Getting better with age

By John Rega

 De Dolle Brouwers’ historic mistake, the madness of ageing its beer in wine barrels, has evolved its own method. John Rega pops the rusty caps on some vintage bottles.

c Rob Mitchell

Kris Herteleer needs almost no prompting to lead visitors into the cellar of his 19th-century brewhouse at De Dolle Brouwers. As soon as a group gathers, he herds us through red bulkhead doors, down the worn and pitted stone steps, stooping under pipes as we crowd around racks of barrels. Up front, the barriques — mostly from Pomerol vineyards — look like fresh-cut oak held in glinting silver hoops. Deeper in, their staves are stained black, the metal tarnished.

Without ceremony, the brewer eases out the bung out of a nearby barrel, and pipes dark liquid into a tasting glass. It’s the familiar malty tang of Oerbier, the brew that started it all for Dolle Brouwers in 1980. But do I detect some residual merlot contributing a juicy note? More likely just a subconscious suggestion, as Herteleer reveals this brew gone into the barrel just the day before.

c Rob Mitchell

He moves to another, this one filled six month ago, and works the siphon again. Now our noses pick up a subtle funk of grape must. The fruit enlivens the other flavours, while wood tannins and a mild acidity scribe an edge around the palate. This is on its way to become an Oerbier Special Reserva, one of the vintage beers that add new dimensions to the pioneering work of “The Mad Brewers.”

By the time it reaches bottles, in another year or two, this Reserva will gain yet more port-like depth and lactic tartness, strengthening Oerbier’s ancestral links with the red-brown sour ales of its home region, West Flanders. Yet, refermented to 13 percent alcohol, it’s more digestif than thirst-quencher.

Herteleer recounts the barrel program as a happy mistake. In 2000, amid a transition in yeast supplies, he stashed a problematic batch of Stille Nacht in barrels, rather than watch them shatter their bottles. Two years later, he found it unexpectedly transformed, revealing new possibilities.

c Rob Mitchell

Bringing in Oerbier was another act of serendipity. When emptying out the first experiment, Herteleer didn’t have more of the Christmas ale handy, so put in his flagship dark brew.

The “original beer,” as Oerbier’s name translates, has since gotten the barrel treatment in at least 10 editions, arrayed on metal shelves in a cellar vault.

Not every year affords the conditions for a Reserva. As he learned in 2002, Herteleer needs to have a fresh brew ready just when there are empty barrels ready to receive it, but not so recently emptied that leftover yeast would infect the beer. Even then, things don’t always turns out right — a hazard of melding living beers with wine-soaked wood.

“Nobody can explain what is happening and what is converting (in the beer),” Herteleer says. “The brewers have some explanations but the scientists don’t know what is happening.”

Fortune was thirsty in 2015, which yielded a double vintage. The latest was bottled last September after roughly two years steeping in those Bordeaux barrels.

Uncapping it now releases sawdust aromas with just a hint of the cellar. The beer pours with Oerbier’s familiar chestnut hue, under a finger of tightly bubbled foam, coloured somewhere between cream and cream biscuit. Tastes — cherries, fig jam, maple syrup, a handful of spices both sweet and savoury — pile up into a vinous complexity, brightened by a puckering sourness. It makes a substantial mouthful, like a serious balsamic vinegar.

With more time in the cellar, the flavours should bed down with a softer acidity, probably evolving for years.

A vertical tasting of the previous Oerbier Reservas uncovers a surprisingly varied development, however.  While winemakers trace variations in rainfall and temperature within their vintages, brewing and cellaring combine more mysterious elements.

c Rob Mitchell

Not only do these beers emerge from the barrel in different forms — not all have the power of the latter 2015 vintage — but their ageing is hardly a straightforward process.

As my tasting companions — a dozen or so Italian brewers and beer-hunters — dust off silver labels and lever off rusty bottle caps, we find that the lactic and malty power has waned in some more than others. A few lines run through them: an earthy complexity, tactile carbonation, and an attractive tint of mahogany with crimson flashes. Other impressions vary widely.

At times, we agree, the session feels more like a sampling of rare Modeno balsamici. Some vintages rather evoke Amontillado sherries, while others draw comparisons to natural wines.

The 2008, slightly stilled and less acidic, stands out, as the enthusiasts throw around terms including chocolate, nougat, port, fig and even Maggi bouillon. I flash back to a half-decade-old Westvleteren XII. As we work our way back the beginning, the 2002 holds its own, with toasty and caramel notes of a classic barleywine.

It’s hard to guess what the recent versions will do in their next decade, and beyond. We can only imagine that it will be interesting.

Try De Dolle Oerbier Special Reserva purple lable in the current beerseeker beer box: