ITS HORIZONS AGLOW with the awe of discovery and reverently dubbed ‘The End of the World’, it’s only fitting that La Fin Du Monde is a gateway to enlightenment for so many American palates. As one of the most broadly available Belgian-style tripels in North America, the beer blaze a trail onto grocery shelves across the continent, normalizing a presentation that many Stateside drinkers had only ever associated with wine: the 750 ml corked brown glass bottle. Boasting the slogan ‘Drink Less, Drink Better’, the Unibroue brewery also counseled us to care more about quality than quantity. To pay more dollars for less volume, in other words. Today La Fin is a touchstone for craft beer’s ascent and a common name for marginally beer-learned food bloggers or wine columnists to drop in lip service to worldly brews. It’s become a predictable choice requiring a modicum of research, yet is still largely unassailable.
Indeed, in the nearly two decades since its introduction La Fin Du Monde has become Canada’s most-awarded beer. And whereas many craft ales launched at that time might now be considered ‘classic’ (an ambivalent term that can mean both ‘great’ and ‘outmoded’), La Fin’s deliberately old-world presentation and Belgian inspiration have made it timeless. It will always be celebrated as North America’s first Belgian-style tripel—and perhaps even now as its best.
Unibroue’s dominant market position today was assuredly helped by attractive packaging and broadened distribution after two buyouts (Sleeman in 2004, Sapporo in ’06). Yet unlike many market leaders, Unibroue’s name remains respected and often revered amongst discerning drinkers. Such respect derives solely from the strength of their armada, with La Fin as its flagship. Their not-so-secret weapon is a distinctive yeast strain (developed over 18 months before La Fin’s launch in 1994) that pays homage to strong Belgian tradition without having to copy it. Today it is discernible in most Unibroue beers, leading some to criticize the brewery for a lack of variation. But all too few North American brewers have made in-house yeasts the central figure in their flavor profiles, even those focused on Belgian-style ales. Unibroue places theirs front and center, and deservedly so.
In its younger stages (i.e. under a year since bottling), Unibroue’s yeast is bold, emphasizing banana esters, pronounced phenols, pepper, and vibrant clove. For La Fin specifically, fermentation temperatures are likely kept high (second-hand reports say around 25 Celsius) to accentuate these further still over earthier, generally milder tones. With a moderate pale malt body, resplendent white head with intricate lacing, and an assertive 9% ABV, the beer deftly layers an array of robust flavors and textures upon a relatively clean and clear foundation. Spicing is nominally similar to a witbier–with coriander and perhaps also orange zest both present–but more as a component of the profile instead of its signature. Too, the strength of the beer, somewhat denser grain bill (though SRM is still only 5.5), and complexity of the yeast make La Fin a much larger presence on the palate than any wit. Hops are suitably limited to an aloof balancing role: Saaz and other mild noble varieties most likely.
The finish is quite crisp with high carbonation and strict attenuation, though not so thin as to dispel the satiating impression of its body—a little fuller and creamier than the drier Trappist Tripels (e.g. Westmalle’s). Alcohol is more present, too, than a traditional Belgian and at warmer temperatures will have a slightly slick rinse. This potent but balanced interplay of flavors, combined with the visual appeal of its glistening golden color and slight swirling haze, makes the temptation to take another sip almost immediate. But not quite necessary, nor even advisable. Left to sit on the palate for a bit longer, La Fin will unfurl a pleasant warmth around the bottom of the mouth and a peppery patter around its roof. And at 9% ABV, downing it too quickly might have other less desirable consequences. Besides, its aromas—fresh pilsner malts, a little peppery wheat, some citrus fruit alongside the banana, and a hint of sugar upon that solid yeast floor—are full enough to substitute for sips from time to time.
In this ever-widening world of beer the experience of La Fin Du Monde remains one of the most broadly satisfying. It forms a complete circle: rich aroma, stimulating textures, full flavors, and refreshing finish that performs admirably on its own or paired with dishes from bleu cheese steak to vinaigrette salads. It is, in brief, a beer fit to drink at the end of the world—and each turn on the voyage there.
Served: 750 ml bottle