The Beginning – To be the oldest brewery in the country is a claim made by many: but the truth is that just such a brewery is to be found in Flanders' Oudenaarde. The Roman family has been brewing here ever since 1545, in the same location and within the same lineage.
That's fourteen generations of brewer, from father to son. The brewery today is led jointly by the latest generation of Roman brothers, Carlo and Lode.
It all started with a coaching inn named “De Clocke”, found on the main road threading across Belgium between Germany and France.
A certain Joos Roman was then in charge of the business, which happened to include some on-premise brewing. Until 1604 he was also a bailiff for the area around the village of Schorisse.
In fact he was a contemporary of Adriaen Brouwer, an artist from Oudenaarde, whose name (meaning ‘brewer’) was to be immortalised on the label of several Roman beers. Now's it's time for a massive leap forwards across the centuries, to the the tail-end of the 19th. The one-time coaching inn of “Afspanning De Clocke” has been re-named to Brasserie Alouis Roman in 1892. The 'Romans' had finally arrived (as fully-fledged brewers, that is).
A even grander, brand new brewery arose in 1930, adjacent to the existing buildings, and built around the huge interior courtyard.
Thanks to the three Roman brothers of the 12th generation, Louis, Charles and Joseph, the brewery survived both world wars. Its beers were also making a good name for themselves.
Even before WWII, the brewery’s ‘brown’ – Roman Oudenaards – had become popular and well-known throughout Eastern Flanders. A brewing book, issued just after the Second World War, reads: ‘Bruin, dobbel bruin, tafelbier en export’, or brown, double brown, table beer and export. The export beer mentioned was actually the predecessor of the Romy pils, another Roman beer that was to achieve popularity locally.
For the brewery, long known for its top-fermented beers, the Romy was something of an initiation into the arts of bottom fermentation.
Speciality beers had become very much the fashion by the 1980s, when Roman introduced the strong blonde Sloeber beer(which re-ferments in the bottle).
1989 saw the introduction of the Ename abbey beers, name-checking the nearby historic Ename Abbey. Then, in 2003, the traditional Roman Oudenaards brew was successfully re-launched, under the ‘Adriaen Brouwer’ name.
It was to be followed by Adriaen Gold, a fine degustation beer. On the other side of the coin, the Gentse Strop, a Belgian strong pale ale, was launched in 2011, aiming for a different audience. Its name is a reminder of the historic ties between Oudenaarde and Ghent (or Gent in Dutch). And the Holy Roman Emperor Charles, born in Ghent in 1500, plays the starring role in this story.
His daughter, Margaret of Parma, was born outside of wedlock in the town of Oudenaarde. But what's all this about a ‘strop' (or rope)?
Well, this was actually meant as a punishment for those citizens of Ghent who opposed the rule of the Emperor Charles.
Subsequent to their rebellion, he forced the city's burghers to wear a rope around their necks. Their nickname has been ‘stroppendragers’, or rope wearers, ever since. The Gentse Strop may only be a recent addition to the Roman range, but it's a sobering thought that the Roman's first started their brewing adventures all those centuries ago, when this famous incident was still fresh in the minds of the locals.
Let's start with the Adriaen Brouwer Dark Gold. It has has won several awards at international beer tasting competitions. In Flemish it's called a ‘dobbele bruine’, or ‘double brown’ – a beer which is very typical for the Oudenaarde area. You could definitely call this a degustation beer.
It strikes a beautiful balance between caramel, roast malt and dried fruits, with a finish that is only slightly bitter-sweet.
As you might expect, it's both top-fermented, and then re-ferments in the bottle. Interestingly, the brewer found his inspiration for the Ename abbey beers at an open air musical performance, held in the ruins of the nearby abbey. It had sadly been destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-1794).
It was as early as 1064 that the Benedictines had established an Abbey here, in a former fortified castle (built in 973).
Ename still counts as a ‘recognised’ abbey beer, however, because it can be historically documented that brewing took place at the abbey over centuries past. In fact, for this particular location, brewing activity can be tracked all the way back to the 11th-century – quite an achievement. The impressive range of Roman abbey beers includes the Ename Blond, Dubbel and Tripel. The ‘roodbruin’, or red-brown, of the Ename Cuvée Rouge completes the list. This youngest addition to the family has a distinctly different aroma.
That's because its brewing process includes a little roasted wheat grain, as well as the more usual barley malts.
