While beer may be my first love, wine will always hold a special place in my heart (specifically, the bits that wine allegedly protects from heart attacks). And so when I come across a beverage that combines the two my heart sings. Rodenbach does precisely that, with a rich, malty red ale that’s picked up plenty of oak character from its time ageing in barrels.
My most recent expedition to the Dove on Broadway Market yielded an intriguing pair: a bottle of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru and another of their Vintage 2016.
Rodenbach works its magic around 30 km south of Bruges, which explains why it didn’t show up on my radar on my last trip (you remember before lockdown when we could travel overseas? What luxury). There they make their trademark red ale, some of which then goes down to the cellars to age in oak “foudres” with masses of wild yeasts, bacteria, and oxygen for years on end. On paper, it looks like a recipe for disaster. Somehow, those mad brewers have made this work.
The main difference between these two particular beers is how they’re blended. Grand Cru is a mix of two thirds aged beer and one third fresh; the Vintage is 100% 2-year barrel-aged ale. As well as the gold label, the Vintage also receives the dubious honour of a caged cork to add to the drama. Sadly, whether by design or just too long in storage, uncorking this beer comes not with a bang but with a sad ffft.
The two beers are unsurprisingly similar in appearance. The Grand Cru is perhaps a little lighter, browner; the Vintage more garnet in colour. The main identifying feature is the head. Our pal GC has a scant, cream-coloured head that dissipates quickly but at least remains clinging to the glass; Vintage hits the glass without so much as a wisp of froth.
Both sport a funky, acidic aroma. Those familiar with their mixed fermentation beers will note the presence of brettanomyces, as well as woody, oaky notes. The Grand Cru is darker, richer and sweeter on the nose, bringing raisins, cherries and prunes. The fruit character is there in the Vintage, just far less pronounced.
It’s on the palate that these two beers really diverge. Yes, both have that tart, malt vinegar base. But the Grand Cru backs that up with sweet fruits: raisins again, cranberries, red grapes. The mouthfeel is thick and coats the tongue, helping those funky, sweet fruit notes to linger. By contrast, the Vintage is lighter. Above the booming malt bassline float honeysuckle, pear, and white grapes. The finish is spicier, cloves and leather hitting the back of the throat.
These are both extremely interesting beers, their flavour and character straddling the worlds of beer, wine, and vinegar. I feel like if we aged and coveted malt vinegar the same way we do balsamic, this might well be the result.
For me, the Grand Cru just about wins out. The Vintage may just be a bit too refined for me. GC, on the other hand, has plenty of those rich, dried fruit notes that I’ve long cherished both in beer and in fortified wines. It’s not a beer I’d want to drink all night, but I’d have another for a special occasion, as the mood strikes.