***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.
In case you missed my musings on Brune in Part 1, please be sure to catch up here. Otherwise, you’ll be a bit lost.
Allow me to apologize that such a long period of time has passed since the initial excursion. The first edition was produced on a perfect Sunday night. I was all alone in my cellar dwelling with nowhere to be and no one to distract me. I was warm and blanketed in glorious sounds, scents, tastes and visions. I had been craving Belgian ales so deeply, and I needed a calming escape from the rigors of life. I found it that night, and it felt amazing. I wanted to recreate the night for Part 2, but the stars really have to align just so for a true recreation. It took a few weeks, but here I am, blissful as before.
I figured that I should, again, offer a score to the experience. Last time saw a pairing with an undeniable founder of the long standing shoegaze movement. Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie is a master of distortion, and some of the world’s most highly revered albums, namely My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, would not have existed where it not for him. Tonight, I again attempt to pair my mind meltingly complex Belgian ale with equally profound sounds. Though The Campfire Headphase is no Music Has the Right to Children, it’s never-the-less a pillar in the world of IDM, ambient, and downtempo. It pairs perfectly well with relaxation, and even better with transcendence of mind and palate.
Triple Imperiale fills the glass with aquarium like wonderment. To gaze upon this brown, highly carbonated, viscous mess in my glass is much like what it would be to open your eyes beneath the goopy confines of a hot bayou. The waters are muddy brown, but life thrives. Bubbles rise from the depths… something stirs on the floor of this slimy hotbed. Amidst the uncomfortable submersion, to see only briefly is unmasking evidence that there swims near endless translucent organisms, weaving in and out of every nook and cranny of the body. Are these wiggling jellyfish with stingers at the ready, or may they be amoeba like microorganisms, mutated far from any micro precursor?
We need not contemplate these things, for a blind man would surely find endless delight here. May the scents, sounds and flavors guide us tonight.
Triple Imperiale has all the complexity of nose that the world’s greatest ales possess. It’s staggering. It’s challenging… to the writer part of my brain, but completely delightful to the rest. This beer is not too different from the Brune that I last reviewed in odor. I wouldn’t say that it has a cherry tartness to it, but the esters power through the brown sugar and caramel and deep, slightly browned pie crust fumes at the forefront. There’s more of a prune and date and robust red wine scent. It smells wood aged in many ways. There is a mustiness deep within, vanilla notes, caramelized, charing, with subtly bubblegum, taffy and cotton candy. Good gracious! Again, there must be a crucially long boil with this brew to cook the sugars so fully, and a yeast strain that could go toe to toe with the very best of them. Brilliant.
I feared that the flavor could never rival the scent, and that’s mostly true, but the music and the candle light in my room and the ominous crackling of the needle against the vinyl and the Belgian masterpiece before me… this is just all too much for me right now. What a night!
The flavor is very wine like in it’s fruitiness and heat. With the glaring exception of a malty-er-than-thou finish, this is a seriously vinous, estery, fruitscapade of a beer. But beer it is. The malty, baker’s chocolatey dry finish is profound, but long before the aftertaste, all that fruit lies upon breads and cookies and pie crusts and cakes…all slightly overcooked and crusted. But like Momma used to say, the crust is the best part. All the sugars are crystallized at the edge. The peripheral is often the most exciting place to be.
This shit is super sweet, and I’m not speaking in colloquialism, but I could be. The typical Belgian candy sugar meets Belgian yeast reaction in bubblegum is present, but it’s possibly closer to creme brulee, as was Brune. Blue hot scorching of soft sugars. Male vs. female. Power vs. subtlety. Pro-fun-dity.
Brasserie des Rocs is a Belgian brewery from Montignies-sur-Roc (about 1.5 hours southwest of Brussels, near the French border). They make beer that absolutely explodes with flavor. I’ll never forget the first time I ever tried a BdR beer. I was at Brouwer’s with For Whom The Beer Toales (our Chicago correspondent) and her family. A Grand Cru was ordered. The moment the succulent serum hit my lips I was 100% stupefied. I don’t know if, at that point in my life, I had ever tasted a beer so outrageous in flavor. I was actually very unsure of how I felt about it at first, and all of FWTBT’s family thought it was gross (not really beer drinkers). But, I was intrigued beyond belief by that first sip, and I kept sipping and sipping, until I was certain that it was one of the greatest beers on Earth. That was quite a few years ago, and I’ve had it many times since. I still think it’s one of the greatest beers on Earth. That could surely be argued, but there is no arguing the fact that it’s a Mike Tyson punch in the eye of flavor.
Allow me to highly recommend checking out the brewery website. There is a pretty hilarious video on the front page that is narrated by a BdR beer, you know…from the beer’s perspective. Whaa?!? If you want some relevant info about their beers you should check out the D&V International site. I’m also going to recommend a soundtrack to your enjoyment of a BdR beer, because I know that immediately after you read this you will rush out to your local bottle shop and procure away. Cocteau Twins collaborative album with Harold Budd from 1986, “The Moon & The Melodies”, is an absolute classic in my mind. It has a distinctly European feel to it, combining both ambient and shoegaze, to mark a nuance laden foray into a depressant imbibing, lazy Sunday. Every time Elizabeth Fraser’s stunning voice emerges from the densely distorted fog, you will be reminded to search for the hidden refinements in your fermented beverage. Consider it legal mind expansion.
