Once, not too many years ago, there was pretty strong consensus among beer geeks that the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren brewed the best beer in the world. A glance through the top-rated beers on ranking websites—Untappd, Ratebeer, Beeradvocate and the like—would find the monks’ darkest and strongest ale, the simply named 12, right at the top.
The torture in this is that actually getting the beer was a pain in the ass. The religious tenets of Trappist monks allow them to brew, consume and sell beer, but they also require that the monastery only sell enough to support itself, meaning just a few cases of Westvleteren beer made it into the hands of drinkers each month, and the process of actually buying bottles was trying—involving, among other aggravating steps, travel to Belgium.
Times have changed. While the beer, sometimes known as Westy 12, is still holding strong at #2 on Ratebeer’s best-of list, it’s been bumped all the way down to #18 on BeerAdvocate’s by the likes of Tree House, The Alchemist and Toppling Goliath.
What caused this drop? Have the tastes of beer drinkers or the ability of American brewers changed so dramatically in such a short time? Did the 15,000 six-packs of the beer the Abbey sent to the U.S. in 2012 remove the rarity factor from drinkers’ ratings? Or are folks just drinking Westvleteren 12 wrong by not giving it enough time to mellow?
We wanted to find out, so we tasted four versions of this renowned Trappist quad: one seven years old and stored at room temperature, one seven years old and kept refrigerated, one five-year-old bottle from the batch shipped to the U.S. in 2012, and one bottle purchased directly from the brewery a few months ago. You can skip down to the bottom of the post for the full tasting notes, but let’s lead with what we learned:
1. When you’re aging a beer long-term, temperature matters. A lot.
This should be common sense at this point, but beers age more quickly at higher temperatures. Over a period of several years—seven, in the case of the oldest Westy bottles—the difference between a beer aged at room temperature and one kept in the fridge is stark. The signs of oxidation in our warm-stored bottle were apparent and unavoidable, cloaking the flavors below in honey, sherry and vegemite. While the aroma of the fridge-stored vintage revealed some cardboard character, the levels were far more manageable.
2. Westvleteren 12 isn’t much to write home about fresh.
Surprisingly, most of our judges found the freshest version of the beer to be their least favorite. It was the one in which alcohol and yeast phenolics played the strongest roles, and the result was that the beer came across sharp and hot. There was definite discussion, but a rough consensus was reached: the best two versions were the cold-stored 2010 and the cold-stored 2012. General agreement was that the sweet spot exists between those two: six years in a fridge.
3. Without a doubt, the difficulty in obtaining a bottle of Westvleteren 12 was—and still may be—a factor in its high ratings.
It was hard to ignore the shoulder shrugs of our judges after trying four different versions of the beer once considered the best in the world. That isn’t to say Westvleteren 12 isn’t a world-class beer. But is it so much better than other Trappist ales like La Trappe Quadrupel—or, for that matter, St. Bernardus ABT 12, a non-Trappist (and infinitely more accessible) product said to be based on Westvleteren’s original recipe? The ale’s mystique and limited availability, we decided, must certainly play a part in its high rating. Which led us to wondering: How big a factor are those same forms of mystique and limited availability playing in today’s top-rated beers?
The Tasting Notes:
Westvleteren 12, 2010 (warm-stored)
Nose: definite signs of aging. The years are apparent in hawthorn honey and slight vegemite notes. Bit of cardboard, too. Moist rum cake, natural maple syrup, hint of licorice. Still has some spice: clove, primarily, and possibly tarragon. Burnt sugar cookies, hint of ethanol.
Flavor: muddy. Honey, sherry and cherry notes rule, plus strong sweet maple and warm, cooked vanilla, almost like angel food cake. Finish is quite malty and sweet, big sugar cookie, cardboard and shortbread.
Westvleteren 12, 2010 (fridge-stored)
Nose: much fruitier and fresher than the other, lacking the aged character and focused more on ripe strawberry and banana notes. Very soft cardboard. Brighter licorice and ginger notes, plus a tangy prune note. Splash of maple syrup.
Flavor: fruity as well, but shifts toward malts. Very doughy, bread dough, raisin, maple and brown sugar. Very soft wine note, oxidation has been kept minimum. Still finishes fairly sweet, but back-end bitterness, though it arrives late, is quite firm. Very low alcohol character, more flavor than heat. Big difference just in carbonation level and clarity. Warm-stored is headless and looks slightly murky; cold-stored has a dense, pillowy head and has dropped relatively clear.
Westvleteren 12, 2012 (U.S. release, fridge-stored)
Nose: whipped cream and ripe strawberry. Brown sugar, almost bourbony. Vanilla bean.
Flavor: green grape, caribbean dark rum, soft vanilla, baking sugar cookie. Bigger alcohol flavor than the older bottles, not distracting but certainly noticeable.
Westvleteren 12, 2016
Nose: big alcohol character in the nose, slightly plasticky. Vanilla bean, maple syrup. Banana, strawberry. Lots of pink bubblegum as it warms. More phenolic than any of the others.
Flavor: slightly nutty, toasted almond or peanut character. Underripe strawberry, soft raisin. Sweet, with sticky sugars that linger long after the sip. Sharper and hotter than all the others.