Devil in the Details: Ommegang’s New World Take on a Belgian Beer Classic

by Nicholas Rummell
Katherine Sacks
November 2012

What:
Ommegang Rustica, based on the original Duvel Golden Ale recipe. 8.5 percent ABV, and sold in both 1/6 barrel kegs and 750ml bottles. 

When:
Limited edition, October 2012 through December 2012

Where:
It is theoretically available in 43 states. Here’s a helpful link to find it.

Belgian colonists have never gotten as much attention as their Anglo and Dutch brethren. There was the Congo adventure. A few outposts in the South. And instead of founding Manhattan, they helped populate Staten Island. But in the world of beer, the Flemish are among the most important pilgrims in the U.S. beer scene.

Last month, after years of wrangling and pleading, Belgian Duvel finally decided to unveil its long-secret recipe for the brewery’s premier golden ale. Duvel shipped the recipe to Ommegang, and the upstate New York brewer (now owned by Duvel) recast the golden ale recipe, which, despite its famous secrecy, is a pretty simple concoction.

“We went through several iterations. Originally, we thought about doing a black Duvel,” says Ommegang Brewmaster Phil Leinhart. While the “black devil” concept piqued some interest among the U.S. brewers, in the end Ommegang settled for a riff on the classic golden ale. But don’t call it an exact replica. “We finally decided on not trying to copy the [Duvel golden ale], but taking their recipe, which is not complex … and applying their intensive mashing process to brew something more rustic.”

The resulting Rustica is almost completely faithful to the Duvel’s ingredient list—from the Styrian Golding hops, high dextrose levels, and Pilsner two-row malt. Ommegang replicated the brewing process faithfully, too. It used a hard mash on the malt, fermented the ale both in the tank and again in the bottle, and it boosted the dextrose to high levels.

Duvel
Duvel

Tasted side-by-side, though, the Duvel and Rustica are not so much identical twins as they are distinct cousins, with the American version taking on a more pronounced pastoral flavor. The variable in the genetic code? Yeast. As with all its beers, Ommegang used its own house yeast strain to create the Rustica. The Rustica is a darker golden than its progenitor, and cloudier, too, with notes of straw and spice, a more fruit-forward flavor, and a clumped lacing on the sides of the glass.

“Our house strain of yeast is the major point of departure” between the Duvel and Rustica, Leinhart says. “You can take the same wort from the same brewhouse, [and] with two different yeast strains get completely different beers.” Ommegang’s yeast strain—which was originally brought over from Belgium by Duvel Brewmaster Hedwig Neven—has been used since the 1990s to make Ommegang’s lineup.

It’s not just the yeast that makes the difference, though; it’s also the fermentation. “I don’t think ours is as clean or quick and fast as the original,” Leinhart admits. “But that’s probably more a function of [our brewery’s] rusticity. We’re not as highly automated as they are. To us the main thrust was to create highly fermentable strong golden ale, but using our yeast and working in our brewery.”

“They were doing a riff on a Duvel,” says Mike Reis, beer director at San Francisco’s The Abbot’s Cellar, where we had the beer. “It’s generally a more yeast-forward beer than the classic Duvel. We chose it for our fish because of the high carbonation, which helps cleanse the palate from the oiliness of the fish. It has a nice brightness.”

Although the original is hard to beat—it has a cleaner flavor, thicker lacing, and definitely more yeast—the Rustica is probably better suited for food pairings. It has a more subtle aroma and is less bready, and the fruit tones are a good match for certain dishes.

Ommegang is no stranger to joint beer ventures—it has already put out Zuur Sour Ale and Ommegang Rouge in collaboration with other Belgian breweries—and more may be on the way, Leinhart says. The Rustica itself is meant to be a one-off limited edition, but if it sells well, it could make a yearly (yeasty) appearance.