Tasting the Westvleteren 12, 2007

It is widely and arguably acknowledged as the best beer on the planet. It has had more heritage and prestige poured into its creation, more exclusivity surrounding its availability, and more debate about its worth than potentially any beer on earth. It is the Westvleteren 12. The bottles come exactly as shown here; no label, and nearly no branding wahtsoever. A thick bevel around the shoulder of the bottle claims Trappisten Bier, and the cap indicates that it is indeed a Westvleteren 12, at 10.2% abv, and thats it.

The Westy 12 is brewed at the St. Sixtus Abbey in the western corner of Belgium, home to the Westvleteren Trappist Brewery. It has been owned and operated by the monks since 1838. They only brew 3 beers, the Blond, 8, and this, this 12. All of their product are extraordinarily hard to come by, essentially none being sold commercially. The 12, their strongest is a Quadrupel, and has avoided me my entire life. Until now.

It is important to understand that this is not the best beer in the world, it is merely the highest rated beer on the planet. There is a difference. 

This past week I was back home in London (Ontario) visiting my family and friends, on my last night I stopped in to my London Beer Bar, Chancey Smith’s, to see some familiar faces, and indulge in their wonderful beer selection. Waiting for me there was a 3 year old cellared bottle of the Westvleteren 12 – the white whale that has escaped my palate since I became a beer snob. It was impossible to pass up the opportunity to try this beer, and never really crossed my mind. All I could think about was getting there, and cracking this sacred bottle.

This posses an interesting predicament that I have come by so many times since engulfing myself in the world of beer; that is trying a beer that has been so outrageously hyped with an untainted preconception of it. Its nearly impossible to ignore the hype and approach it with a clean slate and unbiased palate. It’s true, I wanted to love the Westy, but I tried my very hardest to conduct an unobstructed tasting of it before I would relax and simply enjoy it.

The Westy 12 was served to me at cellar temperature around 14C (57F) as a vintage Belgian Quadrupel should be. This allows all of the beer’s flavors to stand forward without the cold numbing your palate or any sensations. The pour was easy and straight forward; nothing too elegant, thick or lush – rather uneventful actually. No head built until about halfway up the glass when a soft airy cream colored foam began to build. It showed a smattering of large bubbles scarcely scattered throughout the head eventually building to maybe an inch. It faded fast to a translucent film. The beer was dark and glowing. It was a rich burgundy red with deep ambers, golden browns, and pitches of black trapping any light that came near. It was not totally opaque though, and was crisply transparent. Very pretty, but not nearly as dense or as full as I had expected.

The nose is soft and aromatic in a classic Belgian style. Malted grain bring pale and caramelized flavors into your nose and plays with the range of sweet bread, biscuit, golden raisins, brown sugar, and nuts. Sweetness dominates the air with no hop aroma to be found. Leaning back in for more brings apple juice and cider to my senses and more raisin flavor. Touches of pear and cereal show up, then fresh baked sweet egg bread.

When going in for a sip I was madly excited and nervous. I wanted it to be good, but at the same time was trying not to expect anything. I let the first sip wash over my palate and swirl into ever inch of my mouth. My friends were starring at me in silence awaiting my approval or disapproval. I said nothing and went in for another taste before I made any premature conclusions.

My first impression was of the mouthfeel – it was not thin, but it was definitely not lush. It poured over me with a smooth and silky texture, but was relatively flat and uncarbonated. The years ageing in the bottle may have have stripped the beer of its effervescence faster than I would have assumed. Beyond the mouthfeel was a sweet and fruity wave of malts – big malts. Quick complexity caught my attention at the Westy showed me golden raisins, plums, pears, light golden sugar and grapes. It was richly fruity and a good balance of sweet pale and caramel malts.

No roast, bitter, or tart was apparent to me yet, and I started to wonder how this seemingly one sided beer had claimed the top spot among the beer world’s best. The malt was soft but potent, digging deep into my taste buds bringing candy, and sweet molasses. It showed hints of nut and sweet cereal, but lacked the cocoa, earth, citrus or complex presence that I was expecting from a big Quad like this. Regardless of what I was expecting, a delicious soft sweet bread flavor was present. It was the unmistakable flavor of Challa – a sweet egg bread made for Shabot dinner. Soon then came based apples and a hint of tart cider. The sweet was wide and generous, and very delicious. But still, something was lacking; a spice, or herb, or balance… Something.

The finish mimicked everything about this beer so far; it was a short, plain finish with a sweet fruity sensation and little crackle.

Don’t get me wrong, this was very delicious, but to me beer is graded by flavor, construction, and sensations. This beer just didn’t peak where I had expected it to, and hence the problem with knowing the hype. I would still give the Westy very high grades, just not in the elite class. That being said, two of my friends satting at the table has each had a Westy 12 before, and they both claimed that this tasted different. So, will not make a conclusion on this beer until I have had another. And the hunt continues…

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