Westvleteren, the myth, an enigma, some say the best beer in the world, consistently top of the hit parade in Ratebeer circles at least, but is it all hype?
Are our senses clouded by the cloak of mystery that surrounds the abbey and the notoriously difficult buying process for the drinker?
Last night i set out to find out…
The main purpose of this experiment was to prove to myself which was better Westvleteren 12 or St Bernardus Abt 12 which is reportedly one and the same thing, St Bernardus having once been the brewer of the other under licence back in the day (hence it’s inclusion albeit not actually a Trappist beer), this argument having raised it’s head on many occasions. I also wanted to throw a couple of others in the mix too, to make things interesting..
So I opted for another classic, Rochefort 10 itself an absolutely epic beer and finally, the new kid on the block Gregorius, the 8th official Trappist from the Monastery of Stift Engelszel, Austria, completed the line up.
I also wanted to strip away any preconceptions for the tasting, to make this as fair a battle as possible, so each beer was stored together and was served at exactly the same temperature. The chalices too although branded, were identical in form so as to be indistinguishable by touch alone. Then finally all four tasters were blindfolded..
So there we sat, scarves tied tightly around eyes, looking rather foolish I expect, well actually of course I know we did as photographs were taken as soon as we could no longer see, (how these did not end up on Twitter etc I do not know). On a serious note though it makes you feel really vulnerable, your other senses working overtime to compensate for the loss of sight, but the beer itself stripped bare to aroma and taste alone.
Each beer was passed by our “official servers” one at a time from taster to taster on the first pass, with a refresher of water in between, the order of course being changed from the original table layout and documented by the keeper of scores. We all then had a second chance to taste each one directly after the other and to revisit any again before making our individual decisions, our mission not to try and identify which was which, but simply to rate them one to four or best to worst.
We ranked in order of merit and I’ve scored them as such, top beer choice scoring four points and the bottom one, the results being as follows
- Westvleteren 12 – 14 points
- Rochefort 10 – 12 point
- St Bernardus Abt12 – 8 points
- Gregorius – 6 points
It was a really weird experience actually, much more difficult than I thought it would be and although the results around the table show a clear winner we certainly weren’t all in agreement in terms of favourites. Two judges had an identical orders for example with the other two having first and third place in complete opposites.
The one that surprised or maybe dissapointed me personally most tasting this way was St Bernardus. I buy it regularly and really enjoy it, but in this short experiment at least it failed to impress. Gregorius too was a tricky one, it never got out of the bottom two across the board, I thought it tasted a little harsh to be honest, a friend described it as raw and maybe that’s a good assessment, one to revisit.
Clearly the Rochefort and Westie were closest of all with the latter just edging it for me in terms of flavour and aroma hit, but not by much.
So what does this prove?
Bugger all really, it’s answered a few questions in my mind and for others around the table too. It’s not proved that Westie deserves its revered position as the best in the world only the best in my kitchen on a cold October evening…
Great fun though
Interesting findings – just wondering what was the comparative ages of these beers? Just thinking if some were a bit young it might not have been a level playing field as the Westy does age pretty spectacularly.
Nothing too serious John but tried to make it reasonably fair. All were pretty fresh, St B & Rochefort I got when last in Belgium, the Gregorius only last week, the Westie was the oldest but still only about a year old.
In reality I’d like to repeat this but with much longer to pull them apart with long lingering sips rather than making snap decisions, but the instant results were quite dramatic in that a clear first and second place formed in my mind right away, the last two lesser so but still miles apart.
Have you ever done something like this?
I think that year of ageing could have made a big difference. Still very interesting experiment.
Really? I’m not an expert in ageing although I am ageing beers if that makes sense (not saying you are claiming to be btw), obviously it takes time so I’ve never really sampled my own yet apart from this of course.
It would make sense though as all the others were much fresher and tbh I hadn’t even thought about that aspect until JC mentioned it. Damn it, that means I’ll have to do it all again… 😉
Time to stick a load of all four away I reckon, cheers Gregg
Great, great fun. Keep onwards and upwards, Phil. This is what it;s about; it’s amazing what a blindfold session can bring – what discovery. Great work, mate.
Something I’d meant to do for ages Leigh and blindfolds may have been OTT but I wanted to use proper glasses as you would do and in our small gaff it’s the only way. That said it did add to the fun if it all as you focused on the umms & ahhhs coming from around the table, so frustrating as I was last in line 😉
Definitely something I’ll repeat with other tastings though.
Cheers for the support bud
There are many inconsistent Westvleteren bottles. As for consistency I feel Rochefort is greater but fresh Rochefort is very hoppy and I prefer it aged. Things like how the beer has been handled; stored, temperature, have a great effect. So does the issue of age. I think fresh Westy is best but aged Rochefort kills it completely. St Bernardus is allegedly the same recipe as Westy and they brewed Westy at St Bernardus too. At the Cafe at Westvleteren they have hanging bottles and one is brewed at St Bernardus.
The biggest challenge would to taste the entire trappists’ range which now is very extensive. From all the blondes to the bruins. This may take some time but it would be a great pleasure.
Thomas, some interesting views there, particularly around ageing as most people I’ve spoken say that Westie for example is far better when aged. I’ve had fresh and a year old but not side by side, I am ageing some as we speak though so watch this space on that front.
On the full challenge, now that’s something I’d enjoy taking on…
We did this at work once with about 12 IPAs. It was really fun to see the results, and again, a very clear winner.
As far as Westie vs. St. Bernardus, I do believe Westie is now using different yeast than when they had St. Bernardus contract brew it. While I think the recipe is still the same, I think they yeast is now different.
It’s something I’d like to repeat I agree with other beer styles as it really makes you think about what’s in the glass in front of you, maybe spend bit longer on each though..?
If the yeast has changed it could explain a lot, I wonder how we could get that confirmed?
I’ll do some research. I have a pretty good library of beer books specializing in Belgians, and I know I’ve seen it somewhere very recently.
Great stuff, keep me posted, cheers
I do think a taster’s judgement can be a little clouded by the hype. On a recent tasting, Mrs Goggles and I found famous trappist Orval to be very average. Not bad, but just very average and uninspiring.
On a different but related note, Mrs Goggles is blind and says many people that are recently blind get a drop in appetite because the visual stimuli are no longer there. I myself have noticed people being steered into noticing subtle or non existent flavours due to reading them in the taste notes. That’s why I always steer clear of them when I review a beer.
Here’s our review of Orval. A contraversial statement to make. I’ll be thrown out of the beer bloggers union.
I agree on the tasting front, I try not to read anything about a beer before I drink it tbh.
If it makes you feel any better bud, I didn’t particularly like it, that said I returned to it after 12 months and now it’s one of my go to beers. It’s not meant to be in your face like some big Trappists, it’s subtle, hoppy crisp and very drinkable.
My recommendation, go back and revisit with a fresh mind?
Sorry, to clarify Tel I’m talking about Orval… oops
Too many good beers mate. I’d try it again if it was bought for me, but my own money would go on thousands of other beers ahead of Orval.
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