The great Westvleteren “best beer in the world” debate…

A lot of “stuff” happened yesterday, and as I lay in bed last night, brain fuelled (distorted) mainly by Buxton “Jawgate” and Colin Stronge Extra Stout, it sort of all came together into this outpouring of thoughts, views and observations, some of which relate to a bit of a red rag to a bull debate and others of things still yet to come..

Image courtesy of CAMRGB

Image courtesy of CAMRGB

It was a quite inoffensive comment on a friends Facebook profile that started this off and linked to the events that fell before it, the comment (and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying so), was written by Simon from CAMRGB and was as follows: “Westvleteren 12. Supposedly the best beer in the world. It Isn’t. It’s just f*ckin hard to get hold of”

Now this isn’t a dig at Simon, we are mates, he knows his stuff and goes on to write a balanced review of the beer itself which you can read here, apart from perhaps slightly falling into the old “best beer in the world” trap again at the end.

That small section though is what gets the hackles up, and being completely fair, Simon is not alone, far from it. For every person I hear that has sampled Westvleteren 12, I probably hear two more that say something along similar lines. “It’s not as good as beer X”, it’s not the best beer in the world”, very expensive for what it is”, “I think St Bernardus Abt is nicer”, “don’t believe the hype”etc. etc. But what most people don’t seem to grasp is that they themselves are the ones that perpetuate those myths, feeding the hype that will keep this beer on it’s perceived marble pedestal.

detail silhouet groenThe Trappist monks that brew this beer have never claimed this beer is the best in the world, they are I believe quite embarrassed by all the fuss it causes it to a degree, although clearly the mystique around it helps them survive. However you’ll see no Rolls Royces driving out of the Abbey gates, all money made is ploughed back into living costs, the monastery upkeep and or goes to charity.

Back in December 2012, BeerPulse posted an audio interview with one of the brothers, it’s half an hour long, but I feel it gives the listener a real insight into what goes on behind those monastery walls:

The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren’s Brother Joris speaks

In my view there is no secret GRAND MARKETING campaign at work to propel it to stardom (geek-dom). If there was, it’s rubbish, incredibly “slow burn” and surely fatally flawed, as surely the whole idea behind marketing is to make people buy more and more? If you visit the brewery there is no vast loading bay with truckloads of beer leaving the building, there is one man, checking number plates on vehicles as they pull up to his little hut and loading two crates in each, hardly Anheuser-Busch world domination, unless of course they have secretly bought it and the whole thing is an elaborate front.

Of course not all of those daily callers are collecting beer to drink, that same hype feeds a huge black market, but do you really think the Monastery see a penny of the additional revenue made from the often 500% mark up on the original sale price as it filters out to bars and shops across Europe and the rest of the world?

Westvleteren isn’t hard to get hold of either, it just takes a bit of effort. Get on a ferry, train and travel to the abbey and taste it there, sitting in the sunshine.

The first time I did that, it was the best beer in the world, for me, right then, it isn’t now, but that isn’t the point. On my first trip I was so excited to try some, that I had this leering moon-faced grin that I just could not suppress no matter how hard I tried. I love Belgian quads, and in my mind this one was going to be so special. The planning, the journey, the anticipation, the beautiful setting with my wife at my side, even that “hype” fuelled that moment and by god I was going to enjoy it. Last year I had a similar moment drinking Houblon Chouffe in Gent, it’s all relative.

Of course not everyone can make that journey or even want to, but don’t expect to always “get it” if you are drinking it at home or in a bar after shelling out £10 plus a bottle for the privilege.

What I really don’t get most of all though, is why Westie gets singled out so much for criticism just because they limit sales. The St Bernardus connection probably doesn’t help, is it the same, is it different yeast, one is better than the other etcetera.

pliny-the-youngerI wonder for example, if Russian River get the same treatment for Pliny The Younger, surely even more limited in it’s distribution and availability? Similarly much-lauded as the best Double IPA in the world or even as a challenger to Westvleteren’s mighty throne, I am absolutely positive it is amazing. If I ever make it to queue for my half a glass I’m sure too that I will again involuntarily don that ridiculous moon-face, just then in that moment, but it will wear off shortly afterwards and I’ll be back to my usual miserable grimace before I know it.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no best beer in the world, only the best beer in your mind or in the moment you drink it, so if you get your hands on a Westie, Pliny or perhaps a can of SKOL found at the back of the cupboard from 1987, put all comparative thoughts aside and enjoy it for what it is.

Cheers

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15 thoughts on “The great Westvleteren “best beer in the world” debate…

  1. A very timely piece. We all get caught up in beer hype now and again to a greater or lesser extent as much as we like to hope that we don’t. Beer in context is very important, where you are, who you’re with and even what the weather is like.

    I wouldn’t recommend drinking that can of Skol though …

    • Cheers Justin, it certainly got a lot of interest and hopefully got folks talking and even more importantly thinking.

