Posts Tagged ‘Flanders red ale’

Sour Week: Urthel/Two Brothers Moaten and Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Collaboration beers are all the rage these days: Avery and Russian River’s Collaboration Not Litigation Ale (a blend of beers both named “Salvation”), the Brooklyner-Schneider and Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen Weisses (the latter of which I’ve rated), the new fruity and malty Van Twee from the minds of De Proef and Bell’s, as well as Flying Dog’s Collaborator Doppelbock, product of the Open Source Beer Project. I’m sure I’m missing scores of unique ones.

2009-08-17-moatenThe reason I mention this is that tonight the first beer I am trying is a collaboration brew from Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, Illinois, and the Urthel Brewery in Ruiselede, Belgium. Named Moaten (after the Flemish word for “friends”), this oak aged sour is brewed in the style of a west Flanders red.

The Moaten pours a lightly hazy rust color with some creamy off-white head. The nose is light and somewhat flat. A bit of caramel malt is evident but a dry, somewhat metallic character intervenes. I can detect hints of fruit, perhaps raspberries and oranges.

The taste is also flat but not as much so, with a flavor really representative of an American amber ale. Malt character is the strongest, toast and bread with some caramel. Some fruit is present, and some oak. Just the slightest hint of an acetic tart. Slightly cloying.

Not a bad beer, just not at all what the label tells me it will be. Anyway I had high hopes but low expectations for this one: both breweries are generally great but neither brews sours regularly.

Moaten is a beer that talks big but doesn’t quite deliver. Next up is a beer that makes no claims to style other than “Swiss ale de garde … aged in oak barrels”. However just one whiff and you know it’s a Flanders-style red.

One of the best non-Belgian sours I know of, the Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is brewed by Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) in Saignel├ęgier, Switzerland. This beer (named after the late brewery cat) is aged in wooden barrels that formerly held one of several wine varietals as well as a few used to age grappa, so the complexity should come naturally. My bottle is a vintage 2007.

2009-08-17-bon-chienA bit of creamy tan head sits atop the turbid, mahogany colored Bon-Chien. Not a lot of head but what is there lasts and leaves an artistic lacing. A rich aroma wafts out: fruit, wood, malt, funk, and sour. Cherries, raisins, and blackberries with a vanilla oak character. A light caramel malt sweetness balances an acidic, cider vinegar nose. Just a bit of sweat adds a funky interest. Great sweet and sour combination.

A dense and difficult flavor. This is a high compliment: the various tastes do not fight for attention, but they do alternately subdue and enhance each other. This beer requires contemplation. At first a sweet maltiness is paired with a significant bitterness. The bitterness is revealed to be an alcohol warming. The maltiness fades and is replaced by a cidery tart. The spicy and sour flavors bring out a strong fruitiness: red apples, cherries, and prunes and a hint of brandy and mulling spices. Some balsamic vinegar rounds out the sour taste. A lively carbonation, healthy tart, and restrained but definitive alcohol flavor.

A tour de force.

++Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien

4.6 (4-9-10-4-19)

+/-Urthel/Two Brothers Moaten

3.2 (3-6-7-3-13)

P.S. Thank you Peggy Sue for knocking half my glass of the Bon-Chien all over the desk and keyboard. I literally tried lapping it up before I realized it wasn’t any good anymore. I had to get a new keyboard in the middle of writing my post. Seriously!

A Sour Beer Primer

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Modern beer is produced through fermentation by a pure culture of yeast. Brewing yeast is a strain of either Saccharomyces pastorianus (for lagers) or Saccharomyces cerevisiae (for ales), and its purity is constantly maintained. However this practice is only a few hundred years old, evolving alongside (and in a large part motivating) the study of microbiology.

Before the invention of the microscope the various fermentation microbes were indistinguishable. The yeasts and bacteria would form a mixed culture referred to simply as “Godisgood”. This cake would be repitched from batch to batch indefinitely, a method much like making homemade sourdough bread.

Brewing yeast (especially lager yeast) is prized because it ferments alcohol yet generates minimal byproducts. There are many other microorganisms (bacteria and wild yeasts) that do much the same work less cleanly. The vast majority of these are considered beer spoilers.

With the right species under the right conditions, a mixed fermentation of bacteria and yeast will produce something with more depth than any wine. The addition of strains of bacteria to beer adds a unique flavor: sour. This comes from organic acids, predominantly lactic acid (yes, like sour milk) and acetic acid (yes, like vinegar). If not handled properly sour beer will be worse than vinegar or sour milk, a lesson understood by many beginning homebrewers (from pouring their beer down the drain).

However, when made with style and grace a sour beer is simply divine. If you already appreciate the complexity found in the binary balance between malt and hops, imagine the possibilities afforded by the addition of this new dimension of flavor.

Certainly sour beer takes dedication to appreciate. Doesn’t all beer? If you were to try Pliny the Elder or some other ridiculously hoppy, ultra-bitter beer, without previous experience with IPAs, that too would seem undrinkable. Given the proper introduction, however, it is not just drinkable but delicious.

The most striking character of sour beer is its complexity. Certainly there is the strange balance between malt and acid and hops. Fruity character is accented by the acidity in the same way it is in a high quality wine (or an orange or grapefruit for that matter). But my favorite part of the complexity is the way the taste of a sour beer will change as it sits on your tongue. The organic acids will slowly neutralize after coming into contact with your mouth and saliva and different aspects of the beer will shine through at different times.

There are basically three types of sour beer: the weissbiers of Berlin, the brown and red ales of east and west Flanders, and the lambics and gueuzes of the Zenne (Senne) valley. Blending is common if not the rule for all of these styles, both to temper and accentuate the sourness.

Berliner weisse is a pale wheat style with a clean and crisp acidity that comes from lactic acid. It is usually brewed to 2.5 to 4 percent alcohol, making it a shankbier or “small beer”. Traditionally it is served with a sugar syrup that comes in two flavors: green is woodruff and red is raspberry.

Flanders red-brown ales have a strong fruity malt character and a balancing acidity. Unlike Berliner weisse the red-browns have a prominent acetic component in addition to the lactic sourness. This is stronger in the red ales of west Flanders, which are aged in oak. The east Flanders brown ales are aged in steel and have more dark malt complexity that makes up for the relatively restrained acidity.

Lambic is a style of beer that properly can be brewed only in spring and fall in the valley of the Zenne, a river that flows under downtown Brussels. This valley is home to a particular microbiocoenosis: the balance of various bacterias and wild yeasts is just right to produce the true champagne of beers. Lambic is fermented in wood casks, which produces two important effects. First, the microbiota can “hibernate” in the wood, something more and more important as the area around Brussels gets paved over. Second, all the carbon dioxide escapes through the wood, so unblended lambic is flat.

Lambic is almost never consumed straight anyway. There are three common preparations. Faro is lambic that has had Belgian candi sugar added. Gueuze is a bottled blend of old (two or three year) and new (six month) lambics. The sugars remaining in the younger beer ferment into carbon dioxide producing a sparkling beverage. The most common lambic preparation is the addition of fruit. Raspberries and cherries are the traditional candidates, with Shaarbeekse cherries being the real classic (Shaarbeek, former home of endless fields of cherry trees, is only a kilometer from downtown Brussels).

Sour beer must be savored with patience, but your dedication will be rewarded many times over with an intensity and depth beyond that of any other beverage. And that is why sour is my favorite kind of beer.