Flanders Red Blind Taste Test

It’s been 4+ years since I last hosted a Pat’s Pints blind tasting. Past iterations, which included Oktoberfests and märzens, Ohio-brewed double IPAs, imperial stouts, saisons, porters and the now largely forgotten black IPAs, were both fun and educational. Given that I and my circle of friends are fortunate enough to have received our Covid vaccinations, the time seemed right to dust off this tradition with one of the most elegant beer styles in the catalog, tart Flanders ales.

I’ve been meaning to do this tasting for some time now, slowly accumulating examples that struck me as noteworthy. The field included iconic examples from Belgium (Rodenbach Vintage, Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne), a World Beer Cup Gold Medalist (Funkwerks Oud bruin), Ohio-brewed entries (Little Fish Maker of Things, Wolf’s Ridge Coffee Red Legacy), an entry from midwest sour beer stalwart Jolly Pumpkin (La Roja), and a canned beer (Destihl Flanders Red). Just to round things out I threw in a barrel aged imperial oud bruin from Crux Fermentation Project out in Bend, Oregon (Freakcake) and two homebrewed examples.

Style Description

One can make a good argument that the sour beers of Belgium—Flanders reds, oud bruins, lambics—are the most sophisticated expressions of what can be accomplished by fermenting grains. While Flanders reds and oud bruins lack the romantic allure of spontaneous fermentation used to produce lambics, they make up for it with a more substantial malt character and a curious combination of sweet and sour. Both start off life as something akin to an amber ale or perhaps an under attenuated dunkel, before a long aging process in the presence of souring bacteria (lactobacillus, pediococcus, acetobacter) and brettanomyces, the funky cousin of the standard brewing yeast saccharomyces. The finished beers are generally blends of sour, funky beer that has aged for a few years with younger, sweeter beer.

The BJCP guidelines summarize the Flanders Red style in the following manner, “A sour, fruity red wine-like Belgian-style ale with interesting supportive malt flavors and fruit complexity. The dry finish and tannin completes the mental image of a red wine.” The comparison to red wine goes back to the famed British beer writer Michael Jackson (and perhaps further) who called these beers the Burgandies of Belgium. Jackson championed these beers, going so far as to say that Rodenbach Grand Cru was the most refreshing beer in the world. High praise from the man largely responsible for describing and cataloging the world’s beers in the late 20th century.

Jackson is also responsible for the red-brown subdivision of these beers. In his classic book, Great Beers of Belgium, he writes:

Some Flemish brewers, and many beer lovers, make no distinction between the old brown style traditional in the area around the town of Oudennarde, in East Flanders, and the sharper, redder interpretation seen further West. Even in West Flanders the term Old Brown (oud bruin) might be used even though the beer might be mahogany red.”

The BJCP guidelines state that the oud bruin is less acetic and maltier than a Flanders red, with fruity flavors that are more malt oriented. That distinction might make sense in Belgium, although as Jackson notes the Belgians think of these beers as a spectrum rather than two distinct styles. Here in the US I don’t think the red-brown divide is very useful. I say this because American examples tend to be less sweet and more sour than classic Flanders reds from Belgium, even when they are called oud bruins. I did unsuccessfully search for the what many consider to be the most famous oud bruin, Liefman’s Goudenband, to include in the tasting.

The one thing that really strikes you in the best examples is how fruit forward they are, even though they typically don’t contain fruit (fruited examples are known, but almost always labeled as such). After all the comparison to red wine wouldn’t make sense if they weren’t overtly fruity, would it?  Where do the fruit flavors come from? To answer that question we have to venture into the realm of biochemistry. The fruit flavors largely come from combined action of the souring bacteria and yeast. The bacteria produce acids, the same ones that make the beer tart, and saccharomyces produces alcohols, predominantly ethanol. Once these building blocks are present, Brettanomyces slowly combines acids and alcohols into esters, the molecules responsible for the distinctive odors and tastes of fruits.

