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

Trappists laid bare

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.

Tasting session or firing squad, you decide? On second thoughts…

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