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Rodenbach: Beauty of the Past, Present, and Future

by Tim Jerding

In the middle ages, before humans knew what yeast was, fermentation was viewed as a magical occurrence. Some viewed the products resulting from said fermentation (yogurt, bread, alcohol, miso, kimchi, etc) as sacred. Beer would ferment in open-air vessels that allowed the wild yeast and bacteria in. It was brewed seasonally, and most to all beer was certainly sour. Some styles, such as Lambic, retained this tradition of wild fermentation and seasonal brewing. Others faded away or evolved into the “cleaner” beer styles we know today.

The methods at Rodenbach Brewery of Roeselare, Belgium fall somewhere in between the modern brewer and the traditions of the Lambic brewers. They are known for their Flander’s Red ales–a style they created in the 19th century. Like Lambic beers, the Flander’s style is sour and goes through extensive fermentation and aging in oak vessels, but unlike Lambic, the fermentation is controlled via a pitched culture of yeast and bacteria.

One row of the oak foeders at Rodenbach.

Each beer in their lineup is gorgeous and carries with it a similar, nuanced thread. They pair incredibly well with food (especially roast duck with cherry sauce like I had last night), and currently we are featuring Rodenbach as our brewery of the month here at Mr. B’s. Rudi Ghequire, brew master and employee of Rodenbach since 1982, was kind enough to participate in our interview series. The following is our exchange.

It’s not often in our world that the person or company that creates a certain thing, like a beer style, remains the most revered product in that category. Rodenbach created the Flander’s Red in the 1800s, and it’s still the best. Can you describe the process in the beer’s creation and how that has evolved over the decades?

First of all, thank you.  The brewing method at Rodenbach goes back all the way to the early middle ages, and we still follow those philosophies very strictly and meticulously. Because we don’t use hops in the origin of the beer, we’re able to preserve it longer, which is very similar to how winemakers preserve their wine in wood barrels.  We use standing oak foeders to age our beer, which gives Rodenbach its distinctive characteristics.  In the end, our beer is aged with all the complexity and refinement of a fine wine…but has all the refreshment of a beer.  Because of this, we often refer to Rodenbach as “the missing link between beer & wine.”

What were your early inspirations to brew, and where did you get your professional start?

I’ve always been fascinated by life sciences and biology, and it had a big impact on my life.  Of course, it didn’t take long to discover and appreciate my love for beer. So as I started learning more, I was attracted to the main ingredients in beer – and particularly, yeast.  Yeast is fascinating to me – it’s a small living thing that creates even more beautiful things, one of which is beer.

My professional start began in 1982 at the Rodenbach brewery, which has had an enormous impact on my life and appreciation for yeast – and beer.  So much so that I now also make my own bread, cheese & yoghurt.

When and where was the first time you drank Rodenbach, and what was your impression?

I have to thank my grandmother for this.  She was always a big fan and introduced me to Rodenbach when I was a child.  I enjoyed it so much more than typical kids drinks like Coca-Cola and lemonade.  Naturally, once I was able to purchase and drink it for myself there was no going back.  And in the area where I grew up, Rodenbach was – and continues to be – a very popular drink.

What led you to work at Rodenbach?

As above, my love for the product began at an early age so I’ve always been enamored with the brewery.  In 1982, I learned that the Rodenbach brewery was looking for a purchaser for raw materials as well as assistance with packaging, maintenance and investments.   I was so happy to get the job, and I spent many hours working at the brewery in the office learning as much as I could.  I was there so much that in 1984 I moved into the brewery’s apartment with my wife and children and spent two years learning everything I could.

Can you describe your process of sampling foeders and choosing each for the different variations–Grand Cru, Vintage, Fruitage, Alexander, and Caractère Rouge–of Rodenbach?–what you’re looking for, how they taste at different ages, why certain flavor nuances work with your different beers, etc.

It is hard to describe our daily work in just a few words.  Just like being in a winery, the wine maker is always busy every day, week and year.  There is very little down time.

In our case everything begins by starting with the finest raw materials, then the fermentation with our own yeast strain and finally for us the most interesting part is the maturation on wood to create the various flavours in our beers.  What we’re looking for is perfection in balance.  And that always takes time – which is why we age our beers to the perfect maturity level.

Every Rodenbach beer has his own character & taste profile – and every foeder has its own nuances as well.  Getting it right takes a lot of patience and time, but we feel it’s well worth it.

The lineup.

Your beers are classic. Your beers are perfect. The addition of Fruitage to the lineup was a great move. Leading a brew house so steeped in tradition, where do you innovate from here? Do you feel the need to innovate? What’s in the future for Rodenbach?

Thanks again – we’re very proud of all our beers.  Fruitage is no small feat – to make something so approachable & delicious, while still maintaining the quality you expect out of Rodenbach was certainly a challenge.

At the brewery, we’re constantly innovating – but it’s not always in the form of new beers.  Maintaining the quality of our product requires constant innovation, but we also strive to make our beers even better than they were before.  For us, we will always put an enormous amount of attention on balance – both in terms of taste and flavor.  A properly balanced beer is the key to our blending process.

We also innovate with our foeders – every time we start or restart a foeder we inoculate it with the best yeast culture that we have in our foeder cellars.  As a reminder, we have 294 oak wooden foeders with a total capacity that you can compare with the content of 34,000 wine barrels.

To describe future innovations for Rodenbach I’m inspired by the poet Albrecht Rodenbach who said: “In the present is the past, now what will be.”

When can we drink beers together?

Consider this an open invitation to come to Roeselare – we’d love to have you in-person.  Beer is one of those products that brings people together from near and far – and often in unexpected places or circumstance.  I hope we’ll have the chance one day soon, but in the meantime I’m raising a glass right now and saying “cheers to the unexpected.”

A very large thank you to Rodenbach and Rudi for taking part in this little blog. Cheers.

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