The reaction of lactic acid and ethanol produces the ester, ethyl lactate and water. In the fermentation of sour beers this type of reaction is driven by brettanomyces and responsible for much of the fruity flavors that abound in tart Flanders ales.
The reaction of lactic acid and ethanol produces the ester, ethyl lactate and water. In the fermentation of sour beers this type of reaction is driven by brettanomyces and responsible for much of the fruity flavors that abound in tart Flanders ales.

The Judging Panel and Process

The judging panel was made up of vaccinated veterans from past Pat’s Pints blind taste tests.  I was joined by Mark Richards, director of operations at Land-Grant Brewing and my co-host on the All Things Beer Podcast, and Angelo Signorino, head brewer at Barley’s, two gentlemen that need no introduction. This is not the first rodeo for long time homebrewers Hans Gorsuch and Chris Mercerhill, and the panel is rounded out by Ted Clark, who as something of an oenophile seems particularly qualified to judge a slate of wine-like beers. A good steward is essential for any blind taste test and Ralph Wolfe excels in that role.

We tasted the beers sequentially and scored them using the BJCP scoring system (50 points in total, divided into 12 points for aroma, 3 points for appearance, 20 points for flavor, 5 points for mouthfeel, and 10 points for overall impression).  We tasted ten beers, breaking for snacks (cheese, bread and crackers) at the midpoint of the tasting. The pour size was approximately 75 mL (just over 2 ounces). Nevertheless, given the intense flavors of this beer it’s tough to go beyond 6-7 beers without suffering from palate fatigue. The all-important tasting order was as follows:

  1. Destihl Flanders Red
  2. Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne
  3. Jolly Pumpkin La Roja
  4. Pat’s Pints In Search of the Peace of Mind (homebrew)
  5. Wolf’s Ridge Coffee Red Legacy
  6. Chris Mercerhill’s Flanders Red (homebrew)
  7. Rodenbach Vintage 2015
  8. Funkwerks Oud Bruin
  9. Little Fish Maker of Things
  10. Crux Freakcake

If I were to do this all over I would probably taste the six traditional beers before the break and save the non-traditional variants (Wolf’s Ridge, Crux) and homebrews for after the break, but hindsight is 20-20. I will also note that at the end of the tasting we enjoyed homemade carbonnade flamande. A rich and hearty beef stew made with tart Flanders ale (in this case two bottles of Rodenbach Grand Cru) that was absolutely delicious. I plan to share the recipe in a follow up post.

I firmly believe that the tasting notes are more valuable than the raw scores and results, so below I’ve described each of the ten beers using a composite of everyone’s tasting notes. That’s followed by a discussion of the finishing order, which I suggest you take with a grain of salt.

The Belgians

Rodenbach Vintage 2015 (Foeder 195)

Vitals: 7% abv, best by date July 25, 2022 (packaged July 25, 2015?), purchased at the brewery in 2018

Rodenbach is the archetypal Flanders red. Their brewery in Roselare is quite possibly the most stunning brewery on planet Earth. Once the initial fermentation is complete the young beer undergoes additional fermentation and maturation for 1-3 years in massive oak foeders, ranging in size from 3,000 to 17,000 gallons (12,000 to 65,000 L). There are 294 foeders in all, some of which have been in use for up to 150 years! Almost all Rodenbach is a blend of young and old beer taken from different foeders, carefully selected to get just the right mix, but each year they pick one foeder that is yielding particularly good beer and package it unblended as Rodenbach Vintage. Not surprisingly this beer has won numerous awards, including gold medals at the World Beer Cup in 2010 and 2014. I picked up one such bottle when I toured the brewery in 2018, labeled Vintage 2015 – Foeder 195.

With a color that might be described as deep garnet or black cherry and excellent clarity it’s one handsome beer. On the first sip you’re struck by a wave of cherry-forward, fruity esters that really pop. It’s hard to believe you can get so much fruit flavor in a beer that doesn’t contain any fruit. The fruit flavors are complemented by a complex acidity that has a tinge of acetic acid (aka vinegar), and the combination hints ever so subtly at a fine balsamic vinegar. Even this beer that has been in the bottle for roughly six years still retains some malt sweetness. Angelo suggested that a comparison to port wine was apt, and I can’t disagree.

