Westvleteren XII: The greatest beer in the world?

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Even if you're not a beer nerd, you might have heard from NPR that the Trappist monks of Belgium's Saint Sixtus Abbey imported their famous Westvleteren XII quadrupel to the States for the first time last week. On December 12, 2012, a total of 15,000 gift packs (priced at an eye-watering $84.99 for six bottles and two tasting glasses) went on sale in 21 states. Four stores in Illinois received the beer, including one in Chicago—the Binny's location in Lincoln Park, which sold out by half past noon.

To get an idea how hyped Westvleteren XII is, all you have to do is consult the Internet's two most popular beer-rating sites, Beer Advocate and RateBeer. By aggregating their millions of user ratings, they've compiled lists of the best-loved beers in the world; on the former, it's in second place, and the latter has it squarely in first. Westvleteren XII has been first at Beer Advocate for much of the six years or so I've been consulting the site, but it's currently displaced by Russian River's Pliny the Younger.

Founded in 1838, the Wesvleteren Brewery only makes enough beer to sustain itself, regardless of demand—Trappist breweries in general adhere to a monastic austerity that flies in the face of the principles governing ordinary businesses. But the craft-beer boom has fueled Westvleteren's mythical reputation and sent demand through the roof. According to NPR, the monks at Saint Sixtus have brewed the same amount of beer every year since they stopped selling it commercially at the end of World War II—about 3,800 U.S. barrels—and as a result sales are strictly controlled.

Westvleteren beers are usually available only at the monastery, though despite the monks' best efforts "gray market" resellers thrive. Since 2009 sales of Westvleteren XII have been limited to one 24-bottle case per person per 60 days, which must be reserved by phone in advance. "You call the number over a series of days, weeks, months and nobody answers," says beer blogger Andrew Stroehlein in the NPR story. "Then finally somebody does answer. They tell you when you can come; they tell you what beer you can buy; they tell you how much you're gonna pay. And if you don't like it, then God be with you."

Westvleteren XII in one of the tasting glasses included in the gift pack
  • Westvleteren XII in one of the tasting glasses included in the gift pack

The monks at Saint Sixtus reluctantly departed from this policy because they lack cash reserves and needed money to build a new wing of the abbey, which will consist mostly of monks' cells. Brewery spokesman Mark Bode, also quoted by NPR, says he thinks this will be not just the first but also the last time Westvleteren is exported. "They say, 'We are monks, we don't want to be too commercial. We needed some money to help us buy the new abbey and that's it,' " he explains. "Back to normal again."

Mark Linsner, a member of Chicago Beer Society's board of directors, offered a prediction on the organization's listserv: "Now that you can buy this on the local shelf, it may no longer be the 'best' beer in the world. Scarcity seems to have a wondrous, positive effect on the palate of the average online beer judge."

If the monks never export Westvleteren XII again, the issue of scarcity probably won't disappear as a factor in amateur ratings, but he's got a point. It's an intimidating beer to review—on one hand, you don't want to prove yourself a rube by failing to properly appreciate something so widely agreed upon as excellent, but on the other, you don't want to simply fall in line with the crowd. There's a lot of pressure to persuade yourself that a beer is amazing when it was a huge pain in the ass to get.

Saint Sixtus Abbey
  • Saint Sixtus Abbey
That said, as far as I'm concerned Westvleteren XII is plainly a great beer—I can imagine people of a certain temperament arguing about whether it's the best in the world, but there's no question that it's extraordinary.

Westvleteren XII has a modest head that hangs around more or less indefinitely—I nursed my bottle for a couple hours, and a layer of creamy foam persisted atop the glass the whole time. The smell reminds me of two other excellent Belgian quadrupels, Rochefort 10 and Saint Bernardus Abt 12 (though only the former is a Trappist ale). Winey fruitiness comes forward first—red grape skin, peach, cider—followed by ripe fresh dates, figs, apples baked in brown sugar, maraschino cherry, and a whiff of gingerbread and milk chocolate.

The mouthfeel is densely silky and lively with fine bubbles, and the taste is hugely complex. I get hazelnut, vanilla, buttery walnut and pecan, sweetness like stewed plum and cordial cherry, and breadiness like fruitcake. The flavor is likewise similar to the Rochefort and Saint Bernardus, but much spicier—notes of clove, cinnamon, and Szechuan pepper combine with prickly carbonation and a restrained alcohol heat that puts me in mind of cognac.

Saint Bernardus Abt 12 has been my favorite quad for years, but I can say without hesitation that Westvleteren XII has displaced it. Is it the best beer in the world? Even if I felt qualified to make such a pronouncement, I wouldn't see the usefulness of doing so—claiming that a Belgian quad, even the best Belgian quad ever brewed, is better than, say, the best IPA or the best imperial stout is like insisting that jazz is better than metal or that rock is better than hip-hop. Past a certain point it comes down to personal preference. And, you know, it's only beer. Like music, it's supposed to be one of life's pleasures—to argue about it would be to supremely miss the point.

I realize that this Beer and Metal post is in danger of overstaying its welcome, so I'll dispatch the "metal" portion swiftly. Kindly enjoy this video of Capuchin friar Cesare Bonizzi, the "Metal Monk," who lives in a convent in Milan but unfortunately no longer performs with his band, Fratello Metallo ("Brother Metal").

And don't forget "Heavy Metal Monk" by Slough Feg, a band I've already carried on about at great length.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday. The series is taking a two-week break during the Official Merriest Time of the Year, but posts will resume in January.

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