The King’s Arms in Bethnal Green hosted Rodenbach Brewery brewmaster Rudi Ghequire last Saturday, in what was a fantastic celebration of both Rodenbach and the Flanders red style of beer (plus, I managed to blag an interview with him after his talk). Formed by the eponymous and illustrious Flemish family in the 1820s, Rodenbach is arguably the most famous producer of Flanders red, and is held in high esteem by brewers and beer geeks alike. The classic Rodenbach is fermented with the brewery’s own mixed yeast culture, and is a blend of young beer and beer aged for two years in large oak casks – and the result and is a tart, fruity and refreshingly drinkable beer.
For a man entrusted with promoting such an iconic brand, Rudi is friendly and engaging and completely without pretension. After his talk we grabbed a beer and took a seat, and I started by asking him what a typical working day is like when he’s not on the road promoting the beer. “I’m responsible for the purchase of the raw materials for all of the Palm breweries (Rodenbach became part of the Palm group in 1998), taking the brewery tours, overseeing quality control and so on. However, any time outside of that I try to promote our brewery, and our style of beer. It’s an important style of beer – it’s an evolution in beer history. Beer was originally liquid food, and it was only later that the alcohol became more important than its sustaining qualities. However, in England, you have traditionally made very flavourful beers with a low ABV, and you should be proud of this.” For Rudi, balance is key, and this was a theme he returned to throughout our conversation.
He had been to Craft Beer Rising before the event, and was diplomatic when I asked what were his favourite beers, telling me that while he had tried many good beers, his preference is for beers that are balanced, and reflect the land of their origin. “When I come to England, I expect to drink beers with English hops – it may be Cascade, but I prefer it to be UK Cascade. In England, you have the knowledge to make very balanced beers, so there’s no need to be influenced by others. You should be proud of your hops, and your traditions.” I asked Rudi if he felt that the “craft beer revolution” had been beneficial in introducing a new generation of drinkers to Belgian beer. “We have to be proud. We don’t have to make American-style beers, we just have to make our own. However, American brewing has been a positive influence; as you say, 15 years ago there were two breweries in London, and now there are 80 (many making American-style beers) – that is good for beer in general. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘in wine there is knowledge, in beer there is freedom’. Beer is the drink of the common people, and that is what we are doing – making beer for the common people. Beer is a common product, and a common product must always be balanced.”
The conversation progressed to the need for brewers and breweries to always strive to be better. “People, drinkers, are always ‘zapping’ – if you rest on your laurels they will drink a better beer. You have to be very aware of this, and that is my main responsibility. That’s why I am so thankful to be invited here, to talk about our beer. It means I don’t get complacent, I remain sensitive to the quality of the beer.” I took the opportunity to ask him what his thoughts were on kettle-soured beers in the context of the slightly silly controversy currently raging in the USA, and he returned to the theme of balance. “Kettle-soured beers can be good, but they must be balanced. Some are too sharp; often you can’t smell the sourness so it can shock the palate. If you need to add concentrated juice, that suggests a lack of balance; make your product balanced in the first case, don’t let it be an afterthought.”
Moving on, I’d been fascinated by Rudi’s oft-quoted statement that sour beer is the missing link between beer and wine, and asked him to elaborate. “Wine is not bitter, you have a dryness from the tannins and the polyphenols. In sour beers you also have dryness, and no hop bitterness; it is heading in the direction of wine rather than beer. We once had a group of Germans on the brewery tour, and after tasting a beer, one guy asked me ‘Ist das Bier?!’ I said ‘Ja, das ist Bier!’ He didn’t accept it; for him, beer had to be bitter and malty, but there are other beers that are sour but also drinkable.”
Reluctant to hold him up, I finished by asking whether Rudi has any unfulfilled ambitions after 23 years as Rodenbach brewmaster. “My role is to champion the Flanders red style of beer, and Rodenbach in particular. The seasonal vintage beer that I initiated in 2007 is hopefully an inspiration to other brewers; it has so many flavour profiles, and each year it is different. As the big breweries become bigger, it’s up to the small breweries to be more creative, to say ‘we’re still here’, and we will survive by creating new tastes, new experiences, and new beers.”
Feature photo courtesy of Patrick van Leijsen of Palm Belgian Craft Brewers