New Belgium La Folie: New World Rodenbach?

Sometimes I approach reviews with trepidation--generally when I'm less familiar with a style than I should be. In the case of La Folie, I am quite familiar with the style--it's perhaps my very favorite, the red beers of Belgium (called variously "Flemish" or "Flanders" or sometimes just "Belgian" reds). The classic beer of the style is Rodenbach, but in Portland, you may be more familiar with Verhaeghe's magnificent Duchesse de Bourgogne or perhaps Roots' or Cascade's Mouton Rouge. But the classic--by a country mile--is Rodenbach. The only other analogue for a beer being so singularly associated with a style is Guinness.

So why would I worry about reviewing La Folie, New Belgium's version of a Flemish red? Because it was brewed by Peter Bouckaert, the man who, until he left Belgium in 1998, used to be the brewmaster at ... Rodenbach. If I weren't a halfwit, I'd call it a new-world classic, a Pierre Celis-like recreation, a sublime beer that all you Rodenbach fiends should go suck down (it was until recently--and may still be--at the Green Dragon). But, as my sticke gaffe ably shows, I am a halfwit. Or better yet, a blogger stricken with "the madness." (Another translation of "folie" is folly, so prepare your barbs.)

La Folie is not Rodenbach. It's just not. Rodenbach has three main beers, and La Folie takes after Grand Cru. It is dry and unsweetened and just about the same strength as the original. It has that same color Rodenbach has, not exactly red but not exactly brown, either. The aroma is sharply sour, and the palate is, too. In fact, this is the problem; it's too sour. Most of the character of the beer derives from this single note, and the lack of complexity was where it fell down for me.

Rodenbach, which is the sourest of the Flemish Reds I've tried, is not solely sour. It has a rich complexity that includes sweet fruit notes, dry tannins, and a very severe, tart-dry finish. Both beers are way beyond the pale for most Americans, even those who like a nice weisse or even a sweetish fruit lambic. But for those who delight in the funk, like cheeseheads and their limburger, Rodenbach is wonderfully complex. Compared to it, New Belgium is atonal. (To really go out on a limb, I'll add that I find New Belgium's beer more acetic and less lactic than Rodenbach, and I think this is the issue. Perhaps all the qualities are there somewhere, but they were, at least in the pint I tried, overwhelmed by the sharp acetic souring. As a result, I give it a 4.5 on the Sour-o-meter.)

Obviously Bouckaert knows how to brew a Flemish red. How then does his fall shy of Rodenbach's? I won't guess except to add this observation. A key feature of the Rodenbach method involves its famous wooden tuns. These ancient vessels (the oldest is 150 years) are alive with wild buggies. It is they that define Rodenbach, a beer that starts out rather mundanely, with regular saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale) yeast. It picks up the funk from the barrels, some of which date back to the period, in the 19th century, when Rodenbach was spontaneously fermented. Those wild yeasts came from a different Belgium--a pre-industrial country far richer in fruit trees (on which reside brettanomyces) and far lower in industrial gunk.

Bouckaert has no access to 150-year-old barrels. He has to try to mimic the character of Rodenbach by other means. Of all the New Belgium beers I've tried, La Folie is the one that most impresses me--it's not a slightly safer version of the original, as are so many of New Belgium's Flemish re-interpretations. Bouckaert has gone for it. It is well-appreciated by beer geeks, who appreciate the effort. But to me, La Folie is too sharp and too young--by maybe a hundred years.

Have you tried La Folie? Your thoughts?