Beer - The Unique Oud Bruin - Part 1
Oud Bruin: it's an exotic sounding name for a beer. Yet in the Flemish language, it means simply, "old brown." A simple name is somewhat fitting, since this beer style was probably rather ordinary at one time. In fact, much of the beer brewed a few hundred years ago likely had many of the same characteristics. However, today, even when considering the wide range of micro brewed styles, this beer is far from ordinary. Oud Bruin survives in the east Flanders region of northwest Belgium, especially near the town of Oudenaarde, thanks to a handful of traditionalists. This sour and sweet brown ale certainly stands apart, even in a country with a reputation for brewing strange, off the wall beers.
The defining characteristics of Oud Bruin are its mild to moderate acidity or sourness, and its brown color. However, much variation exists for these characteristics among commercial examples. The color can range from reddish brown to very dark brown. Acidity is typically balanced by a malty sweetness and fruitiness from esters. Hop bitterness is generally low and is overshadowed by the acidic character. Hop aroma and flavor are not usually detectable.
Unlike some beer styles, for example India Pale Ale, Oud Bruin was not developed specifically to meet a certain need. The original brewers of Oud Bruin did not set out to brew a beer with these characteristics. Their objective was to brew beer. Oud Bruin's characteristics resulted simply from the use of traditional brewing practices and equipment and the ingredients available at the time. The brewers in East Flanders probably had little choice as to the style of beer they would produce. The beer was the way it was, simply because it couldn't be done any differently at that time and place.
The acidic or sour character was likely the result of a combination of factors. First of all, they didn't know anything about yeast or bacteria. Pure yeast cultures were hundreds of years away. Thus, fermentation was likely the result of a mixture of microorganisms. Second, sanitation was not what it is today. So, all kinds of other organisms would have had ample opportunity to gain access to the wort. In addition, beer was stored and aged in wooden casks, which certainly would have carried their own resident micro flora. Thus, wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria were likely present along with brewing yeast, and this resulted in beer with a sour, acidic character.
Prior to the advent of lightly kilned malts, most beer was more or less brown. Because the malting process was less sophisticated, pale malts were unheard of. Kilning temperatures were difficult to control and higher temperatures led to the formation of color producing compounds called melanoidins. Thus, Oud Bruin, like most beers of the time, was not straw colored or amber, it was brown. That said, dark roasted or highly kilned malts were not traditionally used for this style. Although some color likely resulted from the darker malts in use at the time, much of it is attributed to caramelization of sugars during the long boil times traditionally employed.