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..
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.
The 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:
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.
I 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.
Stepping inside Kulminator is a little like walking through a secret doorway into a living work of fiction..
You open the door to a room seemingly full of clutter, but also giving the impression that everything has its place. As you walk past the wooden crates stacked as high as a man in the doorway, the words “Trappist Westvleteren’ charred forever into the twisting grain of each, a smile crosses your lips as you think to yourself, “this is the place”.
To your left the bar, a bar unlike any other you’ve seen, strains to hold the array of bottles, boxes and stacks of paper that almost hide it from view completely, rendering the customer side at least pretty much unusable.
At a table a man with flowing white hair sits hunched, shuffling photographs, huffing or smiling to himself intermittently as he scribbles on one after the other, cross-referencing them, then tagging them at an old computer that sits on a table beside him. To his right is another table festooned with ribbons and banners wishing someone a happy 65th birthday, and on that table are massed bottles of all sizes from all over the world, a magnum of this, a jeroboam of that, beers of all ages, in fact, a beer lovers dream. Then you glance again at the photographs scattered on the table, the man is pictured in almost all of them, smiling, drinking, enjoying his birthday as only a man like he should, here, in his bar.
The scene is almost Dickensian brought forward to present day, in fact if Terry Pratchett was to write a character for his Discworld series it could be here, in this place, with this man, The Curator of beer, Dirk Van Dyck…
As I reached for the beer menu which was as thick as my wrist, a lady approached to serve us. This is Leen, the other half of this beery partnership who all this time has been busily serving at the various tables whilst Dirk barely raised an eye from his task….
Not having time to study the vast tome of aged beer before me, I hurriedly chose something refreshing to quench the thirst of a hot afternoons walk to be here, this still though is a couple of years old and tasting fabulous, Avec Les Bon Voeux from Brasserie Dupont. This arrived from the draft tap and was quickly consumed as I set to work trying to choose what to try next from this collection of liquid history, and all the time Dirk sat shuffling, scribbling, typing..
Some time passed and another beer was chosen, my first sample of an aged Orval, not too old, around 12 months but a start I thought. Leen took the order and walked over to the curator and quietly relayed it in his tongue, only then did he rise and shuffle into the cellar to find the beer selected. On returning he handed the beer to Leen who brought it to the table as Dirk returned to his task.
This happened each time we ordered throughout the long night (where me and about €100 parted company), he did speak to a couple of folk that were clearly regulars but not a great deal. But it sort of added to the charm of the place, a sense of seriousness that I think (reading some other reviews) leads to in my view an unfounded reputation for being a bit unwelcoming. We certainly never felt anything of the sort and in fact got talking to three or four Antwerpians for almost the duration.
The beer list is vast and goes back decades, the oldest beer we found was thirty one years old, but more often than not there were plenty of beers that had many differing ages to choose from and perhaps compare the effects time has had on their aromas, flavours and mouthfeel. The prices varied clearly based on age and rarity but were surprisingly accessible on the whole, baring in mind what it must take to keep such a collection going.
I settled on an old favourite of mine to finish our night at Kulminator, something appropriate to bring the experience to completion, a beer by Struise that I know and love, but had not tried in any real aged form. It was their Pannepot Grand Reserva 2005, aged in oak calvados barrels for that added touch of luxurious complexity, syrupy, dark and very boozy with all the chocolate, caramel and dark fruit flavours you’d expect and more, beautiful.
This was done purposely as I think this is just a place you should experience for yourself, I hope you agree, let me know if you do?
|Monday||8:00 pm – 12:00 am|
|Tuesday||4:00 pm – 12:00 am|
|Wednesday||4:00 pm – 12:00 am|
|Thursday||4:00 pm – 12:00 am|
|Friday||4:00 pm – 12:00 am|
|Saturday||4:00 pm – 12:00 am|
*Dirk Van Dyck photograph is featured and taken from Gotham Girl Chronicles, why not check her blog out here.