Drinking with the brewer: Rudi Ghequire, Rodenbach

Rodenbach’s Rudi Ghequire

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There are several moments during Rudi Ghequire’s whistle stop tour of the Rodenbach brewery when he pauses, albeit briefly, to elaborate a particular point about the brewery’s history. To explain the brewery’s past and present, Ghequire - Rodenbach’s brewmaster, who has worked here since 1982 - barrels through 19th century maltings, past soaring cylindro-conical fermentation tanks, through the brewery’s in-house cooperage, and into the maze of cellars housing the wooden vats holding thousands of litres of maturing beer - the brewery’s signature sweet-sour Flemish Roodbruin, or Red-Brown, Ales. 

Right at the end of one of these cellars, Ghequire stops and motions to a frame on the wall, hung between family portraits of 19th century Rodenbachs. In the frame are the tatty remnants of a black, yellow and red flag. “This is the first flag of Belgium,” Ghequire says. “In 1830, after Belgian independence, the first King of Belgium had made for him 300 flags. [And] the Rodenbach brothers received this one from King Leopold.” 

It’s a throwaway comment at the end of a tour Ghequire must have given a thousand times. But within it is the key to what makes Rodenbach unique, beyond the quality and complexity of the beers they brew. It’s a brewery that reaches back deep into history, speaking to a longue durée of 200 years of near-continuous brewing history - of Rodenbach, the town of Roeselare where it’s based, and the broader sweep of Belgium’s brewing story. 

Roeselare Roodbruin

Roeselare is a city in the west of Dutch-speaking Flanders, the less famous sibling of nearby Leper (Ypres). To find Rodenbach, you have to leave Roeselare’s train station and head into the sleepy neighbourhood sandwiched between factories and train tracks. Walking down the curving Spanjestraat (Spanish Street), the brewery complex is at first hidden behind a row of typical Flemish terraced houses until all of a sudden a hefty, multi-story redbrick warehouse emerges from around a bend in the road. You can’t miss it, nor the word “RODENBACH’’ spelled in big red tiles on the building’s roof. Walk on and you eventually come to a stately villa, the former brewer’s mansion. Opposite is the brewery’s entrance, where modern grey offices bump up against the 19th century brewery complex that takes up most of the compact site. 

As Ghequire explains in his office, his walls and shelves full of old brewery memorabilia and historical brewing artefacts, brewing and distilling have taken place in this corner of Roeselare since at least the mid-1700s. The Rodenbach family arrived here from Austria in the late 1700s, when “Belgium” did not yet exist (it was known as the Austrian Netherlands). In 1821, the four Rodenbach brothers - Pedro, Alexander, Ferdinand and Constantijn - invested in a former distillery. Pedro and his wife Regina who would lead the brewery into the second half of the 19th century. It was their grandson Eugène Rodenbach, after time spent studying brewing in England, returned to Roeselare and brought back with him the English technique of ageing beer in large wooden vats - the massive foeders still used by Rodenbach today to mature their sweet-sour beer. But, Ghequire says, the tradition of brewing sour-ish ales has a long history in this part of the world. 

“Here in Belgium, they must have discovered how to preserve their beers by using acidity, by blending their young beer with old mature beer that has more acidity,” he says, preserving it for longer in a time before refrigeration or pasteurisation extended fresh beer’s shelf life beyond a few weeks. Touring the maze of foeder cellars, each of the 294 floor-to-ceiling wooden vats carrying around 8,500 litres of maturing beer, Ghequire points out a timeworn black foeder that the Rodenbachs inherited when they took over the brewery in the early 19th century. 


Rodenbach foeders

The Art of the Blend

It’s in the foeders where the secret to Rodenbach’s Roodbruin beer lies. Ghequire says maturation is the key process that makes Rodenbach Rodenbach and not their yeast, of which they are still proud and protective. Classic Rodenbach is made by blending three quarters freshly-brewed red-brown beer with one quarter beer that has been aged in the massive oak foeders for two years. The yeast and microbial culture living in the wood works away at the beer in the foeders, acidifying and producing a complex mix of flavours and aromas. 

