Roots Flanders Red - Or, How Do You Know if It's "Good?"

I come to this review with some trepidation. First because the entire range offered in the traditional Flanders Red style (made famous by Rodenbach) is about six beers, only two of which I've seen in America. Also because Roots has spent more time and money trying to brew a version of this style than they can ever recoup (though do a search on the terms "Flanders Red" and you'll see that they may make it up in advertising), so they don't need me nitpicking. Yet that's why I get paid the big bucks, so here we go.

1. What's the style?
There are a number of sour Belgian styles, and one could easily complain that parsing the difference between a lambic, Flemish Red, and Flanders Brown is--as far as the tongue's concerned, anyway--a pointless game of semantics. In one sense this is true, but you could complain that the difference between pale, amber, and brown English-style ales is really a matter of art, not science--but who in Beervana would sign on to such a crude view?

The "red" ales (Jackson calls them "Flemish Reds," distinct from "Flanders Browns"--aka "oud bruins--though the reds are also made in Flanders and have a lot of brown in them) all take after the ur-red, Rodenbach. Although the brewery pre-existed the style (as did all the Flanders breweries currently producing reds), it probably started to take form with the arrival of Eugene Rodenbach in the 1870s.

The grist of the beer is 80% malt, 20% corn. It is aged for months or years and then blended to produce the standard version of the beer (about 5% abv). The straight aged beer is sold as "Grand Cru" is stronger at 6%. None of the traditional Belgian versions exceed 6.2% alcohol by volume. The beer is aged in massive wooden tanks that are scraped between each batch so there's always new wood to season the beer. Finally and most importantly, the yeast, which has funkified through the generations, contains as many as 20 distinct strains (!), including a range of lactobacilli.

It is these yeasts that dictate much of the character of the beer, which is tart and sharp but not overly dry; even the Grand Cru, which is rather intensely sour, has some residual sugars which allow layers and depths of flavors. It is the sugar that distinguishes the style from lambic; where the latter dry out, sometimes to dust, reds have a wonderful roundness and sweetness. In fact, Rodenbach's cousin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, is quite sweet. The style is referred to as the "Burgandy of Belgium" because of this balance.

2. Roots Flanders Red
So this brings us to Roots' version, which was two years in the making--clearly a labor of love for this wonderful, innovative brewery. I will now roll the tape from an interview Craig Nicholls did on Libation Station (mp3) for a description of the beer:
"We took three-quarters of this beer, that was brewed two years ago, and we threw it on French pinot noir oak barrels and let it sit there for about 11 months. Then we took it and re-blended it with the rest of the beer that had been sitting in tank and went through a secondary fermentation for the last year."
The result is a 9.2% beer that falls fairly far outside the style on a number of dimensions--it's substantially drier, obviously a lot stronger, and the glass I received yesterday had no head (the pic at right is slightly misleading on that score) and was nearly still. But let's leave aside the style consideration--Belgians are not much for style, anyway. The real question is how it tastes.

Sadly, for me the beer was a near miss. As you can see from the picture, it was a bit murky, though the color was nice (to my color-blind eyes, anyway). When cold, the aroma was inhibited--faintly sour with a cherry/fruit note. As it warmed the nose opened up into a cellar-y lactic bouquet, more lambic than red as the fruit fades back.

Flavor: first comes a dry, minerally tartness. There's a strong mid-note, which grew as the beer warmed, of peppery heat. It might be fusel alcohol or some other by-product of yeast action. The beer finally tapers to a bone-dry tartness characteristic of some lambics.

I call it a near miss not because it's out of style (actually "Flanders red" is as good a description as any), but because the final presentation was overly dry; that hot middle not also tends to nuke other, more subtle flavors. In this way it lacks the depth you'd like to see--there's not enough sugar to buoy the heft and acid. My guess is that the beer actually sat too long--months or even a year ago, would some of the remaining residual sugars have brought it into balance?

That said, I hope the Roots men ignore my comments and keep brewing the beer. It took Rodenbach decades to arrive at a system where they had the right number and kind of resident yeasts in their barrels to create what we now think of as the standard of the style. Roots can hardly be expected to hit the mark on the first batch. It takes a great deal of courage to put the time and effort into a beer that may be only 75% where you want it, and then maybe even more courage to keep trying. Still, this is the only way these kinds of wood-aged beers will ever come to be. A brewery has to be willing to invest years and years into the experiment. Here's hoping Roots already has batches two and three sitting in a nice, cool place in the brewery.