The Trappist order monks at St Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium, view their success as brewers as a mixed blessing. They wish only to brew enough beer every year to support their order’s needs; no more, no less and this usually equates to 70-75 brewing days a year. They only sell their beer direct from the brewery and then only on designated days. Producing the best beer in world only makes this more difficult as demand always outstrips supply and generates a black market that does not go down well with the Brothers.
To try and reduce this unseemly second market, the Abbey has introduced a system that requires prospective customers to call a ‘beer line’ with a recorded message detailing when the next batch of beer will be ready. They must then call back at a stipulated time to make a reservation, giving the registration of their car which is checked-off during pick-up. There is a limit of 5 cases per customer and only one order is allowed per month.
A condition of buying the beer is a promise not to resell it under any circumstances although, of course, people incur risk of the Almighty’s wrath and do, selling it for double or triple the price. And whilst the subject is to hand, the price of the Westvleteren Abt 12 (10.2% abv) is €36 or about $72 for a case of 24, a little less for the Westvleteren 8 (8% abv) and, for the monks own tipple, the blonde (5.8%), about the same as a case of Heineken.
The beer is not put in shows, not advertised or promoted in any way and has not been sold from anywhere but the brewery since 1937. The bottles have no labels and are identified only by the colour of the cap. And yet; and yet! Beeradvocate.com and RateBeer.com, those democratic indicators of public taste in beer, indicate that Westvleteren 12 is by a fair margin the best beer in the world.
The monk’s attitude to their beer is the direct opposite to almost every other alcohol manufacturer or marketeer around the globe. Limited quantities, tortuous buying processes, one outlet and an aversion to publicity of any kind.
One has to ask therefore, how much of the appeal of Westvleteren 12 is the mystique, mystery and rarity of the product? How much of the drinking experience comes from the contents of the bottle and how much from the journey to get it to your glass?
The answer is of course impossible to quantity, however for the record, brewer Neal Cameron was prepared to put his credit rating on the line and risk eternal damnation for the cause. A bottle of Westvleteren Abt 12 was sourced by means that need not be detailed here and put to the test.
Westvleteren 12 – Tasting Notes
The beer is brewed only with pale and pilsener malts plus of course some sugar to reach required alcohol levels. No dark malts are used and whilst it’s not admitted to, the dark richness of the beer must come from caramelised sugar. Warm and rapid fermentation at 29C gives the Westvleteren yeast a chance to produce multitudes of flavours and a longish maturation pulls all this together. Maturation times vary as the monks wait until the beer is clear and that takes as long as it takes. It is not filtered and not pasteurised, but then why would you? Northern Brewer for bittering and Styrian Goldings and Hallertau for flavour are the hops of choice.
So is it that good? Yes it is, although one must quail at the prospect of describing it. What is most surprising is how unintimidating the beer is, aromas and flavours are legion but initial and expected raisin, plum and alcohol notes soon give way to smile inducing rich rounded fresh malty toffee and caramel aromas that are classically and perfectly balanced by a little spiciness, a little citrus and note perfect bitterness from the hops. This is not an overtly challenging or unsettlingly complex beer to drink like Orval or Rochefort that are to a degree acquired tastes. Where it wins friends I suspect is in its richness and balance, evident by the fact that as the level in the glass goes down there is a wistful hope for a Magic Porridge Pot effect. In a perfect world, I suspect Westvleteren 12 could easily become a fridge mainstay; it is that engaging and easy to live with whilst still offering a different flavour on every mouthful.
Despite the hype and expectation, I drained the final sip a total convert; even to the fact that my beloved Westmalle Tripel may just have a little company at the top of the best beer in the world list.
So yes, it is that good.