      SKOL-SKOL-SKOL-SKOL
      SKOL-SKOL-SKOL-SKOL…

  2. A nice, thoughtful piece, Phil.

    I think you’re right on the money about the abbey, as it were. The reason people are so fascinated with them is that they do not fit into anybody’s (especially an American’s) idea of capitalism. They deliberately limit the amount they produce just to raise enough money to fix the roof or whatever, despite being constantly bombarded with accolades. That creates interest in them and their beers, simply exacerbating the problem. (I’d love to know if the Craft Cheese Wankers feel the same way about a particular Trappist cheese.)

    St Sixtus, and a handful of abbey brewers like them, are total anomalies, places that doesn’t fit into anybody’s idea of business, brewing or beer appreciation. That’s why they’re perfect.

    As for being ‘the best’, I think, like you say, you have to go there and do it yourself. Perhaps it is better described as one of ‘the best beer experiences in the world.’ That’s what beer is all about for me, anyway: experiences.

    • I think you’ve hit the oaken peg, squarely on the head with a hand carved monastic mallet there Chris, “the best beer experience” is exactly it, a whole host of sensory and sub conscious influences creating one brief moment unlikely to be repeated..

      Cheers

  3. A really spot on piece, Phil – I don’t believe in ‘one beer to rule them all’ – even on a personal level, it would be impossible to pick a “best beer ever” – it’s entirely about context. What am I up to on any particular day, what is the weather like, where am I travelling, who am I with, what am I eating with it or not, what do my tastebuds tell me they want or enjoy at that particular time? I feel the Westy hype originated from Ratebeer, and the one-upmanship that it seems to generate in some people. But great that it has fuelled an interest in Trappiste beers in general and hopefully provides the monks with a sustainable income for their way of life. When I have one, I certainly don’t spend the whole glass thinking of comparisons, is it better/worse than x beer – I just enjoy it if that’s what I’m in the mood to drink at the time! Will be back in Belgium next week so may renew my acquaintance with it again and just enjoy the moment 🙂

    • Again bang on the money Tania, I once met a man in a beer shop in Brussels who claimed to be the person who started the whole Westie thing off in States, no idea if it was true, he definitely had the credentials and connections (you’ve probably met him too)..

      I wish you hadn’t told me about Belgium though 😦 not fair

      Hehe, have a great time

      • Heh, you’re right, I may well have met the same guy! Hey, you get to plenty of twissups that I don’t (inc. the extremely good time you organised, by all accounts) so no need to feel jealous of my upcoming trip!!

      • Yes – I’ll be in Belgium too – at the Bruges Beer Festival where you can pick up a 15cl glass of all the Westvletern beers at €1.50 a time.

  4. Cycled to de Vrede by way of de Dolle, great beers at both locations, Westvlteren won by a short head, back to Dijksmuide for 3 year old Orval which won the day. Best beers are so subjective, time, place, who you’re with. Best draught beer I ever had was at the Brauhaus in Spandau, best bottled was 18 year old Goudenband in Ghent. Having said that, you can’t beat a pint or two of McMullens AK after a 26 mile cycle…

  5. I’ve had it both here (in the US) and in Belgium (although not at the abbey), and both times they were given to me as gifts. It’s truly a wonderful beer. But frankly, nothing should be called “the best beer in the world.” It’s a subjective thing, taste, and really can’t be quantified that precisely, nor should it.

    This current trend of “I got the ‘best beer!” It’s good, but over hyped. This local beer I like is way better.” Congratulations, you’re trying to be an edgy beer reviewer, just like everyone else. Just be happy you’re trying a rare treat and enjoy the beer in it’s own right.

  6. some daft bastard thought he might be able to sell me 10 cases of Westvleteren 12 a couple of years ago. Personally I think the idiot bought it on ebay and realised it was rebottled Gun oil or something.
    I’m forever looking for that perfect beer, usually i find it when i’m in the right place at the right time with the right people, you know, the place that you couldn’t care less about untapped or twitter.

  7. Thought-provoking post.

    One impulse for the ‘this beer isn’t all its cracked up to be’ posts you read must be to do fellow beer geeks a favour — a warning, basically, not to invest too much time or money chasing these legendary beers which, most of the time, end up being a disappointment, or at least not worth the effort.

    But beer geeks need to find out for themselves, so the warnings never work.

    At the other end of the scale, we’re desperate to know what Watney’s Red Barrel tasted like — can it possible have been as bad as everyone said? Veterans keep saying ‘I had it, you didn’t miss much’, but we need to know!

    • The Westvleteren beers ARE very good – especially when they have some age on them (they can have a few rough edges when young in my opinion), Best in the world? Well, as I think we all know that depends on your personal taste in beer – trouble is too many people feel they have to follow the herd. I also tasted Watneys Red a couple of times and it left a pretty indelible impression I have to say.

  8. Pingback: Beer – #317 – Chouffe – Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel | A life just as ordinary

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