Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Whale A Week: Westvleteren 12

A Whale A Week is my attempt to force myself to not only drink some amazing rare beers I've been hording, but share and blog about it.  I welcome folks to play along and link up their pages/blogs if you have one of these beers to try yourself.  This week we take a little field trip to the literal Holy Land of beer: Belgium!

Westvleteren 12

I had planned on waiting for this until later in the series, but this beer has been sitting in my fridge...taunting me...winking it's golden cap at me each time I crack that door to decide what to open.  So taunt me no more you Warlock!  I'll drink you and blog about it!  Oh, sorry did that seem a little crazy and paranoid to you?  No worries, we're feeling much better now!

Westvleteren 12 has been described as "The Best Beer in the World" in several places over the years.  Part of the popularity is the mystique of the beer being made at a small Trappist monastery in Belgium.  Images of silent robed monks wielding wooden mash paddles and tankards of ale flit through one's mind when contemplating this beer.  It is also incredibly rare, available only at the brewery, and even then in very limited quantities.  One can show up at the new brewery tap room/restaurant and hope that they have some available.  If lucky, you can get just one box to take with you.  When they run out, you are out of luck.  In the past, for distribution, one can arrange to pick up one case at the brewery per car, per month.  Because of this, even in Belgium you are going to pay a crazy premium for this beer.  Westy (as I affectionately call him) 12 has a rating of a perfect 100 in RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.

Let's talk about where this rarest of all beers is made. The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren is located out in the countryside of the Flanders region of Belgium.  This small monastery was founded in 1838 and currently hosts about 30 Trappist monks.  The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance began in the 1600's as a stripped down and modest response to the excesses of the Catholic church.  The monks of the order live in seclusion and quiet where they are able to pray and contemplate with a minimum of interruption.  Contrary to popular belief, they are able to speak--but usually keep this to essentials.  Many Trappist monasteries provide home-made goods for sale to support daily needs and upkeep of the location itself.  Many of the old monasteries did make beer, but the modern sale of Trappist ales is a much more recent event: starting after World War I.  Westvleteren itself started selling beer to the public in 1931.

In 1946 the nearby St. Bernardus Brewery in Watou started brewing under the Saint Sixtus name.  In the early 1990's St. Bernardus started making their own similar beers, and production of Westvleteren 6, 8, and 12 returned to the abbey itself.  Many people believe that the St. Bernardus 12 is basically the same beer as Westvleteren 12, and this history would certainly make that a possibility.

Interestingly, the beer itself has been made in the same quantity (60,000 cases per year) since 1946.  Unlike all the growth seen in the beer industry, these mellow monks have not changed their production (despite high demand) in almost 70 years.  They do not advertise.  The bottle doesn't even have a label, just an understated color coded and numbered cap!

The first time I had this beer was in 2012, in an incredibly tiny and cozy pub from the 1400's called Au Bon Vieux Temps in Brussels, Belgium.  At the time, after an insanely long plane flight, fighting jet-lag and exhaustion, clustered into a tight huddle with my wife and our friends, this was truly one of the best beers I had ever had.  Later in the trip we got to try it again for exorbitant prices, and it was still something special.

Superimposed Westy bottle and the heraldry outside the abbey...

The next time I tried the elusive Westy 12 was in 2014.  It was at In de Vrede, the the official restaurant and shop just outside the Saint Sixtus Abbey grounds.  We arrived at the restaurant fairly early (before 11 AM) and they were still selling some 6-packs of Westvleteren 8, the lower alcohol but tasty younger brother of the 12.  Our traveling companion, Hassan, and I both bought some to share for the rest of our trip, but were sad that no 12 was available to take home.  There, I had a wonderful light lunch of pate made with beer from the abbey, and we all shared glasses of the 6, 8, and 12 among our small group. Yup, still a great experience with this beer, but as previously this was much flavored by location and expectations.

