Beer event hopes to educate locals about Flemish reds


A handful of Flemish breweries have joined hands to put the spotlight on one of the world’s best, but often misunderstood beer varieties – the Flemish red ale

Second edition of Rondje Roodbruin event

We all know that Belgium is the land of beer, but did you know a Flemish beer exists that uses natural, airborne yeasts and bacteria to trigger fermentation? And no, it’s not the lambic famously made in the Pajottenland area to the east of Brussels in Flemish Brabant.

The beer we’re talking about is known as Flemish red ale. And later this month, you’ll have a chance to find out more, since four of the breweries that make it are opening their doors, inviting you to discover this unjustly-forgotten style of beer.

Now in its second edition, Rondje Roodbruin appropriately takes place on the annual Heritage Day later this month. This year, four breweries are participating: Rodenbach in Roeselare, Bockor in Bellegem, De Brabandere in Bavikhove and Verhaeghe in Vichte, all in West Flanders.

The tourist organisation Toerisme Leiestreek has also organised a cycle route covering all four. For those who foresee being a little less steady on their legs, however, there’s also a shuttle bus linking all four breweries.

West Flemish beers are an important part of today’s gastronomic landscape, says Franky De Block, chair of Westtoer, the province’s umbrella tourist organisation. “Our beers are admired worldwide, and Westtoer is there to support that rich tradition in a modern way,” he says.  “Each beer also has its own unique story to tell. The Rondje Roodbruin event is the perfect example of how the broader public can find out about the beer traditions of their own region.”

Fruity connotations

One of those beer traditions is the Flemish red ale or red-brown – as the name of the event suggests – or even old brown. In fact, the choice of a name is one of the things that are stopping the brewers from creating a concerted campaign to publicise the beer variety, says Omer-Jan Vander Ghinste, CEO of the Bockor brewery. He explains that some feel that the word “red” implies fruit-beer, when in fact the red colour comes from the particular kind of malt used, and not from fruit at all. 

Each beer has its own unique story to tell

- Westtoer chair Franky De Block

The thing that makes Flemish reds different is the way they’re made using Lactobacillus bacteria during secondary fermentation in huge wooden casks known as foeders. That has the effect of turning sugars into lactic acid – just like in sourdough bread, yoghurt, cheese and pickled foods. The sourness characteristic of all those is the result of Lactobacillus.

Each brewery has its own particular methods, according to traditions more than a century old. The name most familiar to the public is probably Rodenbach. Master brewer Rudi Ghequire explains that the process begins with brewing the basic beer using those red malts and a quantity of hops falling below the taste threshold, included only to hold back the production of bacteria. Some of that new beer is then placed in the foeders to age for anything up to two years. The rest is used to blend with beer already aged.

It’s in the foeders that the magic happens. While other types of beer mature in stainless steel tanks kept ruthlessly clean to avoid any contamination whatsoever, these ales are matured in wooden barrels standing upright, which are never cleaned at all in order to maintain the colony of wild yeasts and bacteria that now goes to work on the basic beer.

Ordinary Rodenbach is a blend containing 25% aged beer, Ghequire says. The Grand Cru, in contrast, contains 67%. In recent years, Rodenbach has also produced a limited Vintage edition, when the master brewer decides one vat of aged beer is good enough to be bottled by itself. 

Wine-like beers

Flemish reds are the most wine-like of beers, in part because of that intimate relationship with wooden barrels. Each foeder is its own eco-system, and no two vats will produce the precise same beer – contrary to all principles of modern production environments. The flavour is as intense, complex and sophisticated as any wine in the same price category. It’s relatively simple for anyone in Belgium to lay his hands on a bottle of one of the best beers in the world for a modest price; most of us could only ever dream of getting a sip of one of the best wines. 

Nevertheless, the style has gone out of fashion, undoubtedly as a result of the onslaught of pils in the second half of the 20th century, a trend that now appears to be reversing. The Flemish red has a flavour profile that places some demand on the palate: these beers are for savouring, not knocking back in pints. And the sourness is a hurdle to get over, for sure. But, Ghequire points out, the pH of a red ale – the objective measure of its acidity – is about the same as that of a glass of white wine.

Should you be unable to make it for Rondje itself on Heritage Day, these are the beers to look out for: the aforementioned Rodenbach editions; Vanderghinste Oud Bruin and Cuvée des Jacobins from Bockor; Vichtenaar and Duchesse de Bourgogne from Verhaeghe; Petrus Aged Pale, Aged Red and Oud Bruin from De Brabandere.