Flanders Red Ale & Red Snapper

On holiday last year, one of the things that surprised me was how pervasive British brewing techniques still are in some parts of Europe. In Cologne, Kolsch beer was being brewed in square, open fermenters with top-cropping yeast; indeed, some have suggested commercial relations with London during Cologne’s formative years may have influenced its brewing practices. A little further along the Rhine, the fruity, copper coloured alts of Dusseldorf are remarkably similar to English bitters, and still served via gravity – the way good ale should be. And the sour red ales of West Flanders, matured in oak with Brettanomyces (literally ‘British funghi’), arguably wouldn’t exist were it not for the old Porter brewers of London.

Eugene Rodenbach learned the job of brewer in England in the 19th Century, and brought back what he learned to the famous brewery in Roeselare, south of Brugges. At the time, British pubs were buying beer from breweries and aging it themselves, charging more for the old ales, and often blended with the younger mild ale to the customer’s preference. Brewers soon realised they could make the extra profit themselves, and produced a beer called “entire”, so called because it combined the characteristics of the young and old ales in a single beer. Entire was soon to become Porter, and the first industrially produced beer in the world.

These techniques are unheard of in Britain today, and modern old ales, milds and porters have little in common with their predecessors. In brewery Rodenbach, however, they are alive and well. The kiln design, the huge oak vats, the blending with soured old ale with new has survived for over a century. Apart from the likely smoky, roasty flavours from the kilning, Rodenbach Grand Cru probably has more in common with old-style London Porter in terms of sourness. And Rodenbach’s Old Ale is sour – acetic, balsamic, vinous and eminently drinkable.

It’s one of my favourite beers, so I had to have a go at brewing it at some point. I brewed the recipe from Jamil Zainasheff & John Palmer’s excellent book Brewing Classic Styles a few weeks ago, and racked it into glass for aging a week ago. Such a beer would have been difficult to approximate without the sour yeast blends available today. I’m using Wyeast’s aptly named Roeselare blend, which has been widely tried and tested and is said to produce a similar flavour profile to Rodenbach. The picture above shows the pellicle which forms on top of the beer, the result of the Brettanomyces and Pediococus slowly working away on the longer chained sugars. Oak chips have been added to approximate the oak vats. Of course, this is an aged beer, so I won’t be able to report back on the flavour for at least a year. It is one of a few sour ales I have planned for the year – the next is a lambic with the aged hops I mentioned on a previous post.

Red Snapper in a sauce of Rodenbach Grand Cru

I’d like to share one of my favourite recipes for fish, adapted slightly from Michael Jackson’s book, Beer Companion. Michael Jackson was an early advocate of cooking with beer and pairing it with food, and I raise a glass to him whenever I cook this recipe, which he says is one of his favourites. He uses Red Mullet – which I can never seem to get a hold of – so I will post the recipe verbatim with my alterations in brackets.

Serves 4

6 Fillets of red mullet or ocean perch (I typically use red snapper), 1tbsp olive oil, pinch of grated nutmeg.

For the sauce:

3oz celeriac, 1 stick celery, 1 carrot, 2oz butter, 2oz shallots – finely chopped, 1tbsp finely chopped parsley stalks, 1tbsp brown sugar, 1/4 cup raspberry vinegar, 1/4 cup sherry vinegar (I replaced the vinegars with 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar in total), 1 bottle of Rodenbach Grand Cru, 1+3/4 cups of fish stock, 1 tbsp of well reduced veal stock (I skipped this), sprig of thyme, 1 bay leaf, salt and pepper.

1) Scale the fish fillets, taking care not to tear the skin. Remove any small bones with a pair of tweezers, rinse the fish and pat dry. Rub with olive oil.

2) For the sauce: cut the celeriac, celery and carrot into fine dice. Melt half the butter in a saucepan and saute the shallots, diced vegetables and parsley stalks until they are golden brown. Add the sugar, both vinegars and the beer. Simmer until slightly reduced, about 10 minutes.

3) Add the fish stock and veal stock, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Reduce to the consistency of a light syrup by simmering gently for 30 minutes.

4) Heat the oven to 350F. Heat a non-stick skillet and cook the fish, skin side down, over high heat for 4 minutes. Finish in the pre-heated oven, this should take no more than 1-2 minutes.

5) To finish the sauce,strain it into a clean pan, reheat and whisk in the remaining butter and nutmeg to taste. Serve the fish surrounded by sauce, with fresh pasta and spinach, or other vegetables. (I have kept it simple with potatoes roasted with rosemary and lemon zest).




  1. leigh · September 21, 2008

    nice. I eat a lot of fish and sometimes find it hard to match beer – so many types, so many fishes! but I understand this one working, and it’ll be one i’ll try.

  2. Trevor · October 3, 2008

    Interesting post. I also have a similar brew that’s been conditioning for 4 months or so. It’s based on Jamil’s red ale and sour brown ale recipes, so it should be very similar to yours. I used the white-labs sour blend rather than the Roseleare, which I found near impossible to get hold of. We’ll have to compare the end results: I also live in Scotland (Edinburgh).

  3. Geoff · October 7, 2008

    Indeed, Trevor, that would be great. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out – i’ve got a terrible feeling i’ve made 5 gallons of balsamic vinegar. I don’t want to taste it at this early stage.

    I got the Roeselare blend through Hop & Grape, who ordered it in via Clive @ Brupaks. They’re happy to order in exotic yeasts if you give them notice. The WL version should do the same job, though – i’m planning on using their blend for an upcoming lambic.

    Do you brew any other sour ales?

  4. Trevor · October 9, 2008

    I’ve been thinking the same thing about the brewing becomeing vinegar or lactic acid. Added to that the oak chips have the potential to destroy the beer. Who knows?

    I’ve tried various lambic-insipired brews in the past – using the dregs of Cantillon, Liefman’s or Orval. Usually when I’ve got a few litres left over from another brew (after my carboy is full), I’ll just chuck it in a 1 gallon flask with whatever’s to hand. I’ve currently got an English brown ale that’s getting sour but also developed an odd smokey flavour. I’m not sure I like it, and I’m waiting to see what it does! Maybe this is what happens when dark roasted malts (this had a fair bit of chocolate malt) meet lambic bugs.

    I’ve also used an active sour-dough bread culture in a wheat beer, which turned out very fruity and lightly tart after 2 or 3 months (nicer than a Hefewiezen). I haven’t tried it again, but plan to some time soon.

    I’m currently brewing 20L of an all Brett C beer, based on the Mad Fermentationist’s Mo’ Betta Bretta clone (which I haven’t tasted). It’s still bubbling away happily.

    Thanks for the info on your yeast sources. I remember asking Patsy about it and she told me Brupaks didn’t know anything about the Roeselare blend… But I didn’t know it was a VSS strain.

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