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.
“Eat, Drink and be Merry” whilst being watched by thousands of pious eyes…
If not for being cast in plaster, hewn from wood or stone, the now static eyebrows would be raised in unison as if to say “back again are we”.
You trudge to the back of the room searching for a table, the smell of candles and musty old church halls permeating your nostrils. You decide to take the most ostentatious seats available, high-backed, with elaborate hand carved decorations and finials, chairs fit for a king or queen, not for drunken wretches like you or I, or so the owners of those unblinking faces seem to imply.
But then, THEN, you have the AUDACITY to order a St Bernardus Abt and drink it from a bloody chalice too!!!
I should be so lucky, no really, “I should be so lucky” from the Aussie bombshell Miss K Minogue, it shattered the ambience and the moment was lost… Ah well, at least the St Bernardus was real.
Setting the visual and audio mismatch aside the menu at Het Elfde Gebod is decent enough and clearly is angled more towards a wider tourist audience rather than being a Mecca for beer aficionados. That said there was six draft beers including Abt12, Tripel Karmeliet and the ever-present De Koninck, and a bottle list featuring a mix of around sixty or more to tempt you, with plenty of Trappists and a small amount of Gueuze.
The food menu is reasonable too, described as “Plain Flemish cuisine with a contemporary twist”, however like most places we visited in Belgium this time around the food seemed very expensive with €18 to €23 seeming the norm for a nothing particularly special main course.
We opted for a plate of extremely quickly devoured bitterballen which I have to learn to make. They are absolutely perfect as a beer side snack and generally pretty cheap to buy.
Bitterballen is essentially a thick roux made with left over beef or other meats, it is left to go cold so it can be rolled into balls or croquette shaped logs and coated with breadcrumbs. They are then deep fried then served piping hot with a side of what looks like a mixture of mustard and mayonnaise (it may well just be mustard). If sharing, the idea is to take a bitterballen, dip one half into the mustard, then pop the whole thing in the mouth, so no double dipping! You have to try these seriously..
Back to the decor of this place, as you can see from the photographs there are hundreds maybe thousands of religious statues, images and various artefacts gracing every conceivable space in the bar, this continues up the stairs and into the second seating area on the first floor. It’s an incredible collection and draws the eye this way and that as you spot yet another “something new”. What puzzles me though is that choice of music beating away in the background, don’t get me wrong, it isn’t blaring and intrusive but why is it so?
Why would you go to so much trouble to decorate your building in such a fashion and then shatter the atmosphere it creates. Carefully adding the fact that I don’t sit at home with a Trappist beer listening to “Now That’s What I Call Gregorian Chanting 26“, but something like that would just set the place off as background music. As it stands it sort of makes it all feel a little too manufactured, like a “traditional” Irish bar in Magaluf.
Maybe that’s a little harsh, and more likely that I’m just being a picky, grumpy old sod who needs something to complain about, each to their own and all that. It’s a nice bar and we went back for more so it can’t be all that bad can it, worth it alone for the St Bernardus and bittenballen.
Address: Torfbrug 10, 2000 Antwerpen
- Monday-Thursday 12 -24
- Friday 12-1
- Saturday 11-1
- Sunday 11-23
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
Those lucky Belgians have all the luck..
I had the heads up on this from a friend whilst away on holiday. We were hoping we could get our hands on a few of these “building stone blocks” special cases, but looking at this piece from Flanders News I suspect they have long since been snapped up.
Ah well, gives me another excuse to visit St Sixtus next year 😉
On Thursday 3rd November, Belgian shoppers had a unique opportunity to stock up on Westvleteren 12, the Trappist beer that is usually only sold at the gate of the West Flemish Abbey. The monks have struck a deal with one of the big supermarket chains that means that a limited amount of the Trappist brew Westvleteren 12 is available in Colruyt supermarkets.
Usually this fine brew is only sold at the gate of the Saint Sixtus Abbey in West Flanders requiring dedicated beer lovers to make the journey to West Flanders province. The Trappist monks are now making an exception because they need to raise cash for renovation works in their home.
People who are interested in making the purchase do require the voucher published in Wednesday’s edition of the Christian daily De Standaard and the weekly Knack. Armed with this voucher they will be able to buy what is called a “building stone box” that includes six bottles of Westvleteren 12 and two dedicated glasses. In all some 93,000 boxes are being sold.
The voucher has also been sent out to Colruyt loyalty card holders.
The renovation work is needed after the abbey was confronted with subsidence a decade ago. Works started in 2008. The money raised by the sale of the boxes will help to fund the operation. After the renovation work is complete the Trappist monks will be able to return to their old quarters.
In February the American beer lovers’ website RateBeer selected Westvleteren 12 as the world’s second best beer.
Flandersnews begs to differ…
The idea came from a couple of guys talking today about making a slow cooked chilli earlier today, this wasn’t slow cooked but I think it would work really well cooked slow as an alternative.
After much discussion about which beer would add something to the dish several beers were suggested. These including Saltaire Triple Chocolate Stout, Leffe Brune, Ginger Tom, and Hardknott Dark Energy amongst others. I decided on the Chimay as it was easily accessible not just for me but anyone wanting to try it. Also the fact that I was trying to keep away from the chocolate-chilli connection. Oh and the name worked…
500g of lean steak mince
1 Sweet pointed red pepper chopped
1 coarsely chopped onion
250g button mushrooms (whole or cut in half dependant in size)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small bottle of Chimay Blue
1 teapoon of chili powder
Half a teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tin of chopped tomaoes
1 tin of mixed beans in spicy tomato sauce
1-2 pieces of high cacao dark chocolate (to your taste).
1. In a large saucepan or wok brown the mince draining off the fat, there should be none if the mince was lean.
3. Add the chopped pepper, mushrooms, chilli powder, smoked paprika, coriander, chopped tomatoes and mixed beans. Stir well.
5. Taste the sauce to see how it has mellowed to see if the beer you have chosen has added enough background sweetness. Then add the chocolate to your personal taste, one block at a time tasting all the way. Stir into the chilli and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.
6. Serve with fluffy white rice and maybe a little soured cream.
So did the experiment work? Well yes it was lovely. In terms of the Chimay addition though I have to concede that I’m not sure it was the right choice. The chilli and smoked paprika overpowered the beer slightly, so as options maybe opt for unsmoked paprika instead and double up on the Chimay. Especially if you are slow cooking to give you a little extra liquid to reduce to a nice sweet sticky sauce.
Alternatively maybe make it with a good strong Imperial Stout.
For a beer to serve, I think I’d go right back to the beginning and opt for a Saltaire Triple Chocolate Stout. lots of chocolate taste to go with the chilli without the chocolate sweetness some chocolate beers have.
Hope you give it a go, if so let me know what you think?
Big thanks to these folks for their input today: