One of the most frustrating aspects of writing about beer is the limitations of beer vocabulary. Terms like “hoppy” and “malty” and “smooth” are imprecise, but sometimes they feel like the least technical way to convey what I’m attempting to describe. But one beer term frustrates me more than others, the linguistic version of an itchy tag on the back of a shirt. That word is “sour.”
“Sour beer” has become a catch-all term for beers that contain noticeable levels of acidity, usually derived from fermentation by bacteria in addition to yeast. Sour beers could refer to Berliner weisses, fruited kettle sour beers, Flanders reds, lambics, American wild ales, and plenty more styles. I’m not scolding people who use this term; I know I certainly have. It’s an off-hand way to describe a wide swath of beers, and it can be useful as shorthand. But drinking a beer like Rodenbach Classic—now available in cans in the U.S. for the first time—reminds me just how frustratingly limiting the term “sour beer” can be.
Rodenbach is a renowned Belgian brewery that’s been making beer since 1821. While it makes even more premium offerings like Grand Cru and Alexander, its Classic is still a very refined beer that uses traditional Belgian brewing and blending methods, mixing a proportion of freshly brewed beer with beer that’s been aging in large oak vats called foeders. (It’s pronounced “FOO-durhs.”) Even though the brewery’s own marketing materials and the can itself pushes the “sour beer” aspect of Classic, I find that reducing this beer to just another sour beer does it a disservice.
Truthfully, the beer isn’t even sour. It’s tart, and not mouth-puckeringly so. That tartness—derived from a mixed fermentation by yeast and bacteria—is clean and somewhat fruity, like a very mild apple cider vinegar. It’s cushioned well by this beer’s elegant malt base and its time in the oak vats, producing a fruity, lightly sweet, softly tart beer . The aroma is redolent of green strawberry, fresh-split wood, pear skin, and sourdough bread—almost producing a white wine-like nose.
The flavor is refreshing and lightly acidic but tempered by complex malts that contribute flavors of graham cracker and light caramel. Those form the base for dark fruit notes of cherry, dried cranberry, and plum, creating a beer that’s sweet, lightly acidic, effervescent, and layered. This beer would be great with a nutty cheese like Gouda that could draw out some of its deeper toffee tones. With its combination of graham cracker and fruit, it could also be dessert all on its own.
Calling Classic a sour beer and putting it in cans might make it more accessible to people who might have been intimidated by its very traditional-looking bottle—and that’s great. But let’s be careful not to oversimplify such a nuanced, special beer.
Rodenbach Classic is imported to the U.S. year-round and should be available in all 50 states, either in brick-and-mortar stores or through e-commerce sites.
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