Duchesse De Bourgogne: The Flemish red ale savior
Now I can see what the fuss is about. After many years of sampling, and largely dismissing, Flemish sour beers, I’ve finally found the one that all the others aspire to be. Until now, I saw almost no point in the style at all. They were barely beer, in my book; often tasting more like wine that’s gone bad than a proper beer. I avoided them for the most part, and could never recall a time when I actually thirsted for one. Why bother? If you don’t want a beer, have something else, not something that calls itself a beer but falls over backwards trying not to taste like one, and ends up being a confused mess. Well, if not wrong, I’ve at least been enlightened. The magicians at Verhaeghe brewery make a Flanders red ale that is beyond compare.
Looking at it, Duchesse De Bourgogne seems like most any other of the style, with only hints of the greatness hidden within. The color is the typical dark brownish red, but the head is nice — a tan, billowing mass that holds up well. Unlike some imitators, the aroma is understated, and only vaguely hints at the extreme complexity of this fine ale. The sourness comes out, as you’d expect, but doesn’t come screaming and yelling. It’s subtle and quiet with a touch of fruity sweetness and, way back, some barely detectable oak from the barrels it was aged in.
I was sold on this beer from the first, delectable sip. I didn’t need another to make sure I was getting the full effect, or to let it grow on me. It was immediately apparent that this was a very special beer. Smooth yet crisp, with just enough carbonation to give off a slight tingle. The flavor is welcoming rather than that jolting smack most beers of this style lay on you. A faint, cherry tartness comes on first, and momentarily brings on a cringing trepidation in me, but instead of exploding, the sweet malt winds through and carries it off on a breeze of caramel and chocolate. The flavors are braided together masterfully, and fade in and out, tart and sweet; one never overpowering the other; neither ever lingering too long. Then, a dry snap at the very end almost completely cleanses the palate, and readies you for the next sip. The balancing act in this beer is ludicrously good and, obviously, next to impossible to achieve, since so many others fall well short. The beer gets even more complex as it warms and opens. Sweet? Yes. Tart? Yes. But, this Flanders red ale manages to still taste like beer while giving a completely different and enjoyable beer-drinking experience.
I would let a Duchesse serve as an alternative to a dessert course rather than trying to pair it with the meal. But, it might work well with a nice steak or a hunk of flavorful cheese. The alcohol level is a rather timid 6%, but it’s still not a style you’ll want to knock back all night. It’s a pricey option as far as beer is concerned but, as it can essentially fill the same spot that a very expensive single malt often fills, it could be considered a great bargain.
Duchesse De Bourgogne has forever changed my opinion of Flemish red ales, but my criticism of the inferior ones will only deepen. They still aren’t my favorite style of beer, and they’ll remain a niche beer for me. Something I have to be in a particular mood for to even consider. But, that mood will come along voluntarily now, instead of just in times of mad adventurism. Even if you hate the style, give this one a try. The masterful beer-making talent involved in this ale is readily apparent and astounding. If you’ve never tried a Flemish red, please let this be your introduction. I only wish it had been mine.