People often ask me, “what’s your favourite beer?” My response is usually along the lines of, “that’s hard to say, because it really depends on the situation, the time of year, the occasion etc. But I can tell you that the best beer I’ve ever had is the Westvleteren 12, a Belgian beer brewed by monks, but it’s so rare and complex that it’s not something I drink very often.”
When I first arrived in Belgium for my eleven month Rotary Youth Exchange, I was assaulted by a barrage of Belgians asking me if I had ever heard of the Westvleteren 12, the “best beer in the world”. Suffice it to say, by the second person I was able to say, “yes, I have heard of it!” The confusing thing was, many Belgians themselves had never tried it, and many of them weren’t even talking about the correct beer. You see, this beer is brewed by Trappist monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus, out in West Flanders, but for many years before it had been brewed under license by the St. Bernardus brewery, located not too far from the abbey.
In the late 1990’s the Trappist monks around Europe decided that only beer brewed within the walls of their abbeys could be officially labelled as Trappist beer, to combat the popularity of non authentic recipe beers being marketed as Trappist brews. This meant that the St. Bernardus brewery could no longer brew the official Westvleteren beers, and production was moved back to the abbey. However, St. Bernardus simply renamed their brews, and continued on using the same recipe. This caused some older drinkers to recommend me the St. Bernardus Abbot 12, rather than the Westvleteren 12. In due course I tried both of them, and I can say that the Westvleteren is better. Perhaps the monks have a superior water source, or maybe one of the recipes was tinkered with?
While it was relatively easy to find the St. Bernardus, the Westvleteren was another story. Even in Belgium it is quite rare and expensive to obtain. The monks don’t brew beer to make money, they brew beer and sell it to be able to afford being monks! Because of this, they only sell the beer by the crate at the abbey, and you have to call ahead of time to make a pick up reservation. When you make the reservation, you must give them the license plate of the vehicle you will show up in at your appointed time, and you cannot resell the beer.
One day my host brother Thibaud and I decided that we would buy a crate of the 12, and so we looked up the telephone number and calling hours. I then spent several hours one weekend glued to the phone, constantly pressing redial, but to no avail; the line was always busy. It seemed as though every other person in Belgium was trying to order a crate of Westvleteren beer (they also brew the delicious blonde and 8).
Months later when my parents came to visit me, we found a large specialty beer cafe in Bruges that had all three varieties on the menu. This was the first time that I had come across a cafe selling the authentic Westvleteren beers (albeit in a “grey market” way) rather than a cafe with an old sign advertising “Sint Sixtus”, and then handing you a St. Bernardus. Predictably they were out of the 12, but my Dad was able to order a blonde and I an 8. They were FE!
A few days later we stumbled upon one of the many tiny alleyways that litter the streets around the Grande Place in Brussels, and discovered a beautiful little pub. Their beer menu indicated Westvleteren 12, and to our utter joy, they even had it in stock! We ordered three, and having been set up perfectly with a tasty Kwak at the previous alley cafe, enjoyed the depth of flavour and complexity immensely. At 10 Euros a 33cl bottle it may sound expensive, but it was worth every penny, and we soon returned for another round with a good family friend of ours who lives in Brussels, but had never tried the 12.
Since those first two bottles, I have had the good fortune to drink a bottle at a Belgian beer restaurant in Stockholm (in 2011) a bottle immediately upon my arrival at our friends house in Brussels (in 2013) and the occasional shared bottle in Canada. Over the last few years it has also been released into grocery stores in Belgium from time to time to raise extra funds for the abbey, and sometimes bottles find their way to Canada at exorbitant prices ($18-25/bottle).
By slow accumulation we had acquired three bottles of the stuff in our cellar, without drinking any of them, always waiting for the right moment. Even though this beer can be aged for years (some people even say up to a decade!) my parents and I decided it was high time we drink one of the bottles before the opportunity was lost.
This tasting was done from a bottle capped as Westvleteren XII, expiry date 2013, consumed August 30th 2015 with Errol Garner’s Concert by the Sea on vinyl.
Appearance: dark brown
Nose: sweet, brown sugar, figs
Palate: toffee, perfect balance of sweet and bitter, plums, raisins, as you swallow: liquorice.
Finish: a very long finish with at least 4 distinct phases: 1) dark chocolate cake, 2) blueberry goat cheese, 3) almonds, 4) eatmore bar (chocolate, molasses, nuts).
Overall: “Definitely the most balanced beer I have ever tried, and worthy of unofficial title as ‘best beer in the world’.” -Riley “As many ridiculous things as you can dream up… It’s like a cabbage O’Henry bar, comes in the green wrappers.”-Pete
Rating: 6/5 God
So in case you were wondering, this beer definitely lives up to the hype, just don’t try and make it your go-to brew! 😉