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Review: Hof ten Dormaal Barrel-Aged Project Dark Ale

Part of the fun of writing about beer is coming across bottles I've never had. A "brief" trip to the exceptionally well-stocked Craft Beer Cellar in Belmont last week turned into an hour-plus of staring at unfamiliar labels. Kind of like going to the library. The staff at CBC is beyond helpful, but even a good explanation of a particular beer isn't always enough for me to take a bottle home; sometimes I need to linger in a beer's vicinity for a while to truly get a sense of it.

When faced with an unfamiliar beer, some factors to consider are style, country of origin, price, ABV, and unusual ingredients or brewing processes. If it's a Belgian-style beer, is it brewed in that country? Is it brewed on a small farm with local ingredients? Will this beer at this price be worth my while? There are no specific requirements, but these are the questions that inform good beer decisions.

hoften.jpg Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal checked a bunch of boxes, and because of that I was on my way home with a bottle of the Belgian brewery's Barrel-Aged Project Dark Ale. In this case, the price could have been a prohibitive factor. I rarely pay more than $12 or $13 for a single bottle of beer, so $23 was steep.

I was swayed by Hof ten Dormaal's story. The Tildonk, Belgium brewery began operations in 2009, existing as a farmstead dating back several centuries. The brewery is nearly 100 percent self-sustaining, growing all of its own grain and hops and using oil from rapeseed produced on the farm as the primary source of energy for brewing processes. The Hof ten Dormaal beers available at Craft Beer Cellar were each aged for two months in a different spirit barrel. I took a leap of faith and took home the dark ale aged in Cognac barrels. Other offerings include the same beer aged in Gin (Jenever), Madeira, Armagnac, Sherry, Port, Ardbeg Whiskey, and Sauternes barrels.

Hof ten Dormaal dark ale aged in Cognac barrels pours an opaque chestnut into a snifter glass. It smells like liquor-soaked cherries and vanilla ice cream.

The beer is rich, just as you'd expect a sweet ale aged in barrels of a sweet liquor to be. Dark plum, fruitcake spice, and burnt sugar notes dominate. The aroma of this beer does not carry over to the taste as well as it could. All of that thick, wonderful vanilla smell thins out on the tongue. This brew might do better with more aging, and I'm kicking myself for not choosing the one aged in Ardbeg Whiskey barrels (a peaty beer? sign me up). On alternating sips this drinks like a regular Belgian dark ale, which is not a bad thing but also not an extraordinary thing. The price tag demanded better.

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