Added: Thursday, December 1st 2011
Liefmans, the iconic Belgian brewer of "Oud Bruin" or Old Brown beer, has been saved from closure. The company based in Oudenaarde was declared bankrupt in December but has been rescued by the Moortgat brewery, which produces the world-famous strong golden ale Duvel. The takeover will allow production to continue of Oud Bruin, the stronger version known as Goudenband, and Kriek and Frambozen cherry and raspberry flavoured beers.
The old brown beers of East Flanders are a powerful link to the long-matured brown ales that were the dominant feature of brewing before the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that ushered in pale ales and later golden lagers. The region of East Flanders also has another claim to fame: it is home to one of the great beer-based culinary dishes, carbonade flamande, the classic beer stew, in which the meat is tenderised with Old Brown beer.
The fact that Old Brown beers are also known as "provision beers" stresses the point that their roots lie in pre-industrial societies where agricultural workers needed hearty food and drink to sustain them in their labours.
Oudenaarde is the historic capital of East Flanders, on the River Scheldt that flows to Ghent and Antwerp. The town has striking Gothic architecture and was once the capital of the whole of ancient Flanders. Liefmans brewery has some history, too. It opened in 1679, which places it at the dawn of modern brewing and predates the early porter brewers of England. While the current vessels at Liefman's do not date from the 17th century, the practice of long maturation and multi-strain yeast cultures are a powerful reminder of ancient brewing methods that impart a characteristic bitter-sweet flavour with a hint of sourness.
In the 1990s Liefmans became part of the Riva group, best known for its spiced wheat beer Dentergems. Liefman's beers were mashed and boiled at Dentergems and then trunked back to Oudenaarde, where the beers were fermented, matured and bottled with live yeast for secondary fermentation. More recently, all production was moved to Dentergems. It's not yet clear whether Moortgat will resume production at Oudenaarde or move it to its own plant.
Whatever the future, it's to be hoped that the Liefman's beers to do not lose their characteristic flavours. For Oud Bruin, Pilsner malts are blended with darker Munich and Vienna grains and a touch of roast barley. Whitbread Goldings Variety is the main bittering hop, blended with German and Czech varieties: they contribute 20 units of bitterness. The house yeast strain came originally from the Rodenbach brewery, famous for its sour red beer: it's the yeast that gives the lactic edge to Liefman's beers.
After primary fermentation, Oud Bruin (5%) is matured for four months, an astonishing period for an ale. The beer that emerges from this long process has a rich aroma of dark fruits, roasted grain, a hint of chocolate, and a peppery hop note. Sweetness is evident in the mouth but is balanced by the sour, lactic note and the hop bitterness. The lingering finish is bittersweet, with rich, dark malts, spicy hops and the persistent hint of sourness. Goudenband (6%) - the name means gold label - is the result of blending Oud Bruin with a stronger beer that has matured for between six and eight months. Both beers are centrifuged to remove the yeast and are then re-seeded with a dosage of fresh yeast and priming sugar to encourage fermentation in bottle.
The bottles are matured for a further three months in the cellar before being released. Goudenband has the characteristic Liefman's sourness but is balanced by an even greater fruitiness and spicy hop than Oud Bruin. It has 20 units of bitterness. If bottles are laid down for several years, the beer will take on a pronounced "sour wine" note that some drinkers compare to dry Spanish sherry.
Once a year, Liefman's adds cherries or raspberries to Goudenband, which is then fermented for a further two months, creating beers with strengths of 7.1% for the cherry (Kriek) beer and 5.1% for the raspberry (Frambozen) version. When young, these beers are fruity, even cloying, but a year or more in the cellar will reduce the sweetness, allowing the characteristic sourness to develop. They are wonderfully refreshing beers.
All the Liefman's beers, presented in attractive stoppered bottles and wrapped in coloured tissue paper, are remarkable examples of the rich tapestry of beer and brewing history. It's splendid news that Moortgat has rescued the company and will allow beer connoisseurs to continue to treasure them.