Synopsis – The archetype

Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne

Vitals: 6.2% abv, packaged December 17, 2019, purchased at a local store sometime in mid 2020

This family-owned brewery from West Flanders produces a range of beers but Duchesse de Bourgogne is the flagship and probably the only one you can find in Central Ohio. The Duchesse is a mixed fermentation beer that matures in oak casks. It stood out from the crowd in a number of ways. It was the sweetest, the most acetic, and was at or near the top for fruitiness. Its garnet-ruby hue and excellent clarity are similar to Rodenbach. Each sip is a wild ride, starting with tart acidity that gives way to a wave of fruity esters, whose character was described variously as cherry, black cherry, plum, and red currant, before finishing with lingering malt sweetness. If the acetic character of Rodenbach hints at balsamic vinegar, Duchess ups the ante. It was undeniably the sweetest and most acetic beer in the field and that led to a love it or hate it split amongst the judges. Two-thirds of the judges ranked it near the top, but it was the lowest rated beer for one of the judges.

Synopsis – Love it or hate it, comparisons with balsamic are appropriate

My 2018 visit to the Rodenbach brewery ranks as perhaps my favorite brewery tour of all time. You can read more about it at this link.

The Americans

Funkwerks Oud Bruin

Vitals: 7.5% abv, packaged March 26, 2018, purchased at the brewery in March 2019

Funkwerks, located in Fort Collins, CO, specializes in Belgian inspired ales and is one of my favorite breweries in the US. This beer snagged a gold medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup in the Belgian-Style Flanders Oud Bruin or Oud Red category. That caught my eye the last time I had the pleasure of visiting the brewery and I’ve been saving this bottle for the last two years for just such a tasting.

Of the American beers that hewed close to the traditional ingredients this one scored near the top, matching or besting the Belgians with most of the judges, despite its unenviable placement as number 8 of 10 in the tasting order and coming right after Rodenbach. It has all the expected hallmarks of the style including black cherry/berry/currant fruitiness, firm but not over the top acidity, and a touch of malt character that the bugs haven’t yet devoured. Compared to the two Belgian examples, there is noticeably less sweetness (despite its label as an oud bruin) and the acid profile was neither one note nor acetic in nature. One judge noted Brett funk (barnyard, funky cheese) that stood out from the crowd in a good way.

Synopsis – An exemplary beer in the traditional vein, but with less vinegar and more funk

Little Fish Maker of Things

Vitals: 8.5% abv, packaged September 15, 2019, purchased at the brewery in 2020

Little Fish is one of the few breweries in Ohio that has mastered the unpredictable art of brewing and blending complex sour ales. In 2016 they purchased their first oak foeder and after an initial batch called The Acern, this foeder has been producing Maker of Things ever since. They use a modified solera method with the house culture, drawing off roughly one-third of the beer in the foeder when the packaged, then topping off the foeder with fresh beer and letting the mix age for some time before the next bottling run. 

Unfortunately, Maker of Things was number 9 in the tasting order, a point where discerning subtleties was very challenging for most of us (including me), so, I’m leaning heavily on Angelo, whose palate seemed to surge at the finish. Like the European entries it is garnet-hued with ruby highlights and excellent clarity. There’s relatively little acetic character and less sweetness than the Rodenbach of the Duchesse. The taste is a wonderful blend of cherry-leaning fruity esters, balanced acidity, oak tannins and a smidge of toasty malt, the combination of which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Synopsis – A balanced blend of flavors with discernable oak character.

Destihl Wild Sour Flanders Red

Vitals: 5.9% abv, packaged December 15, 2020, purchased at a local store in the week leading up to the contest

Located in Normal, Illinois and specializing largely in sour ales, Destihl’s line of Wild Sours are widely available across the Midwest. This entry was the only canned beer in the field and our first beer of the afternoon, which in retrospect was probably appropriate. Its 5.7% abv and clean acidic character make it perhaps the most approachable beer of the day.  As Mark put it on his scoresheet, the fruit flavors are simultaneously bright and dark, the finish is a balance of sweet and tart with neither getting the upper hand. This might be the only beer that we tasted that I could honestly say you might be able to put back more than one in a sitting.