Wandering the cellars, the air lightened by an apple-cider sweet aroma, Ghequire points out that the foeders also have a slight design quirk that aids the maturation process and gives Rodenbach its signature fruity, sour zing. It is, he says, also responsible for the sweet apple smell. The vats stand at an angle, creating an air pocket between the surface of the beer and the top of the foeder. “That airspace will create some vinegar,” as the beer oxidises, says Ghequire. “That vinegar will create vinegar bacteria, which will protect the beer against further oxidation...and which will be transformed in the second year to an ester. This ester creates the green apple flavour, which is what we have in our beer. It goes towards the flavour of sour cherries, and raspberries, and this is how we can do that [without adding fruit]. [And] That’s the reason why they chose foeders 200 years ago for this style of brewing.”

Two years is the standard length of time a beer will sit in a foeder, though some will stay for longer and Ghequire has been maturing beer in one particular foeder for nine years, which he eventually hopes to release as a single blend vintage. Ghequire knows every brick of these buildings. He is proud to be able to trace his lineage as brewmaster back four or five generations to the original Rodenbach family brewers, and proud they are still brewing more or less to the same principles as his forebears. But at Rodenbach time has not stood still; this is a working brewery, and not a living museum. “We are working as modern [as possible] where we can, but we work as traditional as we have to,” Ghequire says. What that translates to is a modern brewhouse built in the 2000s, run by two brewers from behind a bank of five computer screens, that replaced the old steam-powered brewery run by 30 people. 

Moving with the times

They have also gotten better at managing the variations in maturation between foeders and vintages, making sure each new or renovated foeder is inoculated with the best possible strain of their house yeast culture. It means that each foeder produces beer that’s right for blending at the end of maturation. When blending, nowadays Ghequire doesn’t have to rely on his decades of experience alone; now he’s assisted by a gas chromatograph machine that assesses each blend and each beer. “That has changed. Not the yeast strain. Not the principles of our production process. Not the wooden vats, and not the culture in the wooden vats.”

And just as the brewery has modernised, it has also adapted to changing consumer tastes. Rodenbach hit its high point of popularity in Belgium in the late 1970s and 1980s, but before and after that golden age their sweet-sour red-brown beers have been a niche taste even in Belgium. The Roodbruin tradition maintained by Rodenbach, and a number of other breweries in the region, was at various points in the past half-century in danger of disappearing. In recent years however, there has been a slow revival of interest in the style and new breweries have emerged that value the tradition or are at least interested in experimenting with the style. “I am thankful that there are other breweries who are making such a style because in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was nearly only one brewery [Rodenbach] who was making this style,” he says, adding that had downsides as well as upsides. “In the land of blind, the one eyed is king. And if he loses his last eye, then he is dead, because no one can help him.” 

Rodenbach haven’t sat still either, and alongside classic Rodenbach and Grand Cru (two-thirds aged beer and one third fresh beer), they also make Alexander (added cherries), Caractère Rouge (aged beer macerated on cherries, raspberries and cranberries), Vintage (a single blend from an exceptional foeder), and, most recently, Fruitage. Fruitage is made with old and new beer, and an addition of red fruit and a lower ABV than its stablemates, and Ghequire says it was inspired by its potential use as a cocktail mixer. “What we try to do in this brewery is to be original,” Ghequire says of Fruitage’s inspiration as an alternative cocktail mixer. “I think you cannot find a beer here who is a copy of another beer on the market.”

Two World Wars and One Pandemic

After 40 years walking its cobbled courtyards, including a period when he lived at the brewery, Ghequire is as much a custodian of Rodenbach’s story as he is their brewmaster. Which explains his decision to write a history of the brewery alongside Belgian beer writer Erik Verdonck. “I think it’s important that someone is doing that,” Ghequire says. “I have had a chance to work here for so long, I think it is my duty to do that...We are only a dot [in history] and I have a chance to sit down and tell what we have discovered.”

Back down in the foeder cellars, as he moves on from the old Belgian flag to walk through the quiet catering kitchen, Ghequire’s thoughts turn to the current once-in-a-generation global health emergency the brewery is facing and the crippling effect it is having on Belgium’s brewers and on Rodenbach. “This is a very hard time for the brewery. Very very hard,” Ghequire says. “[But], we survived two world wars, so…”


Cover image - licensed under CC BY-SA


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