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Friday, April 20, 2012

Cheers to Belgian Beers Fest, Plus Some Rambling About Rodenbach

Tomorrow is one of my favorite fests of the year--Portland Cheers to Belgian Beers.  The conceit of the fest is simple: everyone gets the same yeast(s*) and brews a beer in one of four general quadrants of type (pale or dark, strong or weak).  People go, taste, and vote.  The winning brewery gets to select the yeast for next year.

As to that asterisk.  Last year, two breweries tied--Logsdon and Hopworks.  Consequently, there are two official yeast strains--Unibroue and Rodenbach.  Really, though, there's just one strain.  Rodenbach's is so hard to work with and takes so long to mature that the only breweries who have beers using it were already making beers with it (Logsdon and Hair of the Dog).

All the details, including a beer list, are available at the Oregon Brewers Guild.  See you there!



Slightly Related Commentary About Rodenbach

We have gotten a bit blase about the use of historic strains of yeast, but it's worth noting that the breweries aren't always cool with it.  When I visited Rodenbach last year, master brewer Rudi Ghequire expressed vehement disapproval about how Rodenbach's yeast had been reappropriated by American yeast companies.  His complaint is not entirely misplaced.

Rudi Ghequire zwickeling aged Rodenbach.
The first thing to note is that there is no Rodenbach "yeast."  The brewery makes a pretty standard, mid-strength beer with a regular (albeit ancient) ale strain.  This is not Rodenbach.  That beer goes into one of the 294 oak vats the brewery owns and there it sits for two years.  Each one of those vats is a separate ecosystem and the base beer changes inside.  Mostly what happens is lactic production--though there are brettanomyces in some of the vats, too.  (Indeed, when we sampled the beer straight from the vats, Rudi detected traces of brett in one of the pours--though I could not.)  This is where Rodenbach becomes Rodenbach.  At the end of the process, Rudi and a team of tasters blend together lots from the vats and then blend those together with fresh beer (25% for regular Rodenbach, 67% for Grand Cru).

Whatever could be harvested after fermentation will be like a slice in time.  It will necessarily have a unique colony of micro-fauna within.  More importantly--and I think this is what really chafes Rudi--the process is a huge part of the beer.  Those yeasts and bacteria that make Rodenbach evolve from the specific circumstances within each vat.  A big part of that has to do with the amount of oxygen that gets into beer, respiration that is determined by surface area (that is, tank size) and wood thickness.  If you wanted to make something like Rodenbach, you'd need more than the yeast--you'd need wooden vats and a couple years.  And even then, you'd have something distinctive that evolved separately, according to the conditions you had at your own brewery.

None of which is to say the Wyeast Roselare strain (pronounced Roos ah lare) can't make great beer.  Just a word to the wise: the yeast is only a part of the picture.  I'm excited to try Hair of the Dog and Logsdon's beer, but I don't expect them to be Rodenbach-esque.

5 comments:

Rich Isaacs said...

I totally get your point, but isn't kind of a given that there is more to a beer than just the yeast especially when talking about barrel aged stuff? When people refer to the yeast as Rodenbach yeast, wouldn't they just mean it originally came from the same strain Rodenbach uses?

Maybe I'm missing something and that's why I don't get the issue though.

Jeff Alworth said...

Rich, I would guess that most people don't understand the wood-effects of barrel-aging on yeast beer, so I'm not assuming it's a given.

And I wouldn't say it came from the same strain. Let's say you cultured some yeast from finished Rodenbach. What you'd have in the bottle would contain none of the original saccharomyces cerevisiae (the ale strain). It would have a potpourri of other stuff that came from the wood. The colonies inside the beer would vary, though, depending on which vats the aged beer came from. Some might have no brett, some might have a bit--and so on.

Rich Isaacs said...

That's true about the yeast strain. I guess I just assumed that the business that cultivated it grew it from the original strain and not just the dregs from a bottle.

To be clear, I totally agree that calling it a Rodenbach strain is meaningless other than saying it is similar to the strain of yeast Rodenbach uses in their beer. You aren't getting anything close to a Rodenbach beer just by using it.

Jason C said...

Great point about Rodenbach. I brewed a flanders red using the Rosalere strain, and after 1.5 years, it is nowhere close to the genuine article. I can get other non-sour "clones" much, much closer.

To Rich- each barrel essentially has it's own strain, so there's no one master "original strain" that I'm aware of. Maybe I'm wrong though.

Rich Isaacs said...

Jason,

That's true, but the base beer is still fermented with a specific yeast before being put into barrels. That's all I mean.

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