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

Westvleteren 12 available in the supermarket!!

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.

VRT

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…

Belgian Beer Trip, a whistle-stop pictorial summary.

Over the past week or two I’ve dropped a few posts in about the highs and lows of our recent trip to Belgium, blogging about the visit’s now done, but we took lot’s of photographs along the way, some of which didn’t feature in posts or were not perhaps relevant. Anyway I’ve listed a few below for you:

Poperinge  

Cafe De La Paix

Poperinge Sqaure

St Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren

A trio of Westvleteren beauties!   (I’m referring to the beers in case you were wondering….)

De Vrede beer garden

The Grotto at Sint Sixtus

Ypres (Leper)

“The Menin Gate – The Memorial to commemorate the names of over 54,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Forces who died in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. Every night at 8.00pm (20:00 hours) a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate in Leper, the Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town.”

It’s a cake yes, but what a cake…

Watou

Watou Square

The Brewer in Watou, this statue is traditionally draped with fresh hops in the summer months.

Saint Bernadus Brewery, sadly not open to visit..


Brugge

There are loads more, to check them out please visit my Flickr or Facebook pages. See links in the menus on the right of this panel.

Cheers everyone

The abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren

Today was going to be the day I tasted a legendary beer, unofficially, despite the catchphrase in the advertisement for the nasty yellow fizzy stuff, Westvleteren beer IS supposedly “the best beer in the world” and on this bright bank holiday Monday I was going to taste some and I was a little excited to say the least.

I had questions racing through my mind as we made our way through the Belgian countryside, would the cafe at the Abbey be open, it was a bank holiday after all? Would they have any when we got there? What would it taste like? Would it live up to it’s reputation or was it only held in such high esteem in the beer world because it’s just damn hard to get hold of any??

What always worried me about Westvleteren was probably the latter, was it only held in such high regard simply because of it’s accessibility?

You see the beer is brewed by Trappist Monks at the Abbey Saint Sixtus who are extremely protective of their beer, in that it should not be made commercially available outside of the Abbey. To this end they have a very strict ordering policy which goes basically in simple terms like this.

1 You telephone the abbey’s brewery ordering line to make an order by calling one specific telephone number and if successful you can call only once a month. (It’s extremely difficult to get through)

2 No other forms of communication or discussion will be answered (I did try)

3 If you are lucky enough to be successful you are allowed to book two cases only. You must give your name and the licence plate number of the vehicle you intend to use to collect your beer on the day specified, turn up in another vehicle and you miss your chance and will be turned away…

See full details for yourself here:

Finally the moment had arrived and we pulled into the bustling car park of In De Vrede which is the cafe/visitors centre that sits alongside the Abbey (the name translated I believe means “The Peace”), well at least that was one question answered “it’s open”…

The Abbey itself was closed, but visiting is strictly limited and in any case does not extend to the brewing areas. In De Vrede though was a hive activity in contrast to the quiet of the open expanse of countryside in which both sit.

We made our way hurriedly up the long manicured pathway, through the entrance and there’s the bar, staff pouring glass after glass of Westvleteren beer into foaming goblets….nice.

Making our way out through the other side of the long bar we find a wide courtyard edged with hedges shielding you from the wind, but still allowing views of the fields and woodland surrounding abbey grounds. A spare table was found and we sat waiting impatiently for one of the serving folk to come and take our first order, after what felt ages a first beer and some abbey food was ordered. Sandwiches of Abbey cheese and chicken in jelly, to go with the Westvleteren Blond.

Westvleteren Blond – 5.8%

Hazy golden beer with a large fluffy white head. The aroma is of vanilla, lemon maybe a little hint of banana, a bit like the whiff of a lemon cheesecake. Taste follows through with more of the same with wheat, fresh bread, yeast, more citrus than the smell but overall it’s smooth in the mouth, the hops not overly evident until the dry finish.

Westvelteren 8 – 8%

Mine arrived with little head but all around me others were being served with big light creamy brown foam. It’s dark murky brown colour with aromas of burnt malt, molasses, dried fruits and a little vanilla again. Taste is sweet, mocha, warm black treacle, the mouthfeel is full with the sweetness battling for attention against a dark bitter chocolate finish.

Finally the moment of truth….

Westvleteren 12 – 10.6%

In similarly disappointing fashion my long awaited Westvleteren 12 arrived again almost headless (the staff here must have had it in for me as it also took about five minutes to turn up), not helping the sense of anticipation.

The smell is quite similar to that of the 8, with a little more toffee and liquorice. The taste has burnt caramel, rich boozy fruit cake like the ones your Gran used to make soaked in brandy, there’s dark chocolate biscuits in there too and liquorice. Despite it’s strength and full mouthfeel it manages to hide those alcohol levels dangerously well, in the finish the hops are evident but not in quite as bitter way to it’s weaker sibling. There’s no doubt about it this is stunningly good beer..

I was involved in a discussion on another blog earlier today, where someone wrote that his favourite beer made him grin like a happy chimp whenever he managed to drink some. I can sympathise with that poor chap as when I was building up to drinking the Westvleteren 12, I could not, try as I might, suppress that very same type of happy chimp face. Unfortunately for me that face was captured in photographic form so, for the readers of Rabid About Beer, as promised (I’m going to regret this) here it is..

The small shop is situated just inside the front entrance stocks a selection of Westvleteren related products, abbey produced cheese and pate, books, CD’s, glasses and gift packs which contain two glasses and one bottle of Westvleteren 12. Most importantly though they do sell the beer to take away, you are allowed subject to availability to take six bottles of your choice away per person, sadly being Easter Monday because it was mentally busy, they weren’t selling on the day… 😦

Happily though, a return visit the following day soon rectified that 🙂 

I went for twelve of the Westie 12 although in hindsight perhaps I should have picked up at least one each of the Blond and 8, the idea was that I thought the 12’s would age better as I want to drag out drinking them a little to see how they develop or at least as long as my willpower holds out…

So, a few questions remain unanswered

What would it taste like?  Well, I think my mutterings above speak for themselves, but it tastes as good as I’d hoped.

Does it live up to it’s reputation or is it’s because it’s just so damn hard to get hold of any?? To the first part yes, don’t just take my word for it, plug it into Google as countless beer experts with far more experience than I think so too. On the availability side it’s a tricky one, the fact that you can drive up to the door and as long as there are four of you in the shop, take away 24 bottles, sort of takes away the mystique, but the point is you do actually have to do that each day. Many people I’m sure do just that and make a healthy profit selling them on in various ways, a single bottle of this can set you back anything up to £80 on the internet.

The real point though is this, as you still can’t really buy it in any sort of commercial bulk, the final product should remain true to itself and constantly maintain the highest quality levels as currently as long as the Trappist monks of Saint Sixtus Abbey produce it, so mass producers HANDS OFF!!

The final question, is it the best beer in the world in my opinion?

The honest answer is I don’t know, each beer experience like this is lived in the moment, at that moment for me it was. But there are many many more fabulous beers out there that I can’t say for sure, I suppose I’ll just have to keep looking….