Memories of Belgium: A Date With Westvleteren 12
***One year ago, our gang was preparing for an epic adventure to Belgium. Still today, we can’t shake the thrills of the trip. We will relive some of our experiences over the next few weeks. We wanted to start with one of the best – our trip to Saint Sixtus Abbey.***
Enjoyed on 3/18/2010
Brewery: Brouwerij Westvleteren/Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus
Location: Westvleteren, Belgium
Presentation: 0.33L brown glass bottle, capped
Style: Belgian Quadrupel
Recommended Serving Temp: 55 degrees
Notes from the bottle: Part of me just wants to put N/A here for consistency sake, but I’ve, not surprisingly, never put N/A in this section. The bottles that contain the three beers of Westvleteren have no label what so ever. The only marking that can be found on the bottles themselves is the word “trappistenbier” emblazoned in the glass about ¾ of the way up the bottle. The differentiator is in the cap. The 12 has a yellow cap.
Food Pairings: Deep, meaty dishes with a lot of flavor, smoked things
Cheese Pairings: Brie, Gouda
Beer Advocate: A+
Rate Beer: 100 (4.49)
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write a review of this beer. It is, without a doubt, one of the hardest beers to come by in the entire world. But, if you are familiar with Westy 12, you already knew that. That is without a doubt a reason that 12 is consistently rated the number one beer in the world on nearly every list out there that was created for the purpose of rating individual beers. The question that has always haunted me most is on the other side of that coin; does it taste like the best beer in the world?
When it was finally solidified that Beer Blotter was going to Belgium, it went without saying amongst us that we would find our way to St. Sixtus at all costs. We rented a car whilst there, largely for the purpose of this portion of our trip, considering that no reasonably managed public transit system would deliver us to Westvleteren. Please, Google Map (satellite view) the town. You will see how remote it is. Nestled in the heart of West Flanders, it is closer to the French border that any other major city in the country (not that that’s really saying anything, Belgium is very small).
Short aside: If you think about it, by choosing to head to West Flanders for this visit, we were making a huge time and money sacrifice to taste a beer that we only knew of in lore. A beer that we didn’t even know was good with any definity. Were it not for a man they called “The Beer Hunter” telling the world that this was the best beer in it, things would be ever so different. Never the less, we trek on.
The closest town of any population is Poperinge. Those familiar with that name are probably thinking of hops right now. Poperinge is the hop center of Belgium, and our travels in this remote corner of the country found many a hop field. It was truly a beautiful drive. Thin, barely paved roads snaked through ancient European farm, one after the other. To find a tranquil monastery out there in the countryside, well, it just seemed right. One could get some serious meditation in out there.
Thursday, March 18th was Beer Blotter’s West Flanders day, and we meditated together, albeit indirectly, with Trappist abbey monks, via the enjoyment of the holy product they produce.
Since the abbey itself is not accessible to the public, our consumption would be confined to the café and visitor center – In de Vrede. This is a very modern looking building adjacent to the monastery…much, much too modern. We could have easily been in America once we stepped through the doors. With the exception of the abbey merchandise and a few photos on the walls of the brewing equipment, In de Vrede is a pretty sterile place to have a beer and cheese plate. I guess it doesn’t really matter though…they serve all three Westy brews out of the bottle for a very reasonable price. This is the only place in the world that can, or will say that.
We went straight for the 12, without a single care for what it may do to our pallets, as if we just may up and have a heart attack in the next 15 minutes and not be able to taste it before death. The much-heralded elixir was poured right from the yellow-capped bottle (no kegs exist) into the official Westvleteren chalice. The time had finally arrived. Fear stuck me. What if it was bad? All my hopes and dreams would be spoiled in one sip. Ok, maybe I’m being a little too dramatic…
The fluid is a deep mahogany brown, allowing just the slightest bit of light to pass through it, mostly near the edges. A fluffy, off-white, near tan head arose from the pour and stuck around for a while, eventually diminishing to a wisp and ring where the beer met the glass.
The nose was somewhat challenging to decipher at first. The beer was chilled unnecessarily, but understandably. Also, a major malfunction of the chalice as a serving vessel: yes, it looks cool and is no doubt the quintessential Belgian presentation, but it offers no collection of scents. I definitely stuck my nose into the fluid on several occasions trying to gather in the smells. Patience and a lot of swirling brought a wonderful, deep malty sweetness and a substantial dose of that near omnipresent yeast fruitiness in Belgian ales. Dark, rich breads, stone fruit and spices came to mind.
The mouthfeel was undeniably smooth and slick. Good body for a Belgian, but carbonation was present as well, though subdued. Intriguing. A bitter smack to the pallet brought hops temporarily to the mind, but make no mistake, this is a malt bomb! A distinct burnt brown sugar flavor is most present. Molasses and chocolate are sensed as well. The spices are hard to pinpoint amongst the intense sweetness, but they are there. Complex is for sure. The carbonation, slick mouthfeel and rich sugars lend a cola like aspect to the beer.
The 10.2% isn’t completely hidden, but is by no means overpowering or boozy. The aftertaste is very lasting, thankfully. There is a slight dryness and the carbonation wilts away with time. Rochefort 10 was the abbey beer to beat for us. It’s close, but I’d give 12 the upper hand.
Beer Blotter can now answer that looming question…does 12 taste like the best beer in the world? Well…have we had a better tasting beer in our time? Yes, BUT…this beer is really, really good. It’s a hearty, unique, complex quad with a lot of history and a great story. Have we had a beer more rare? No. If you combine the taste and the rarity, do you get the best beer in the world? Quite possibly. Was it worth the trip? A resounding YES!
2 interesting things we learned about Westy along the way, from the Belgians that know it best:
All the hoops that have been set up by the abbey to limit the ability to obtain the beer is really annoying…to everyone, hence the extreme mark-ups found in all the bars and bottle shops that sell it and the large number of bars that now refuse to sell it, either out of frustration or simple inability to get it.
If you ever order a Westy at a bar (other than In de Vrede of course), make sure you ask your bartender or waiter to let you watch them open the bottle in front of you. As it turns out, it is a growing trend to keep an empty Westy bottle around in the back of the bar. Then, when one is ordered, the bartender will fill it with St. Bernardus Abt. 12 and serve it as if it were the ordered beer. This method working more times than not since most have never tasted said Westy, and saving the bar some serious dough along the way. There are probably worse scams in the world since Abt. 12 is a damn good beer, but a scam none-the-less.
If you like 12, you should try…
St. Bernardus Abt. 12; Trappistes Rocheford 10; and Allagash Four
Disclaimer: This beer was purchased at the only place in the world that it can be procured at a reasonable price, as the monks intended – the abbey itself. Get jealous.