12 November 2012

Abbey out

For some reason I'd always thought of Tongerlo as just another one of those by-the-numbers abbey ales, brewed to a bland formula and given a tokenistic association with some random monastery to try and lend it an air of legitimacy. I'm nearly positive I remember drinking some in a pavement café in Ypres a few years back, but there doesn't seem to be any record of it in my blog archives. And these days I trust my blog archives more than my memory.

So I wasn't expecting much when I pulled three from the range out of the back of the fridge. They're brewed by Haacht, a company better known for mainstream pils like Primus and this bold/stupid gambit.

As usual I started with the blonde. Tongerlo Blond (the labels are neutrally bilingual but I'm going to stick with Flemish) is 6.5% ABV so a little on the strong side for the style. Bottle conditioned, but remarkably clear, with just a dusting of haze drifting lazily through the dark gold liquid. The aroma serves up white cherries in syrup and freshly mown grass. I was eager to taste but the heavy carbonation gets in the way. Eventually I found a beer that's very much on the sweet side: marzipan is the main flavour I get, with a sticky Lucozade fake fruit thing too. It's still much better than I was anticipating, and even with all that gas and alcohol is still marvellously drinkable.

Tongerlo Bruin followed it, a tiny bit stronger at 6.7% ABV. Once again it's quite clear, but this time pouring out a gorgeous auburn red. I got a little green apple on the nose, but nothing overpowering or unsavoury. This time I let all the bubbles subside before taking the first sip and was hit first by a massive unsubtle blast of rich chewy toffee. This is followed by more nuanced sweet flavours: some Turkish delight and a sprinkle of milk chocolate. The finale is a sudden nip of white pepper just at the end. This beer is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and is possibly the best thing calling itself a Belgian bruin that I've ever met.

Last up was the tripel, named Prior. Could this 9%-er build on the amazing depth of the previous two? In a word, no, unfortunately. Even though I broke out the good goblet for it. Yes, it looks just as beautiful as the others: limpid gold with a prosperous quilting of white foam on top. The aroma is a simple mix of golden syrup and nettley noble hops. It's warming and sufficiently viscous but apart from the alcohol and a little bit of honey as it warms, it doesn't have all that much to say for itself. It's not at all unpleasant, just a bit dull coming after its stablemates.

So the good news is there are heroes in the world of mass-market medium-strength Belgian abbey ales. I feel much better for knowing that.


  1. And for the non-Irish who don't understand the pun in the header:


  2. I found the blonde to be very similar to Leffe, but it's been years since I had it.

  3. Gary Gillman4:44 pm

    BN: my take on many of the Abbey beers I've tried, and most Trappists, and numerous other Belgian ales, is they seem to share a certain something which I think comes from the yeasts used. I would describe it as a sharp new bread-like taste with a raisiny/mince pie-like background.

    Not all Belgian top-fermented beers have the taste, but many do in my experience.

    I've never really accustomed to it except to accompany food, when they go very well. Nothing matches "les frites" better than that dry almost starchy yeasty taste (I don't know how to describe it), and the spicy side matches perfectly with savoury dishes.

    I suppose all these national tastes are relative and had I grown up in Belgium and become a beer fan I would be devoted to it..


    1. Or you'd be a Jupiler drinker...

  4. Gary Gillman3:27 am

    Maybe! Or Cristal Alken anyway, if still made. :)