One of the most interesting varieties of Belgian beer is often less like a beer and more like another fine beverage - wine. Often referred to as the "Burgundies of Belgium," Flanders ales are the most wine-like of any beers in the world. In fact, their sister region in France is the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. Aged for between eight months and three years in oak casks in the presence of microorganisms like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (bacteria), Acetobacters (vinegar) and Brettanomyces (wild yeast), Flanders ales have a tart acidity that gives them a unique flavor profile.
Flanders ales tend to be very complex with distinct fruit flavors of cherry, plum, prune, raisin, raspberry or orange. They typically derive vanilla and spice notes and tannins from the oak casks they are aged in - contributing to their wine-like character. Since hops and sourness do not complement each other, Flanders ales are light on hops - less than 10 IBUs. Alcoholic strength is generally 4% to 6% or slightly higher.
Blending for Consistency and Flavor
Like many fine wines, Flanders ales are often blended. Because sour beers tend to vary quite a bit from barrel to barrel, brewers will blend different casks together to produce a consistent "signature flavor profile." Older beers (up to three years old) are often blended with younger beers (as young as six months old) to round out the intensity of the older beer and make it more drinkable. This was a technique Flemish brewers borrowed from English porter makers in the 19th Century and adapted to sour beer production.
West Flanders Red Ales
Flanders ales fall into two distinct camps. West Flanders Red Ales are produced in the western part of Belgium, near Bruges, and have a distinct lactic tartness, stone fruit flavors, a deep reddish-brown color and enormous complexity. The best-known examples of Flanders Red Ales are from Rodenbach, in the town of Roeselare. Other good Flanders Reds included Duchesse de Bourgogne, Vichtenaar, Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge and Monk's Cafe.
East Flanders Brown Ales - "Oud Bruins"
East Flanders Brown Ales - sometimes referred to as "Oud Bruin" (Old Brown) are also tart, but less so than their West Flanders cousins. They are maltier, deep brown in color, quite complex and sometimes a bit higher in alcohol. Oftentimes Flanders Brown ales are aged in stainless steel rather than oak and lack the oak characteristics of their cousins to the west. The definitive example of an East Flanders Brown is Liefmans Goudenband. Others include Vander Ghinste Oud Bruin, Petrus Oud Bruin and Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck Bacchus Flemish Brown.
Flanders-style American Sour Ales
Not surprisingly, with the popularity of sour beers on the rise in the United States, many craft breweries are taking on the challenge of producing Flanders-style ales. New Belgium, The Lost Abbey, Russian River, The Bruery, Odell's and a host of others are producing excellent - and quite authentic - versions of West and East Flanders ales. Look for that trend to continue for many years to come.
Flanders Beer Cuisine
Belgian cuisine is, without question, some of the finest in Europe. While the French, Italians and Spanish like to cook with wine, the Belgians prefer to cook with beer. One of their most-loved dishes is Carbonnade Flamande - Flemish Beef Stew. The beer it's made with? You guessed it - Flanders ale. Carbonnade is one of my all-time favorite Belgian dishes and I feel compelled to share the recipe here, because the cold winter months are the perfect time to enjoy it. One thing I'll mention now. There is a fair bit of debate over whether the beer to use should be a West Flanders Red or an East Flanders Brown. There are merits to both and one of the best batches I ever made used a small bottle of each. Whichever beer you go with, once you try it, you'll be hooked!
- (3) pounds chuck roast - cut into 1.5" cubes
- (2) 11.2 oz bottles OR (1) 750 ml bottle of Flanders Red or Brown ale
- (4) slices bacon - diced
- (3) onions (medium) - sliced thin
- (4) cloves garlic - chopped
- (4) Tablespoons olive oil
- (3) Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- (1.5) cups beef broth
- (2) bay leaves
- (4) sprigs fresh thyme
- (1) Tablespoon whole grain mustard
- (1) Tablespoon dark brown sugar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- (1) cup chopped parsley plus more for garnish
- Marinate the beef for at least two hours or overnight in the beer, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the bay leaves.
- Remove the beer and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade.
- Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven and, working in batches, brown beef on all sides. Set aside.
- In the same dutch oven, fry bacon until crisp and golden. Set aside with beef.
- Lower heat and fry onions in bacon grease until caramelized - about 20 minutes.
- Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour is browned.
- Add the beef broth and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the marinade, the beef, the bacon and the thyme.
- Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 1.5 hours.
- Add the brown sugar, the parsley, the mustard and freshly ground pepper. Cook for another 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve with buttered egg noodles or french fries and a bottle of Flanders ale!