Synopsis – Clean trumps complex in this tasty gateway to the world of Flanders reds.

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja

Vitals: 7.2% abv, packaged August 1, 2018, purchased at a local store in the week leading up to the contest

Founded in 2004, Michigan’s Jolly Pumpkin is the oldest brewery in the US to focus exclusively on sours. This trailblazing brewery has influenced many American breweries. I added them to the list in the week leading up to the tasting, still the two bottles of La Roja, tracked down in different stores, were both bottled in 2018. This amber ale is blended from batches aged 2 to 15 months in former bourbon barrels, however, judging from the taste the fact that these oak barrels once held bourbon is not particularly relevant.

For whatever reason reason this beer didn’t connect with most of the judging panel. Despite the favorable number 3 spot in the tasting order, it finished in the bottom three for five of the six judges. It doesn’t lack for acidity, and the acidity has an appropriate level of complexity. Wood tannins from the oak barrels add complexity, but the fruity esters seemed somewhat subdued compared to the rest of the field. It wasn’t the oldest beer we tasted, but it seemed to have lost some of the brightness that you find in the best examples.

Synopsis – Fruity esters dialed back, but it may have the best label

Posing in front of the “Maker of Things” foeder at Little Fish, from left to right: Mark Richards, Jimmy Stockwell, Sean White and yours truly.

The Rule Breakers

Wolf’s Ridge Coffee Red Legacy

Vitals: 6.3% abv, packaged January 19, 2021, purchased at the brewery

Wolf’s Ridge head brewer Chris Davison is a polyglot of beer styles. His very public, fully consensual relationship with adjuncts is balanced by a deep reverence for traditional styles. Last fall Chris joined us on the All Things Beer podcast and we geeked out about Oktoberfests and Marzens for an entire afternoon. Who else in Central Ohio is rocking a Rauchbier, a 2020 GABF bronze medal winning Rauchbier at that? Coffee Red Legacy, a traditional Flanders red, soured for 18-24 months in oak barrels and then conditioned on light roasted Columbian Monteblanco coffee, is the perfect mashup of these two sides of Chris.

At first blush coffee seems an unlikely adjunct for the dark fruity, acidic character of a Flanders red, but this non-intuitive combination works surprisingly well.  The berry-forward tartness of the base beer brings out the fruity notes in the coffee. Even more surprising, this unusual combination of flavors hints at fruity poblano peppers, a suggestion that once vocalized by another judge I could not get out of my head. From a strictly stylistic judging perspective you could take away points for the fact that the adjunct plays more the starring role than a supporting one, but that’s craft beer in the 2020s for you. There’s no denying this inspired combination makes for an enjoyable, mind-bending experience. The good news is that at better beer stores around Central Ohio this beer is currently available, along with another variant featuring Rooibos tea.

Synopsis – A combination that shouldn’t work but somehow does

Crux Fermentation Project Freakcake Barrel Aged Oud Bruin

Vitals: 10.5% abv, packaged January 24, 2018, purchased at the brewery last month

Given its location in Bend, Oregon my fellow Midwesterners might not be very familiar with Crux Fermentation Project, but they’re the real deal. Last month my wife was visiting her niece in Bend and was kind enough to mule back some special beers, including the barrel-aged oud bruin Freakcake. At 10.5% it is well north of the allowable strength for the style, but as the last beer in the tasting it was a great way to go out. 

Twenty seconds after getting my tasting glass it was immediately evident that we’ve strayed from the standard Flanders ale playbook. The nose featured more maltiness that we’d had in any of the first nine beers, along with a vanilla note we hadn’t encountered all day. Everyone focused on different elements of the taste, but the flavors were an intoxicating mélange of dark fruit (plums, raisins), caramel, vanilla, oak and some Brett funk. The acidity is in keeping with the base style, but it comes across a little less assertive when backed up by the malt base of such a big beer or maybe our acid receptors had simply shut down by this point of the day. The alcohol is not overpowering, but at 10.5% neither can it be completely masked. Angelo’s scoresheet said it best, this is a beast of a beer but still drinkable.

