Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, CO) is no stranger to sour beers. Growing up in Belgium, beer was a staple at meal time, and he had his first taste of Rodenbach at age thirteen while a member of the local scouts chapter. Relates Bouckaert in a recent interview, “We were from that area, and it’s a very accessible beer. It’s kind of sour and sweet, so for kids, it’s actually a very good beer.” Bouckaert eventually went on to work for Rodenbach in the 1980s before making the move state-side to New Belgium in the mid-1990s. By 1999, he had New Belgium’s foeder cellar up and running (now some sixty-four barrels strong), and had produced what was, at the time, quite a remarkable beer for a North American palate as-yet unaccustomed to sour beers: La Folie. A sour brown ale, La Folie is blended from different batches that spend between one and three years in French oak barrels.
Back in Belgium, the Verhaeghe family of Vichte has been brewing since the 1500s, originally in a farmhouse brewery, and in their present site since 1880. Casks from that time are, reportedly, still in use to mature the sweet-and-sour style of the West Flanders region. At 6.2% ABV, Duchesse de Bourgogne is the strongest beer in the lineup, and straddles the Oud Bruin/Flanders Red Ale style. Though the vinous Flanders Red Ale style is sometimes referred to as the “Burgundy of Belgium,” the reference to Burgundy in this case has nothing to do with wine. Rather, the name of the beer recalls the brief reign of Duchess Mary of Burgundy, only daughter of Charles the Bold. (Modern-day Flanders was, in the late1400s, part of the Duchy of Burgundy.)
Now for the beers, both of which are nearly identical in appearance (clear ruby-brown with mahogany hues), the only difference being the longevity and colour of the head – fleeting in the case of La Folie, and a shade of brown darker. If the initial aromas of La Folie are redolent of tart cherry with a hint of hay, wood, and green apple, the Duchesse is more wine-like and caramel-malt accented, reminiscent at times of an aged balsamic vinegar. Both present a degree of “funk”: La Folie’s is grassy, and Duchesse exhibits the slightest trace of “barnyard” Brett. La Folie is the more food-friendly of the two, while Duchesse – also fine with food, but more robust and sweeter than La Folie – lends itself to after-dinner sipping. Both increase in complexity if allowed to open up. (Start around 50F and go from there.)
La Folie is also the more sour of the two. The secondary aromatics of nuts, sherry, caramel, and dark bread are countered by a mouth-puckering bright lemon-lime acidity on the palate. Dry and playfully light-bodied, the sourness takes on a green apple-like quality before giving way to a long cherry finish. At 7%, the ABV of the 2013 edition is a notch higher than in other vintages.
With time in the glass, the Duchesse develops slightly more complexity than La Folie. Brown sugar sweetness tinged with maple syrup combine with subtle vanilla oak notes, and all of these meld harmoniously with the fruity acetic character of the aromas. Rich and creamy, the wood aging brings together a mellow yet pronounced sweet-and-sour ensemble evocative, by turns, of blueberry, chocolate, and plum not unlike a full-bodied red wine.
Both of these beers are superb sours. Pick La Folie if you want something that pairs with a wider variety of foods (its tang would make a nice match with goat cheese). Overall, though, I give Duchesse de Bourgogne the slightest edge.
Related Tempest Articles:
Michael Jackson, Great Beer Guide (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000).
Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
New Belgium Brewing (Tour: October 2013).
Mary, Duchess of Burgundy: Wikipedia
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