As a result, its body is quite different to that of the other Ename beers.
The Ename Cuvée Rouge has a subtly sweet taste, with just a touch of herbs. Its fruity character comes into its own, livening up the finish. This is definitely one to be enjoyed in front of an open fire. As a contrast, the Gentse Strop is a surprisingly hoppy brew.
This contemporary beer, served in a very stylish chalice, is part of Roman’s strategy to conquer the Ghent beer market, while reaching out to the more gastronomic of beer lovers.
How can we agree on a signature for the rather diverse range of Roman brews? What is their common denominator, and how would we say that they stand out? Talking to the current owners, Carlo and Lode Roman, we'd have to agree that the answer doesn't lie in the malts, or hops – they're the same as those used by pretty much every brewer.
However, their use of Belgian hops, wherever it's possible, is certainly a point to remark upon. Also, Roman makes sure that it uses only water drawn from its own well, respecting the environment by making sure that all its waters are recycled.
Environmental concern also translates into a strong message on sustainability. Renewable energy, heat recuperation, limited use of water and energy, and waste recycling – all are more than mere buzzwords here.
As with most Belgian breweries, it can also be said that yeast plays a crucial role in Roman's brewing process. In fact, the Roman brewery uses no fewer than four house yeasts. Another characteristic is the ‘Oudenaards bruin bier’ type, such as the Adriaen Brouwer. Its malt is dried, or oasted, for a somewhat longer period and at slightly higher temperatures. The result is a malt with a darker colour.
Roman’s bruin bier (brown beer) which, by the way, is brewed in nearby Mater, is also distinct from other bruin biers produced in the Oudenaarde region.
That's partly because of Roman's use of spring water, but also thanks to its own particular strain of pure yeast.
That does mean, of course, that there's no spontaneous fermentation (using wild yeasts) with the Roman beers. That's a process commonly followed by other brewers in the area, but not here. Another difference is that at Roman’s, there is no cutting (or blending) of young beer with soured older beer.
Last, but not least, Roman will never look towards the extreme in their beers. This is an old-school brewery that strives to produce beautiful beers, ones which taste full in the mouth, while going down easily.
The Roman brewery is a rather splendid and historic site. It dates from the 1930s, and has one of the most beautiful brewing halls (est. 1935) in Belgium. A visit here will give a real insight in the evolution of the Roman brewery, down the years. For example, in 1960, its traditional open fermentation basins were replaced with cylindrical tanks, a real innovation in its day.
An interesting bit of trivia is that agricultural activity carried on at this site right until 1965. In fact, Roman was, for many years, quite self-sufficient in most of the activities it undertook.
The last horses didn't leave the brewery until 1974. And the brewery long had its own joinery, to build and assemble the crates, tables, chairs and bars for the cafés that it owned. There was also a smithy, a painting and decorating workshop, and even a garage – all part and parcel of the Roman enterprise.
The museum displays an impressive array of its vintage steam machines. But these days, it is office buildings that stand on the site of the former maltings. However the brewery site has become a wonderfully integrated establishment, managing to incorporate both past and future. Visits here are by prior arrangement, and are generally only offered to groups with a minimum of 15 participants.
During the month of July, though, brewery concerts are staged every Wednesday night in the spacious interior courtyard. Take a seat, and you'll hear the echoes of the 16th-century farmstead that occupied this site so many years ago.
Oudenaarde has a surprisingly impressive set of attractions to its name – in fact an array of over one hundred listed monuments have been counted. A real eye-catcher is the town hall, built in 1526 in the late Gothic style. It is one of the best known secular Gothic buildings in Belgium, thanks to its elegant gallery, balcony, Belfort tower and Gothic interiors.
Inside, you can admire the painting of “The Five Senses”, attributed to Adriaen Brouwer (1606-1638) who famously once lived in this town.
The town hall, and the adjacent Lakenhalle (linen hall), togther house the “Museum Oudenaarde en Vlaamse Ardennen" (MOU), which tells the whole story of Oudenaarde.
You will find various paintings by Adriaen Brouwer, some of the fine tapestries made in this town, as well as an impressive collection of silver.
You can even find out how the town's renowned tapestries were made. The imposing, Gothic Church of Sint-Walburga remains unfinished, even to this day, but it's still worth a visit for its display of historic Oudenaarde tapestries, paintings and statues. For over four centuries, tapestries constituted Oudenaarde’s main luxury export. They were even in demand in the furthest reaches of the globe.