Synopsis – This one goes to 11.

The Homebrews

Pat’s Pints In Search of the Peace of Mind

Vitals: 5.9% abv, bottled March 26, 2021

I have to admit that I had an ulterior motive in hosting this tasting. I wanted to get some feedback on a homebrewed Flanders-style ale that I bottled approximately one month before the tasting. This beer started off life as an experiment to see how a dunkel fermented with Hornindal kveik compared to a dunkel fermented with lager yeast. The upshot of that experiment is that lagers taste better when brewed with lager yeast. So last May I found myself in the still early stages of the Covid pandemic with nearly 10 gallons of dunkel on tap. Taking inspiration from an All Things Beer interview we did with Sean White of Little Fish, I decided to take the kveik-fermented dunkel and turn it into a Flanders red/brown tart ale. My souring method was to add the dregs from a bottle of Maker of Things and a bottle of La Roja, together with some buckwheat honey to help get the fermentation restarted. About six months afterward I added roughly one-half pound of home grown raspberries from my garden. For those of you who’ve brewed with raspberries you’ll know that this is a pretty insignificant quantity for five gallons of beer (by comparison a batch of my raspberry Berliner Weiss gets 3 lbs).

Given the stiff competition I was expecting plenty of critiques, so you can imagine my utter and complete surprise when the beers were revealed to find out that five of the six judges scored my beer in their top three choices. In particular, the overt fruitiness of the beer was a hit. I can’t resist sharing a few quotes from the tasting sheets. Mark’s overall impression, “berries and citrus, tartness is akin to fresh fruit.” Angelo’s comments on aroma, “Wow fruit! Such cherry.” Chris’ overall impression, “Fanta on acid.” My own tasting notes on the flavor were as follows, “Very fruit forward, somewhere between raspberry and cherry. Just about the perfect level of malt sweetness. Acidity 5 to 6 on a 10 point scale, a good mix of lactic and acetic acidity.” 

I know from several years of brewing with my homegrown raspberries that there’s no way you can get that much fruit flavor from one-half pound. Apparently, the raspberries and the bugs that came from the Little Fish and/or Jolly Pumpkin bottles produced some kind of force multiplier. Perhaps the younger age of my beer (10 months in the fermenter, 1 month in bottles) helped to make the fruit flavors so bright. After tasting a fresh bottle several days later I’m inclined to be a little more critical. The beer could use a touch more acidity and it wouldn’t be bad if that acidity was a little more complex, but for my first attempt at the style I’m thrilled with the results. In the near future, I plan to write up a post with some brewing notes on this beer, but for now let’s chalk this up to beginners luck and good advice from Sean.

Synopsis – A fruit bomb, in a good way

Chris Mercerhill’s Flanders Red

Vitals – Unknown

The inspiration for attempting a homebrewed Flanders red comes in part from my friend and fellow panelist Chris Mercerhill who occasionally makes forays into the world of sour and funky homebrews. When I invited Chris to the tasting he asked if he could bring the unused portion of a keg of his homebrewed Flanders-style ale, a batch that was brewed several years ago and has been aging in his basement. The keg had lost most of its carbonation, so we tried to bring it back to the proper level of carbonation in just a few days time, an experiment that was not entirely successful.

Given the age and slightly under carbonated nature of the beer it was not too surprising to see that it finished at or near the bottom of the rating scale for most of the judges. The fruitiness was somewhat subdued but I felt leaned in the apple-raspberry vein. A couple of judges left comments like “rounded” or “aged” that would suggest that after 3 years in the keg it had lost some of its pop. On the upside there were no off flavors and all of us felt it was quite drinkable. It received a very respectable average score of 30 on the 50-point BJCP scale.

