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….