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Barrel Aged Project 2013, No. 3: Belgian Dark Ale in Sauternes Barrels

Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal
Tildonk
Belgium
http://www.hoftendormaal.com

Style: Belgian Strong Ale
ABV: 10.7%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)


Comments:
The second review on Nigel’s “International Beer Month Final Night Extravaganza” that I named just now is one that appears to be much rarer than anything I’ve touched on previously during International Month. And it all happened because it was easy to wrap.

That’s right- this selection had absolutely nothing to do with any buzz I had heard regarding the brewer (on the contrary, I’ve never heard of Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal), the style (I enjoy Belgian Dark Ales, but it’s not necessarily a go-to style) or the fact that it’s aged in wine barrels (Sauternes is a white wine native to the Bordeaux region of France). Rather, Nigel’s better half got him a bottle for Christmas this year because the 25.4-ounce corked bottle came in a box. And boxes are easy to wrap. I wish I had a better backstory to the selection, but there it is.

I would say I have no idea just how rare this selection is, but it’s conveniently printed on the bottle for me. Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal crafted 1932 bottles and 16 kegs of this beer. So yes … it is quite rare. And before I go any further, I will state the entire name of the beer for the one and only time: Hof Ten Dormaal Barrel-Aged Project 2013, No. 3, Original Belgian Dark Ale Aged in Sauternes Barrels. From here on out, this will be known as Project 3 … my reviews are long enough as it is without repeating that multiple times.

Whenever one stumbles upon the rare and unknown, there’s some excitement associated with it. While the obvious hope is that you’ve stumbled upon a hidden gem, there’s always the dreaded flip side, which is that there’s a reason that you’ve never heard of it: it’s not that good. Project 3 would seem to fall in Nigel’s wheelhouse for a few reasons. First of all, I enjoy Belgian ales and would consider the Belgian Dark Ale to be my favorite. Second- and I don’t mean to sound blasphemous here- I enjoy a fine glass of wine. Granted, I prefer craft beer over wine, but I enjoy the various styles and intricacies of good wine, as well as pairing them with the right food. Wine lovers and craft beer lovers have a lot in common, whether they care to acknowledge that or not. Finally, barrel-aged beers, regardless of the origin of the vessel, are among my favorites.

Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal is located in Tildonk, Belgium, just northeast of Brussels in the Dutch-speaking part of the country. Founded in 2009, it’s an authentic Belgian farmhouse brewery that in 2012 launched their “Barrel Aged Project” to create brews aged in different types of vessels. In 2012 and 2013 alone, the Barrel Aged Project produced over 20 beers and used vessels as rare as the Sauternes barrels in the current selection to ones as common as whiskey, brandy, and cognac barrels.

Project 3 comes in the aforementioned 25.4-ounce corked bottle. That cork proved to be quite the challenge; while I’ve had plenty of beers come in a similar bottle, none proved to be as difficult to open as this was. Once the rc helicopter cork let loose with a thunderous “pop,” a thick cloud of vapor emanated from the bottle. The aroma was wonderful, with sweet, smooth white wine and hints of chocolate present not only in the vapor but on the cork itself. Fruity notes of berry and the banana/clove/citrus zest aroma typical of Belgian ales was also present.

The pour is somewhat challenging as one would expect form a Belgian farmhouse ale. Bottle conditioned, the initial pour foamed up viciously, though in this case the enormous foamy head settled fairly quickly, leaving a nominal lacing throughout. I was able to fill my glass in a matter of a few minutes after a couple of pours, not bad in comparison to other bottle conditioned ales. The color is a deep, cloudy, dark brown, typical of a Belgian Dark Ale, with some sediment present at the bottom. Thus far, a very promising beer.

Unfortunately, the flavor doesn’t live up to the expectations laid forth in the fantastic aroma. It’s a solid enough beer, but the flavors don’t ever quite come together cohesively and leave Project 3 as a disjointed attempt at a barrel aged ale. The effervescence you’d expect not only from a Belgian farmhouse ale but also an ale meant to take on elements of white wine is certainly present. The carbonation is heavy and there’s an underlying sweetness that you’d expect. Unfortunately, the elements one typically finds in a Belgian Dark Ale never fully come through. The Belgian yeast strain that gives it the classic flavor of citrus zest, banana, and clove is drowned out by the sweetness of the Sauternes barrel, and the roasted malt that is present in Belgian dark ales is nowhere to be found. The initial flavors are pleasant, with the same hints of sweet grape and chocolate that were present in the aroma, but those elements get old quick. I expected complex, layered flavors that most barrel-aged ales have, but Project 3 appears to be a project that is not quite complete. There are no additional flavors or layers, which causes the initial notes to grow stale over time. 25.4 ounces of a 10.7 percent ABV are challenging enough, but when you’re looking forward to the end when you’re not even halfway through the bottle, that’s not a good sign. By the end, I was tasting a warm, acidic, red wine … not at all what I envisioned or tasted when I started drinking Project 3.

Ultimately I’m giving Project 3 a three mug rating, as I feel the intent behind the Barrel Aged Series is ambitious, and you can’t expect to hit a home run every time. However, as a Belgian brewer that’s using local ingredients and aging in vessels that are essentially unheard of outside of your region, I’d expect more. It sounds good, it looks good, it smells great, but in the end Project 3 just doesn’t taste that great and that’s not good enough for such an ambitious project.

Cheers!


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on March 10, 2014.
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