Synopsis – If you think Flanders reds are inaccessible to the homebrewer, think again

The Results

Sometimes you do a blind tasting and a clear winner emerges, but that’s not what happened here.  The lack of a clear consensus could be chalked up to a variety of factors. Firstly, the lineup included some of the most iconic examples of the style, which right away makes for an unpredictable outcome. Who’s to say that you’re wrong if you prefer Duchesse over Rodenbach, or for that matter the 2018 World Beer Cup gold medalist (Funkwerks) over either of the Belgians. Secondly, tasting order is always important and in this case palate fatigue was a real struggle.  Finally, I can’t help but note that the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on our favorite beer. All of that being said, I’m going to tabulate the results in a variety of ways and let you judge for yourself.

Let’s start by revealing everyone’s top choice. Two votes for Rodenbach (Chris, Pat), two votes for Funkwerks (Ted, Mark), one vote for Little Fish (Angelo), and one vote for Duchess de Bourgogne (Hans). For those beers to come out on top seems reasonable to me.

Next let’s go with a scoring system where we rank the beers from 1-10 for each judge, with their favorite getting 1 point and their least favorite 10 points. If we then add the points up the lowest score wins (like golf, not bowling). That approach gives the following order:

1. Crux Freakcake (20), 2. Funkwerks Oud Bruin (21), 3. Rodenbach Vintage (22), 3. Pat’s Pints In Search of the Peace of Mind (22), 5. Duchess de Bourgogne (28), 6. Destihl Flanders red (34), 7. Wolf’s Ridge Coffee Red Legacy (35), 8. Little Fish Maker of Things (41), 9. Jolly Pumpkin La Roja (48), 10. Chris Mercerhill’s Flanders red (49).

Obviously, any scale that puts my homebrew in a tie with Rodenbach should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Let’s try this again with a judging scale akin to what they use for figure skating. I’m going to average the scores the judges used (on a 50 point BJCP scale) but throw out the lowest score to smooth out any personal idiosyncrasies of the judging panel. When you do it that way you get the following order:

1. Pat’s Pints In Search of the Peace of Mind (39.6), 2. Crux Freakcake (39.2), 3. Rodenbach Vintage (38.6), 4. Duchess de Bourgogne (38.4), 5. Funkwerks Oud Bruin (37.8), 6. Destihl Flanders red (34.8), 7. Little Fish Maker of Things (34.4), 8. Wolf’s Ridge Coffee Red Legacy (34.0), 9. Jolly Pumpkin La Roja (31.6), 10. Chris Mercerhill’s Flanders Red (31.2).

If you thought the last list was suspect, this ranking should confirm your suspicion. Plus we were obviously being stingy with the points to not have multiple beers averaging in the 40+ range. If you can’t find a world-class beer in this list, you’re probably not going to find one period. For the sake of argument, let’s say my beer should be disqualified because I used raspberries and didn’t declare it to the judges. The strong showing of the imperial, bourbon barrel aged Freakcake is perhaps a sign that we were glad to still be tasting anything at beer #10. If you remove those two from the list you have the two Belgian standard bearers and WBC gold medalist separating themselves slightly from the field, that result almost makes you think the logical order of things has been restored.

Conclusions

Despite the lack of a consensus winner there are a few takeaway lessons. Firstly, if you try your own tasting of this style its better to limit the field to 5-6 beers in a session. Secondly, the Belgian exemplars of the style are undeniably sweeter, more acetic and fruitier than the American-brewed examples. In part this can be chalked up to the fact that both Rodenbach and Verhaeghe blend back in young beer, and I believe they also pasteurize their beers after packaging and carbonating to lock in the sour-sweet flavor profile. I know for a fact that breweries like Little Fish and Jolly Pumpkin bottle with live microbes and don’t pasteurize. Consequently, when you are drinking 2-3 year old bottles they tend to dry out and lose malt sweetness. Which approach you favor is really a matter of personal preference. I will say that I’m grateful that those two breweries don’t pasteurize their beers, because my homebrew is entirely dependent on the living microbes in their bottles. At the end of the day the flavors you encounter in this style are amazing and unique, so get out there and try some of these for yourself.

A bowl of carbonnade flamande, a plate of Idaho fries and a glass of Flanders red is a glorious way to end the day.

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