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.