Beer Sherpa Recommends: pFriem Flanders Red
There are two or three styles of beer Americans really have a hard time recreating: altbier, English bitter, and especially, the tart ales of Flanders. It's one of those styles that causes me to flinch when I see an American brew it--not only are American examples not particularly similar to Belgian ones, but they're often chemical/acid stews. I personally have never had an American version I thought was worth the name, though when I tweeted that information out, people tweeted back the names of some I haven't tried. Nevertheless, they're at best rare, rare birds, these good American Flanders reds.
I should say, I had never had a good American Flanders Red until last week, when I tried Josh pFriem's. His just-released variation is absolutely sublime. I say "variation" because it's not a recreation of an existing beer, but it does bear the hallmarks of the Belgian approach: rich complexity but broad appeal. Classic examples like Rodenbach or Verhaeghe contains tons of flavor elements, but they're also immediately approachable to novices. I think that will be true of pFriem's Flander's red as well. It has a light acidity, bright cherry esters, and a gentle cosseting of natural sweetness. It's a tremendous beer.
Flanders reds are a product of age and wood. They can be made in a number of different ways--in old Belgium, each town had a different way of doing things--but the key to making them so well was aging them for months or years on wood. The complexity evolves when the various yeasts and bacteria interact over time. Here's brewmaster Rudi Ghequire describing Rodenbach's process:
"In our [process] we work with a yeast culture with eight different yeast strains and also a little bit of lactic bacterias. During the first week, we have an alcoholic fermentation from the yeast cells, and after one week the lactic bacteria took it over during the lagering time. During the lagering time we reduce the yeast cells in the beer by precipitation, and then we go with a nearly bright, young beer to the wood. The big difference between spontaneous fermentation and mixed fermentation is with spontaneous you go with wort on wood and we go with young beer. The beer has an alcoholic protection, so it is less risky."
Once it goes onto the wood--in the case of Rodenbach, in giant, ancient oak foeders--the
get to work. But the goal is not to produce that dry, leathery, sometimes funky quality we associate with lambic. Instead, the Brett makes those distinctive cherry esters that give Rodenbach its characteristic balsamic flavor. As Rudi says, Rodenbach has “a triangle of taste: sweetness, dryness, and acidity.”
pFriem Flanders Red does not taste like Rodenbach, but it is also a product of time and wood. Josh pFriem ages the beer for two years in French pinot barrels from Burgundy. I think they may be responsible for at least some of the fruity notes. Unlike so many American Flanders Reds, though, pFriem's does not turn harsh in the barrels. It takes on a bit of acid, but retains a surprising amount of malt body and sweetness. While being quite different from Rodenbach, it expresses Ghequire's triad of sweetness, dryness, and acidity. At the media rollout for these beers last week, Pfriem told me that the Flanders red "was why I got into brewing," and he offers a beer worthy of a life's pursuit.
pFriem's Flanders Red release is part of a huge bottle roll-out that also includes Pilsner, IPA, Blonde IPA, Belgian Strong Dark, Belgian Strong Blonde, Saison, and Flanders Blonde. (A drier, sharper beer than the red. There is no traditional "Flanders blonde," but inventing one is exactly what a Belgian would do.) Here's the
(Eugene to Seattle).
"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature. In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer. Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand. In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out? A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop. I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.