Beer Review 0201: Unibroue Grande Réserve 17 (Birthday Beer Week 1 of 7)

To start my week of birthday beer reviews, we have an offering from Unibroue, located in Chambly, Quebec, Canada. Founded by Quebec natives André Dion and Serge Racine in 1993, Unibroue focuses on Belgian-style ales. The majority of their beers are bottled “on lees,” which means the beverage is bottle conditioned, or distributed with yeast sediment.

Unibroue are known for the unique yeast strain used in their beers; nearly every Unibroue drink I’ve tried has featured a heavy yeast presence that adds wonderful flavor and spice to the beer.

Sleeman Breweries bought Unibroue out in 2004, and in turn, Sapporo bought Sleeman in 2006. While these are big macro lager companies, Unibroue remains relatively unchanged and are continuing to produce excellent craft beer. They are one of my favorite breweries, and that’s why I have selected one of their beers to review in this special week.

Grande Réserve 17 was originally brewed in 2007 to celebrate Unibroue’s 17th anniversary. It is a Belgian Dark Ale brewed to 10% ABV (alcohol by volume) and ages especially well — this beer was awarded an international platinum medal three years in a row for the same bottling vintage.

In 2011, Unibroue decided they didn’t want to let this beer slip into retirement, so they brewed it again. They produced a very limited amount, individually numbering each bottle. Judging by the verbiage on the back label, one would conclude that they do plan to brew this again in the future as it says “brewed once per year.”

As for the beer itself — this Belgian Dark is made with spices and aged on French oak, with “natural flavors” added. Not sure what those “natural flavors” are, but we’ll see if we can identify any…

The pour produced an average size head, lasting and soapy in texture. The beer was colored very much like dirty river water — the drink was reddish-brown, with some hints of orange in there, too. The body was murky, clouded with a ton of yeast sediment, but the particles themselves were light. This beer left sparse lacing but the head regeneration when agitating the glass was excellent.

I was surprised by the aroma of Grande Réserve 17, in the fact that it was subdued. I really had to stick my nose in the glass to pick everything up, but there was some complex stuff going on. First, there’s a huge note of oak and caramel, sweet and stiff. There’s a load of dark fruits (plum, raisin, and fig) and the classic Unibroue yeast, which lends spiciness and a doughy must. There’s a very light hint of orange from hops, and the whole thing takes on the scent of a candied potpourri spread upon a oak hardwood floor.

Tasting this beer, one gets the oak front and center, with a deep orange spice. The middle of the palate hits dark fruit, candied and sticky, leading to sweet caramel and a finish that unwinds with oaky notes and even a bit of vanilla as it fully reveals itself. The alcohol is expertly hidden, wrapped in a creamy texture and slightly above average carbonation.

Honestly, I was slightly disappointed with Grande Réserve 17, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the beverage. I’m disappointed in myself for not aging this longer! The oak flavor up front is very strong and almost overwhelming, and it surprised me. Usually with big beers like this one, the alcohol is the spoiler, indicating it needs more age. But the alcohol is completely hidden on this brew, and it’s the oak that needs taming.

This is a good beer, and I enjoyed drinking it, but a couple years of lay-down time would serve it well. Until then, I’m not sure this one is worth the hype.

Unibroue Grande Réserve 17, 89 points. Price: $12.99 US for one 750 ml bottle.

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