I was laying in bed on Sunday morning, contemplating the day before me, and like most days, beer inevitably infiltrated my thoughts. I decided that I had a pretty serious craving for deep, sweet, complex Belgians. I decided that a trip to Big Star Beer Market was is order, since they have a pretty bad-ass selection of Belgians, and they are mostly unrefrigerated (the cellar dweller in me appreciates that). $40 later I had three 750ml bottles and a glass, all fashioning the BdR crest. Needless to say, it was a good Sunday.
In this, Part 1, I will explore the 9% Brune, a Belgian brown ale. It’s a 100 on ratebeer.com. Part 2 will see Triple Imperiale and Part 3 will see the beer that started it all for me, Grand Cru.
DES ROCS BRUNEfrom Brasserie Des Rocs is a pure malt beer with no sugar added, 7 types of malt are used and 3 different kind of hops. It has a rich, complex fruit aroma full of subtleness. The taste has an impressive depth with oily development throughout the mouth. It is a deep, mystic and extremely mature beer.
Brune pours a very clear brownish-amber color and displays very lively, rapidly rising bubbles from the bottom of the chalice. A tan head consisting of very fine bubbles rests on top and remains. If you look at the beer from a top view you can actually see the head sizzling where the rising carbonation bubbles hit the surface. That effervescence is definitely present in the mouthfeel, but the solution is so viscous with sugary sweetness that most of the prickling effects are greatly softened.
The scent is something to behold. It’s so deep and complex. How they use the word “subtleness” in the commercial description, I have no idea. Most prominent is the dark fruit – cherry skins, over-ripe plums, prunes, all of which seem to lend a juicy, vinous, almost acidic tartness. It is so intensely rich at the same time. There’s caramelized sugars and toffee, like creme brulee. Maybe I’m just baking a cake in my mind at this point, but I think there is some sweet bready maltiness as well, like pie crust.
The fact that the BdR brewers made this beer without any of the traditionally used sugar, and seemingly without any fruit what-so-ever, blows my mind. A 7 grain malt bill is pretty complex, but there is no doubt that the yeast that was used to ferment this beer is more diligent than most humans. I’m most curious as to the temperature that this fermented at. There are so many esters, it was surely on the very high-end of the scale.
I would not call this beer a sour, but it seems to be teetering on the very border. I struggle to fully explain that. It’s clear to me that this sample is not tainted in any way. It’s not infected. It just tastes so much like fermented cherries, which to me are pretty tart. The fruity esters are crazy potent, but there is a malt core beneath it all. There’s brown sugar and a spiciness, like nutmeg or something similar. It almost seems mulled as it warms. I thought of spicy mango. There is also bubblegum in the finish and a healthy (or not) dose of alcohol. I just laughed out loud. This beer is just silly. You absolutely must taste it before you die. Please help me explain it. I’m clearly failing.
On Friday, Beer Blotter offered its 300th post! Over less than a year has elapsed since we first went public on BeerBlotter.com. We have a had a blast so far, and we look forward to much more ahead.
In almost 11 months, we have managed to put up more than 300 stories (this article is #302). From our editor’s first beer review of Lazy Magnolia’s Jefferson Stout to Mark Leavens’ review of sandwich board art over at Atlantic Crossing – we have come a long way.
While we look forward to big changes over here, we wanted to take a look into the past and discuss the three biggest, and most memorable, moments in our short history. We have visited Belgium, Holland, France, Canada, San Diego, San Francisco, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Washington DC, Portland, Chicago and more – all in that 11 month period.
These three moments stick out the most:
#3 — Beer Blotter Spawns From the New Orleans Beer Arrival & A Chicago Surprise
If you have ever visited New Orleans, you are probably aware that its almost impossible to find a good beer. You are almost assured of being stuck drinking some fruity concoction of a massive amount of liquor. Not anymore.
We visited New Orleans in the beginning of last November with little knowledge of any beer scene. But, we stumbled our way through bar after bar and discovered that craft beer does exist. In fact, we were floored with what we found; hope for a good future was established.
While we were in New Orleans, our editor was surprised with a no notice flight up to Chicago. It was her first visit – and a great opportunity to see an amazing world of craft beer. We visited the Publican, drank Three Floyds at the Map Room, bought a bounty of beer at Binnys and took in a Browns v. Bears game, before returning to New Orleans.
Upon returning, we decided to launch this site. Beer Blotter was born over a pint of Lazy Magnolia Jefferson Stout and NOLA Hopitoulas at the Avenue Pub. From that moment – 300 articles followed.
