capacity, quality, and efficiency. The previous owners hadn’t put much effort into the brewery and by the end of the 2oth century; it wasn’t in the best of shape. Now, the brewhouse is all shiny and new with state of the art equipment.
The distribution center was the next stop. Rodenbach operates a small distributorship in the area so they can easily get their beer to the local market along with a few other Belgian breweries. Towering over the distribution center, and most of the brewery, is the malting kiln. At one point in the not too distant past, Rodenbach malted their own grain. The kiln has now been converted into a museum piece for the brewery. You can go inside, see pictures of the process and hear the sounds the kiln made when it was still in action. Today, The brewery has far outpaced its ability to malt its own grain efficiently and has it custom malted by a large Belgian malt house.
The next museum style stop was the old horizontal fermenters which are now sliced in half so tourists can walk through them. At this point, Rudi explained “Mixed-Fermentation” to me. Standard fermentation is what takes place in the vast majority of beers world-wide where the brewer pitches a controlled culture of lager or ale yeast. Spontaneous fermentation involves letting the ambient yeast settle into the chilled wort to start fermenting on its own. (To learn more about the various microbes involved, read my posts: The Yeasties, The Yeasties: The Beasties in my Beer! and The Yeasties, The Yeasties: The Wild Beasties in my Beer!) In Mixed-Fermentation, the main fermentation is done with a pitched culture that is a symbiosis of top-fermenting yeast and lactic acid flora. The beer, after the main fermentation, is then moved to the giant wooden vats, known as “foeders.” Additional lactic acid bacteria and other fermenters, like Brettanomyces, live within the foeders and will slowly convert the organic acids into fruity esters. The beer is aged for up to 24 months before it’s ready for blending.
The last stop on the way to the cellars was by a set of cool models that showed the development of the brewery. Each one represented a major change to the brewery. It was very cool to see the development of a brewery that has been around (as Rodenbach) for nearly 200 years. Finally, we made our way to a stairwell that led down into dark cellars which house nearly 300 foeders of varying sizes. It’s hard to imagine just how big these vessels are from pictures, but when you’re standing next to them and being dwarfed, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. We wandered through the forest of behemoths for a while until we got to a tasting station where Rudi grabbed a couple of glasses. He filled them, checked his foeder chart and handed me a glass of what turned out to be 18 month old beer.
The beer was showing a lot of character and acidity. Rudi declared it still needed another 6 months. He then walked over to a nearby foeder and refilled our glasses. This time, I got to try 2 month old beer for comparison. It was decidedly unready! It still tasted of the malt with only a touch of acidity. Give that simple beer another 22 months in a foeder and it will turn into a thing of beauty.
After the beer has been aged and determined to be ready, it’s then piped back to the modern brewhouse where it’s blended with new ale and then packaged for the market. Rodenbach is a blend of 75% new ale and 25% old ale. Rodenbach Grand Cru is a blend of 34% young beer and 66% old beer. In addition, they have a Foederbier which is a cask drawn 2 year old beer that is kegged straight from the foeder. It is only available in a few select outlets (I’ll discuss this beer in a later post). There are also other rarer offerings, such as the 2004 Vin de Cereale (I’ll also discuss this one in a later post).
Off the end of one of the cellars, Rudi opened a door and led me into their cooperage. There were wood staves and boards in various degrees of conditioning being turned into lids or staves. Rudi explained that they process their own wood all the way from the tree to the foeder so they can control the most important part of the flavoring process of their beer: the foeders. The foeders provide a home for the flora that take what is a simple beer and turn it into one of great beers of the world. It only makes sense that Rodenbach would want to completely control and maintain their own wood.
After the cooperage, we wandered back through the cellars and finished our tour in Rodenbach’s event center. The space is at the end of one of their cellars. The day I visited, they were setting up for a wedding party. You can celebrate amongst the wooden giants of Rodenbach while being watched over by the luminaries of the Rodenbach family. And really, the Rodenbach family has many luminaries that loom large in the pantheon of Belgium’s historical figures.
- Ferdinand Rodenbach – German doctor who settled in Roeselare. Known throughout western Europe for publishing medical texts.
- Pieter Ferdinand Rodenbach – Served in Napoleon’s army then against Napoleon. Also a Doctor.
- Ferdinand Gregoor Rodenbach – Served in Napoleon’s Army. Took part in Belgian revolution. Grandfather of Albrecht. (Founding brother of Rodenbach Brewery)
- Alexander Rodenbach – Went blind as a child. Created braille map of Belgium. Renowned for books on teaching the blind. Was instrumental in 1830 Belgium Revolution and served in Parliament. (Founding brother of Rodenbach Brewery)
- Constanijn Rodenbach – Served in Napoleon’s army during Russian campaign. Participated in 1830 Belgium Revolution. Co-wrote first version of Belgium’s national anthem. Also a doctor. (Founding brother of Rodenbach Brewery)
- Pedro Rodenbach – Served in Napoleon’s army during Russian Campaign. Served against Napoleon at Waterloo. Participated in 1830 Belgium Revolution. (Founding brother of Rodenbach Brewery). Bought sole interest in the Rodenbach Brewery from his brothers.
- Regina Wauters Rodenbach – (wife of Pedro) Ran brewery while Pedro was away. Heads the role of honor for historic women of Roeselare.
- Edward Rodenbach – Setup a safety net for his employees in case of injury or illness.
- Eugene Rodenbach – Refined Rodenbach’s brewing by learning from England’s porter brewers. Setup system of oak aging to acidify and blend Rodenbach’s beers.
- Albrecht Rodenbach – Fought against French domination of Belgium and for Flemish rights. Renowned author and literary luminary.
In the short 100 years that the Rodenbach family has lived in Belgium, they were truly fundamental to the creation of the Belgian state and Belgian national identity. By the way, they started a brewery that has become one of the icons of the industry. Although there are no Rodenbach descendants involved with the brewery anymore, the Palm Brewing family is an excellent choice to steward this tradition into the 21st century and beyond.
(You can also read about my visit to the city of Roeselare, the home of Rodenbach in my post “Roeselare: A Short Walking Tour“).