When the brewmaster for Rodenbach is in town from Europe for a weekend, you know you're lucky if you get a moment with him. Rudi Ghequire likes to talk, but the open hands and bright smiles that await him here are plenty, and his time was short. So we were happy to get five minutes with him in the middle of his event at The Rare Barrel in Oakland last Friday night.
Ghequire had just spoken about his craft for a few moments, as an introduction to the beers he was pouring that night. He spoke of how sours were developed as an alternate way to preserve beer, a way that didn't depend on hops. A beer vinegar was made, and aged, and that became the mother blend that could be stored in barrels for long periods. Then a fresher, less carbonated beer could be blended with that mother blend on a yearly basis to create fresh beer -- the Flanders Red.
As a treat, he was letting us taste the Foederbier, that flat oak-aged red brown (on the right above) that mates with the mother blend every year (in different percentages each time) to bring us the Rodenbacher arsenal (that's Grand Cru on the left). You wouldn't normally drink this flat, slightly watery beer at a bar, but by letting us taste it, Ghequire helped us better understand the craft that his brewery has helped perfect over hundreds of years.
So, yes, Rodenbach was established in 1821. Ghequire has been an employee there for 33 years, and brewmaster for 21. And we were standing in an American all-sour brewery that was established in 2013.
It was within this context that I perceived the brewer, and it seems unfair to take those questions and answers out of that context -- so a straight Q&A it is. It was a pleasure speaking with him, and none what follows had the force of ill feeling behind it.
Eno Sarris: On our website we have stats. Stats that tell you things that you already knew like Alcohol By Volume is positively correlated with ratings.
Rudi Ghequire: Yes but I have a theory. Alcohol supports the taste, so that's okay.
Sarris: Bigger beers with big taste require big alcohol too?
Ghequire: Yes but for me, the most important thing is that the beer stays in balance. I can appreciate even more a beer in balance of six percent alcohol than one of eight percent alcohol. Because the one with eight percent alcohol has more chances to have more points. But if you ask me, if I will drink alcohol, I will drink a very good whiskey. Then I will have very good alcohol in an ideal situation. When I want to drink beer, I want to take my thirst away without being drunk. It's personal.
Sarris: You might have been having some of the strong IPAs, have you seen the Triple IPAs?
Ghequire: Very evident. But it can also go the direction of what happened with wine and porto. Then you have a mutation of wine. What is porto? It's mutated wine. During the fermentation they add alcohol to stop the fermentation, and then they do maturation.
Sarris: You could almost take barleywine out and make it a new thing like porto, like a new beer.
Ghequire: But then it can go other ways. You drink porto for the taste, yes, but also as digestif and as a sweets appetizer. You drink it in small volumes. Some bourbon aged porters are very good beers, but you have to sip them.
Sarris: And they come in big bombers! You've been touring the US... what do you think of the American sour scene? I'm not asking you to name a name, but what do you think is different about the sours here?
Ghequire: I'm a lucky guy that I'm a beer judge in the World Beer Cup. I was in 2006 in Seattle, and 2012 in San Diego, and last year in Denver. I've seen a positive evolution. The sours became more mild and more accessible. From time to time... I've tasted this afternoon, I tasted a sour that was completely infected by diacetyl. It was very sharp sour, incredible lactic sour. Okay, I think that beer could be better, should be better. Fantastic branding, fantastic label, but okay the beer was not directly in balance.
Sarris: Sours here get four star ratings, they just get four stars all the time. Do you think that the palate here will mature, and the better sours will start to separate themselves?
Ghequire: How do I say this. All of the drinkers have to take up experience. It is up to them, afterwards, to say, that's okay and that's not okay. You need experience. I've been drinking sours since I was ten, twelve years old. So I can say...
Sarris: I'm German, I know what you're talking about with twelve years old [laughing alone]
Ghequire: I've been drinking them for a long time. I know which sours are accessible, which sours could be better.
Sarris: You're rooted in tradition at Rodenbach. You do things, in some ways, the way you've always done them. How much are you tempted to change? How much do you change?
Ghequire: We try to do it, every time better. Some people say, well the Rodenbach is not as sour as it was in the past. I can prove that it's even more sour than it was in the past. But we've tried to make it more mild. We've tried to take away any off flavors. Without losing too much herbs and spices, to make it more pure. With very old products, and products that are made in the old way, you can also make them better. You can let them grow.
Sarris: What about ginger, or edelweisse, or peanut butter, what about the different tastes you're having when you're out there, and judging...
Ghequire: Okay, I can never judge my own styles. The brewery group in which I work has a lot styles, so I had to make my choice in weissbiers and porters.
Sarris: But you travel, and you've tried other beers. You've noticed adjuncts and the different things that American craft beer is doing.
Ghequire: You may try it. You will see what happens. You never know, you might make a new style that people will appreciate.
Sarris: I see you're a homebrewer. So is this the sort of thing that maybe you do at home? Because Rodenbach doesn't really have many of these flavors.
Ghequire: Experiments are very important. Home brewers can make what they want. They can make potato beer. They can make meat beer. They can make beetle beer, they can make anything they want. Why not. But when we look to the history, and there's 6000 years of beer making, then maybe we can try something out, but we should keep the traditional way too.
Sarris: Thanks for your time, and the beer!