Homebrew Recipe: Provisional Sour Belgian Brown

Map of Flanders, Belgium, 1609 ce

This recipe appears in Michael Dawson’s book, “Mashmaker: A Citizen-Brewer’s Guide to Making Great Beer at Home.” Learn more at mashmakerbook.com.

Plan ahead, that’s the ticket! It is entirely the wrong weather to drink something strong, dark, and malty—but experience tells us that six months from now, we might want a beer exactly like that. And unless you have refrigeration, it’s too hot to ferment a nice pale lager—but it’s damn near perfect for fermenting a sour Belgian ale.

This month’s project is a provision-strength Flanders brown, aka Oud Bruin. This sour brown ale is native to the eastern portion of Flanders in Belgium. Like many of that country’s regional specialty beers, it’s a bit of a relic and a living window into brewing history: dark brown in color (as all beers were, just a couple centuries ago); brewed on the strong side, for laying down as a provision in the cellar; and fermented with a mixed culture of ale yeast and bacteria that created increasing sourness as the beer aged.

Today, these beers are less well-known in the US than their cousins the sour red ales of West Flanders (think Rodenbach, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Cuvee des Jacobins). Oud Bruin is maltier, softer, unoaked, and less tart than those ales—a little more substantial, a bit less quenching and zippy. The archetype of the East Flanders style is Liefman’s, who creates sour brown ales in a range of strengths from a 4% table beer to an 8% sipper; straight up or blended with a younger beer, or even with a secondary fermentation on fruit for a kriek (cherries) or frambozen (raspberries) version.

What makes it tick

Like many other Belgian styles, Flanders brown ale is built on a base of continental malts—mainly Pils malt—often augmented with a little unmalted flaked maize as an adjunct, and they use a combination of low-alpha continental hops. Caramel and roasted malts (and the color and flavor they contribute) are crucial in differentiating Oud Bruin from other members of the sour ale family, creating a deep red-brown color and rich, complex malt character.

But the engine that hauls this flavor train into Mouth Station are the microbes that turn it from wort to beer. A Saccharomyces ale strain plus lactic acid bacteria (usually Lactobacillus) are mandatory; Brettanomyces isn’t, which is another differentiator of Oud Bruin, and a reason the overall profile of a Flanders brown is “softer” than that of other Belgian sour ales, like Flanders red or lambic.

U_GLASSWARE_LIEFMANS_StemmedGlassThe final effect is a chalice or goblet (this ain’t a shaker pint beer, citizens) capped with tan lace holding down aromatic overtones of caramel, dark fruit, chocolate, and brown sugar. While young, the fermentation character will be vaguely funky and perhaps phenolic, but with time it segues into beautifully tart and slightly tangy, with a well-attenuated finish—an effect that becomes more and more pronounced as the beer ages in your cellar. Whether you’re a fan of Trappist dubbels or the more well-known sour ales of Belgium, you’ll find something to like here.

Flanders brown takes fruit very well—tart cherries or raspberries are traditional, and meld wonderfully with the lactic acid component of the fermentation. Because of the deep malt notes, however, the fruit remains a supporting player, never becoming overpowering or one-note. With lots of local fruit in season, this batch will make a great excuse to troll your local farmer’s market or u-pick farm.

A Recipe to Try

Provisional Sour Brown Ale

5 gallons, all grain
Target OG: 1.068
Target IBU: 13–15

Shopping list:

  • Grain

    • 6.75 lbs Belgian Pils malt

    • 4 lbs Vienna malt

    • 8 oz Belgian CaraRuby (or equivalent 20°L caramel malt)

    • 8 oz 80°L crystal malt

    • 8 oz flaked maize

    • 4 oz Belgian Special B

    • 3 oz Chocolate malt

  • Hops

    • 1.25 oz Hallertau @ 30 minutes

  • Yeast

    • A blended liquid yeast culture for Flemish-style sour ales—I’m using Wyeast 3209 Oud Bruin Blend

  • Optional

    • 5–10 lbs of tart cherries or raspberries (see Key Points on the next page)

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