#2 — The Crew Visits West Flanders
The entire crew decided to throw down and take an excursion to Belgium, back in March. We planned the trip for a period of 12 months, holding epic Belgian beer tastings once a week until we left. As part of the trip, we decided to visit Germany, France and Holland as well.
Every day was filled with splendor. From the iconic bottle shops, to the revolutionary brewers, Belgium brought us to our knees. We saw Cantillon in Brussels, visited Moeder Lambis during its opening week, drank gallons at De Molen, sorted through bottles at Paters Vaetje, and gifted a Pliny the Elder to Hane at De Gans.
But, nothing was more epic than a one day visit to West Flanders. I had caught a pretty vicious cold that had put me out of commission for a few days, but I refused to allow it to defeat my trip to Westvleteren to catch Westy 12. I sucked it up, chugged some orange juice, bought some nose spray (so i could taste again) and we took off for West Flanders.
When we arrived at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren – my cold cleared up. Whether this was an amazing intervention of the almighty himself or simply an incredulous recovery – we will never know. But, it all came together as my first Westy 12 was placed in front of me.
From there, we trucked on to St. Bernardus, visited a brewer’s cottage in Woesten, drove to France to sample Escambeq’s best (with a brewer who could not speak English), drank De Struisse’s finest in a living room at De Zon and enjoyed splendid wonders from the private collection of Alvinne’s owner. I’m unsure that this day could ever be eclipsed.
#1 — The Closing of Water Street Brewing & Alehouse
The number one moment is not a happy one. But, it certainly had a profound effect on me.
For days I labored over visiting my favorite beer spot before it would shut its doors, for the final time. In the end, I didn’t go. The horror was too much for me to handle.
If you never got a chance to read the hardest post I ever typed, take a gander now. For purposes of brevity, I will not relive the words that came to mind when I head that Water Street Brewing would close down. But if you were around me for those few days – you know it was always in my mind.
Bars come and go – that is for sure. Some bars leave way too early; that was the case with Water Street. Because of a legal spat that keeps the former Water Street brewing space vacant to this day (we just saw the space this past weekend and its still not even close to re-lease), Water Street was forced into early retirement.
But, like all great combatants, Water Street may rise again. Their Facebook page has provided snippets of hope to those of us who yearn to have Queen Nina pour us another IPA. Recently, Nina announced that Strange Brewfest would return this year! This was an amazingly welcoming sign that Water Street is still alive and kicking – somewhere.
300 posts of Beer Blotter has brought us this far and we vow to keep it going. In the next month, we hope to have our new site running, filled with gobs of media and more user friendly resources.
Stick with us, please. We’ve enjoyed your company.
We are back tracking to week nine, one of the two weeks we spent in Belgium. If I said I wanted to go back there tomorrow and live for all eternity….that would be an understatement.
9 of 52
9000 Gent, Belgium
09 225 06 80
Rank: #1 of 12 (again including there is one other unknown Belgian place, which will be in the top 5)
Type of Establishment: Your quintessential Belgium beer bar
BEERS ON TAP (at time of visit) —>
Rodenbach Grand Cru
House Beer Gandavum (blonde hoppy ale)
House Beer Mammelokker (dark ale)
House Beer Klokke Roeland (strong ale – 11.5%)
FOOD OPTIONS: No food options. Remember we are in Belgium. They drink all day on an empty stomach and so should you!
STAFF OPINIONS: A small establishment, there were two bartenders, one of which we had the pleasure of interacting with. He, like many, if not all Belgium residents knew his beer….he knew it well. He discussed 3 of the brews on tap that were the house beers and suggested we try them all. (Interesting, rare beers on draft are hard to come by in Belgium, a country that prides themselves on aged bottles). He was pleasant, informative and happy to introduce beers that we had never had into our lives. We are forever indebted.
Ghent was the first stop outside of Antwerp that we made in Belgium. A city with so much history and beauty, Ghent has much to offer in the realms of beer and art. During our stay we encountered medieval churches, bell towers, castles, canals and quaint squares. Although these elements of the city were preserved, Pizza Huts and modern hotels proved that Ghent was a city of the past and of the future. Prior to stopping at the Waterhuis, we ventured into Saint Bavo Cathedral to see the Ghent Altarpiece, otherwise known as the Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. Completed in the early 15th Century, this masterpiece was very high on my bucket list and is the single most impressive piece of artwork I have ever seen. The picture in this post is from the internet, as you are not allowed to take photos of the piece.
After taking in our art for the day, we head over to Het Waterhuis located along side a canal and therefore appropriately named in more ways than one. A modest space with old, almost rotting wood paneling along the floor, a layer of dust and a cloud of smoke, this bar would not exist in the US and this is why we love it. We find a space in the back with a barrel surrounded by four chairs next to a window looking out onto the water with a castle in the back drop. Dried hops hang from the bar with bottles, many of which we had yet to try, layered with dust and mold that lined the wall.
We sat in awe of the country we just arrived in, in awe of the beer we were drinking. Het Waterhuis was one of many beer experiences to come. It was amazingly worthy of our top spot to date.