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Classic Beer of the Month June 2012: Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne

Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne, 6.2%

Flemish sour red ales. It seems you either love them or hate them.

Duchesse de BourgogneActually, I think that’s just an initial impression. The more people understand about this peculiar style of beer, the more they begin to appreciate it. For some, I concede, it’ll always be a step too far, but for many that first sip is the start of an exciting new adventure.

The best-known exponent of this ancient beer style is Rodenbach, although perhaps the beer that is doing most to popularise Flemish sour reds at the moment is Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne.

The Verhaeghe brewery is based in the town of Vichte, near Kortrijk. It opened in 1880 and is now in its fourth generation of family ownership. Ageing beer in oak has become its speciality and, with Duchesse de Bourgogne, it’s really earned itself a place on the world stage.

Like other Flemish reds, the beer is made from a mix of malted barley and wheat. A little roasted malt is thrown into the grist to darken the colour and provide a bit of substance for the all-important ageing process that is to follow.

Hops are negligible in this beer; in fact, they use hops more than a year old that, while keeping their preservative qualities and adding a little balancing bitterness to the brew, have lost most of their pungent flavours and aromas.

After primary fermentation and a period of conditioning, the beer is transferred to well-used oak tuns where it is stored at ambient temperature for 18 months.

With helpful bacteria and other microflora residing in the wood, the beer turns sharp and acidic during its long residence in oak. By the time it emerges, the drink tastes acetic and fruity.

Blended for Sale

To taste this neat would test the most die-hard fan of the sour red style, which is why the liquid is blended for sale.

To create Duchesse de Bourgogne, the beer is mixed with a brew that has been aged for only eight months. It also appears to be sweetened, hence the somewhat sugary nature of the taste until the brisk, challenging, almost balsamic character emerges, causing unsuspecting drinkers to gasp as the vinegar-like burn sets in at the back of the throat.

It may not sound appealing but, quite simply, it’s one of the most refreshing beer experiences you’ll ever try, especially as the ageing process also adds juicy notes of raspberry and cherry. If your palate ever starts to jade in the middle of an evening in a Belgian bar, a glass of Duchesse will perk it up no end.

As for the obscure name of the beer, it commemorates Mary of Burgundy (daughter of Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy), who threw Europe into a state of disarray in the 15th century by refusing to marry the Dauphin (the heir to the French throne).

Instead, she married Archduke Maximilian of Austria, a move that drove a wedge between Austria and France that was to dominate European affairs for decades after.

Note the falcon she’s holding on the label. It was while pursuing her hobby of falconry that she was killed, falling from a horse.

Mary is buried in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges but, thanks in no small part to Verhaeghe’s remarkable beer, it looks as if her name will intrigue people for many years to come.

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