I can very clearly remember the first time I ever tried Rodenbach, a beer fermented by Acetobacter aceti — the same bacteria that converts wine into vinegar. At a tiny bar called 124 Old Rabbit Club in New York City's Greenwich Village, I ordered this odd-sounding Flanders red, which turned out to be sweet and sour, like my favorite childhood candy soaked in moonshine. The tart, tangy, slightly fruity beverage set me on a the path that eventually led me to become a beer writer, and Rodenbach remains one of my favorite breweries to this day.
Eight years ago, such an endorsement would have surely been met with confusion from my fellow Americans. Rodenbach was mostly unknown here. But following nearly two centuries of relative obscurity, one of the world's oldest continuously operating breweries is now – fairly suddenly – popular in the United States.
"Rodenbach has a very long history of being appreciated and respected – long before I was involved in the brewery," assures Rudi Ghequire, who worked his way up from Rodenbach purchaser to Brewmaster over the course of 35 years. "But as of late, there has been a wider appreciation [from] consumers who are exploring and enjoying our beers," he admits. Especially its rarer offerings—Rodenbach Alexander, made with sour cherries, for example, sold out instantly upon arrival in the US.
"Over the past several years, I've made a lot of trips to America and have seen, firsthand, a dramatic change," Ghequire reports. "Not just in the appreciation of our beers -- but also the inquisitive nature of consumers wanting to learn more about how they're made, the craftsmanship and the artisanal nature of what goes into brewing our beers. There's a real consumer 'thirst' for knowledge."
This "thirst" is part of the growing craft beer movement, which is encouraging drinkers to experiment with and appreciate flavors outside their comfort zone. "As consumers try different beers...they're also asking about sources of inspiration," Ghequire explains. "And many of the brewers [of those beers] point to Rodenbach."
Now that a growing number of beer fans are knocking on Rodenbach's door, the brewery has begun innovating a larger number of products, further fanning the flames of demand. Their newest release, FruitAge—a beer brewed with real fruit juice—is now available in the United States for the first time ever.
I was lucky enough to become the first American to ever taste the beer on U.S. soil when Ghequire recently visited New York City. Ghequire graciously took me through a tasting of Rodenbach's newest beer and four previously available selections, in order to further illustrate the brewery's history and its impact on American beer culture.
Rodenbach Classic (or Original)
In the Flemish region of Belgium from which Ghequire hails, Rodenbach Classic is more commonly drunk than any local or mass-produced lager. He can remember the first time he ever tried the beer, while on a Scout trip at 12 years old. When the boys stopped into a pub asking for water, the bartender poured three glasses of ruby red beer for him and his underage friends. (Yeah, things are different in Belgium.) "Our thirst was immediately away," he recalls.
Ghequire calls Rodenbach a "student beer" for its appeal to younger tastebuds, and yet, its sour flavor profile isn't just a creepy marketing ploy to entice younger drinkers. It's due to the traditional fermentation style common to all beers before the advent of refrigeration in the mid-19th century, when bacteria would naturally sneak into any batch.
The resulting beverage has more in common with wine than what we typically think of as "beer" in America. While a typical ale may have a pH of 4.2, Rodenbach Classic has a pH of 3.5 (the same as Chardonnay) for "the complexity of wine and the refreshingness of beer," Ghequire says. Naturally, it has a knack for converting wine drinkers to beer lovers (just ask my wife).
Rodenbach Grand Cru
The only other product that already existed when Ghequire arrived was Rodenbach Grand Cru, a blend of one-third young Rodenbach, and two-thirds aged Rodenbach (which spends two years in oak foeders). Ghequire remembers trying it for the first time at home when his mother infused it into stew, as the beer's elevated levels of acetic acid helps to tenderize meat.
Of course, Grand Cru also goes incredibly well with food, simultaneously complimenting richer dishes with deep oak notes while cleansing the palate with its tart acidity and brisk carbonation. It can even soothe the heat of spicy dishes like chili or hot chicken wings. Many Americans are now discovering the beer at finer restaurants, where it is increasingly served as an alternative to wine alongside everything from grilled meat to cheese plates.
Best of all, according to Ghequire, the beer allows one to pack in a few extra bites when feeling full. "It makes the fat soluble," he claims. "It is incredible what that beer can do with your body."
Rodenbach Vintage 2012
Rodenbach didn't feel that the American market was ready for the complexity (and cost) of a 100% oak-aged beer until 2009, with the release of Rodenbach Vintage, Ghequire's first new product in 25 years at the brewery. Vintage is selected from one of many vats of two-year-aged beer for an incredibly elegant, unblended beverage more nuanced than its younger counterparts. It proudly boasts flavors of wild honey, apples, caramel, and vanilla.
Ghequire recalls that when the beer was created, Rodenbach didn't have much (if any) marketing power. "Rodenbach was Rodenbach," he explains. But Vintage gave the press something new to write about at last, providing the brewery with some welcomed free publicity, and winning at competitions such as the World Beer and European Beer Star Awards.
Rodenbach Caractère Rouge 2011
So what happens to the vats that aren't selected for Vintage? "We never pour a sip away," Ghequire assures, noting my near panic as I ask the question. The liquid in the remaining vats is combined in a giant tank along with sour cherries, cranberries, and raspberries, to produce Caractère Rouge, a uniquely vinous beer with ripe fruit flavors and notes of wood and leather.
By sticking to Belgian tradition, Rodenbach inspired U.S. brewers to do away with cloying sweeteners and artificial flavorings so common to shandies and radlers. Now, most American fruit beers—such as Ballast Point's Grapefruit Sculpin or Mango Even Keel, for example – emphasize real citrus, berries, or stone fruit over sugar.
Meanwhile, the minimal hops used in any of Rodenbach's beers are only for foam stability and lacing, rather than for bittering or aroma. In a hop-crazed world, Rodenbach has motivated brewers to replicate lost artisanal techniques that have, in fact, been around for centuries. Plenty of American breweries now produce sour fruit beers (e.g. Founders Rübæus) and even straight Flemish Reds (e.g. The Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale).
Finally, we arrive at FruitAge, a beer developed in 2015, but "several years in the making," according to Ghequire. "In America...there's a real thirst for sessionable, fruit-based, and higher end beers," he says. "All of these things are hallmarks of the Rodenbach brand, but we didn't have a beer that addresses all three." And thus, FruitAge was born.
Unsurprisingly, the inspiration for the beer came from Caractère Rouge, but it carries a slightly sweeter finish and — at 3.5%ABV, literally half the alcohol content — a bit more accessibility. The greatest difference is that fruit juice is used in place of whole fruit, and the beer is slightly back-sweetened.
Yet I am surprised to find that it isn't in the least bit cloying; in fact, it dries up nicely in the mouth. "The key for us in all of this is balance," Ghequire says. "Beers that offer flavor and complexity without being overly dominant in one particular taste profile." Echoing his earlier comment about Classic, Ghequire calls FruitAge "beer for the young," though at 57 years old, he certainly still seems to enjoy it.
"Sour beer keeps you young," the youthful-looking brewer clarifies with a grin.