A few years back the abbey needed repairs, so the monks allowed a small amount of the beer to be sold as gift packs (including glassware) to be sold through a distributor.  When these beers made it to Minnesota, they sold out fast.  Really fast.  Many of the sellers were actually opening the packs and selling individual bottles for a huge profit.  I sincerely hope that the monks got their fair share of money from that madness, but I kind of doubt it.  The bottle we opened to taste this time comes from that particular batch--one can tell because of the screen-printed lettering on the bottle.  I'm pretty sure this was from 2012.  I received this particular bottle in a mass cellar buy-out earlier this year, and it was stored in a dark, cool basement.

For this tasting, I had Steven Mathistad, a fellow JAB member, over.  As usual, my wife, Sj was also taking part.  I have a Westvleteren chalice glass from my first trip out there, and I served my share into that for proper Belgian flair.

Westy 12

Eric: Sweet Malt and sugar.  I get pear and maybe a hint of apple pie and cinnamon spice.  Some caramelized sugars are present.  Definite alcohol zip in the aroma.  Not as much phenol as I expected.
Steven: Malt character and alcohol on the aroma.  Minty?  Dark fruit?

Eric: Deep amber in color.  Tight fine off-white head with Belgian lace.  Head persists well in my glass (probably because I have the appropriate logo'd glass...).  A few small floaties despite a very careful pour.  In fact a good 1/4 of the bottle was left behind due to a huge amount of sediment in the bottle.
Steven: Dark amber in color.  Thin head dissipates fairly quickly.

Eric and Steven: Like in the aroma I get sweet sugar and caramel up front.  Some light fig and pear flavors.  Almost a coconut flavor as it warms.  Medium body with a creamy mouthfeel.  Alcohol certainly present and warming, but pleasant.  End is very dry with a lingering sugar taste--but not cloying sweet.  No hop flavors.  Slight astringency at the tail end.  Carbonation is very high and spritzy.

This beer is wonderful.  One is aware of the 10.2% ABV, but it adds to the experience rather than detracts.  This is not as complex as one would expect--but has simplicity and balance down to near perfection.  Not too sweet, not too dry.  This is the quintessential Belgian Quadrupel that all others wish to be.  Many American versions end up much sweeter than this.  We decided on a group score of 4.75 out of 5--mainly because of our accessory beer tasting below.

St. Bernardus Abt 12

To make things interesting, I bought a bottle 2014 St. Bernardus 12 at The Four Firkins to taste along with the Westy 12.  This is not a fair side-by-side tasting, since the Westy has had several years in the cellar to mature, but should approximate the fresh versus aged effect of these beers if this is really a similar recipe.

This beer has slight fruity esters and malt on the aroma, but not a lot going on.  Body was light/medium.  Very smooth for so much alcohol.  Sweet but not cloying.  Well balanced, but definite alcohol warming.  No dark fruits in this.

We could totally see this being very much like the aged Westy 12 given a couple years in the cellar.  Collectively we gave it a score of 4.

Rochefort 10 

We finished our tasting with a 2012 vintage of the similarly styled Trappist beer Rochefort 10.  I figured this would give us the effect of age (same vintage) when comparing to the Westy 12.

The aroma in this beer is much more malty and sweet, containing dark fruit and complex esters.  The flavor is amazing, bursting with blackberry and caramel flavors.  Body is medium and carbonation is high.  We gave this beer a collective 5, resulting in us cutting down the Westy to a 4.75 in comparison.

In Conclusion

So our Belgian Quad tasting had a surprise result: we enjoyed the aged Rochefort 10 more than the aged Westvleteren 12.  Your results may vary, but buying a couple Rochefort 10's and aging them will be a lot cheaper than importing Westy 12!  That being said, Westy is still a very special beer.  Sj said it best when she explained that it was impossible for her to taste the beer without associating it with that dark little pub in Brussels surrounded by friends and the wonder of visiting a new country.  If you get to Belgium, you do need to seek out the Westvleteren 12.  But in the end, you will find Rochefort 8 and 10 nearly everywhere and probably drink many before your trip has ended.

Next week A Whale A Week continues with a tasting of Fifty-Fifty Eclipse...stay tuned!

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