Art lovers should also make a detour to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwehospitaal, to be found behind the Church of Sint-Walburga. The main building was completed in 1722, and is in the style of Louis XVI.
Its chapel, built of Doornik stone, is early Gothic, while the Bishop’s Quarters is a prime example of Renaissance architecture.
Hidden behind a wall in the Burgstraat is an enclosed Beguinage. It has thirty small cottages, dating from the 17th- and 18th-centuries. Another historical gem is the 18th-century House de Lalaing, which has a splendid interior court, nicely presented for visitors. This museum’s collection of Oudenaarde tapestries is being restored, however, and so is not currently on show.
Getting There & Around
Oudenaarde is only 75 km from Brussels, and just 30km south of the city of Ghent. By car, it's best to use the E17 (or the E19 from Antwerp) towards Ghent and then follow the signs for Kortrijk (Courtrai). Turn off at exit 8 (De Pinte) and travel along Nieuwe Steenweg until you reach the Oudenaarde ring road.
By train from Brussels, you will reach Oudenaarde in about an hour. From Ghent the train journey will only take half an hour, while from Antwerp, changing trains in Ghent, the trip will take one hour and three quarters.
Taking the bus from the station, the brewery is some five km away, but you can simply alight at the Mater ‘Brewery Roman’ bus stop. Bus lines 16, 17 or 42 will all take you there, but be aware that none of these operate during the weekend. Belbus 445 is another alternative, bookable on request.
Oudenaarde lies at the heart of the Flemish Ardennes, a veritable paradise for walkers and cyclists. Cycling fans will almost certainly be familiar with the town thanks to the legendary Tour of Flanders, which passes through the town. In fact there is a race 'experience centre' on the ground floor of the “Centrum van de Ronde van Vlaanderen” which displays memorabilia from this ‘koers’ (cycling race).
You can even have your picture taken on the winners’ podium, right next to previous Tour winners, such as local favourites Tom Boonen and Peter Van Petegem.
Choose to ride the Adriaen Brouwer bicycle trail (35km), and you will experience some of the best that the Flemish Ardennes have to offer.
You'll begin in Oudenaarde, and get to admire many splendid landscapes along the way, such as the Bos ’t Ename forest. You will also have to get the better of several nasty climbs. Take a breather in one of many wonderfully typical Flemish cafés on route, where you can enjoy the refreshment of a genuine ‘Oudenaards bruin’.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
Pig-rearing is a traditional occupation in this rural area of Eastern Flanders. So you will come across a pretty diverse range of meat products, including salted and marinated ham, and plenty of bacon. Vitamin-rich watercress also flourishes in this region, thanks to its pure spring waters (which is also used in the brewing of Roman beers).
If you want to add some zest to your food, reach for some wholegrain mustard a speciality of the Flemish Ardennes, packed with extra brown mustard seeds. When in Ghent, seek out the legendary 'Extra en Stropkes', a keen mustard made by Tierenteyn. No 'Gentse kop is complete without it.
Gentse kop? That's a very Flemish concoction, made with pig’s head (including the tongue) which is boiled, mixed with stock and fine herbs and then covered in a layer of aspic.
Away from the pleasures of the flesh, the Adriaen Brouwer cheese is a well-loved beer-linked cheese. Amber in colour, it is matured for around ten days in the famous brown beer from Oudenaarde – a process that gives it a subtle sweet-and-sour taste. Those are of the sweet disposition may prefer to try the dry Adriaen Brouwer pie. Covered in a layer of pineapple jam and confectioner’s cream, and finished with almonds and a dusting of fine sugar, it's a delightful treat.
And if you're Ghent-based, then you can can look forward to 'Gentse kletskoppen': very thin, almost transparent biscuits baked using a mixture of sugar and ground roast almonds.
Finally, another Ghent speciality are its ‘mastellen’: soft round bread rolls containing flour, milk and cinnamon with a hole in the middle.
These regional products, along with many others, are ready to be discovered in the “Promotiecentrum voor Oost-Vlaamse streekproducten”, a centre promoting the produce of Eastern Flanders.
However, you don’t necessarily have to stray too far from the Roman brewery. You could just as easily keep it local. There's plenty in and around Oudenaarde to satisfy even the most demanding of palates.
Tourism Information for Oudenaarde:
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