THE HOLY GRAIL OF BEERS. So the Westvleteren XII is often dubbed, though one imagines the brewers themselves (being Benedictine monks) would be uncomfortable with the soubriquet, however well-intentioned. Either way, the comparison alludes not only to the beer’s quality, but also its rarity: Westvleteren is the only Trappist brewer that refrains from commercial distribution. Strict controls are placed on purchases, which can occur only at the brewery, are limited per person, and must be registered ahead of time. It’s altogether quite an arduous affair that most people can’t afford (or won’t bother) to undertake. Regardless of what qualities the beer itself has to offer, such deliberate rarity plays a major role in its hallowed reputation. St. Bernardus brewed for Westvleteren under contract for many years, and their Abt 12 (widely renowned as superlative and the commercially available/financially sane version of Westvleteren) sits prettily on shelves for weeks. This imbalance is no unique phenomenon, to be sure—see the disciples of Pliny, Dark Lord, etc.—but nowhere is the halo of desire brighter than around Westvleteren’s collared neck. And so it happened that when the beer was made commercially available for one exclusive run (a six-pack with two tasting glasses, meant to pay for repairs to the abbey’s roof), supplies across the entire US sold out in a single day. Sweden’s national alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, saw its entire stock exhausted via websales in a mere seven seconds. Deus vult.
Existing in such a world, it’s impossible for Westvleteren XII to actually live up to its reputation. That said, from sampling even half a bottle it is clear that this beer is distinctly special. Addressing precisely each of Trappist ales’ many fortes, it projects a distinct identity as neatly layered and purposeful as any Belgian beer yet tasted. The pour is a rich and deep brown (around 40 SRM though lighter at the edges) and cloudy almost like a cider—fairly close to its bottle color, all in all. The aromas off a fresh bottle are rich, offering roasted cashews, woody chocolate, cola, and raisin. The head is a pale mocha, not so explosive or tight as some other Trappists.
Early on the palate, kilned semisweet malt is key, a little like toffee but without most of the sugary, yeasty thickness associated with quads. A very distinct and potent zip of phenols follows, bordering on an Orval astringency before subsiding and being smoothed over by a finish of cola, cloves, and just enough hints of ripe dark fruit (cherry coming through a little in tartness). Its body is actually lighter than expected for the style and rather well attenuated with moderate alcohol heat (10.2% ABV) at the end. The finish lingers long, mildly phenolic but not drying, and is entirely without residue. Even if it didn’t instantly impart eternal life, at this young age it is already a world classic and one of the airiest quads imaginable. And with five bottles left it’ll be a luxury to see how it ages. If they last that long.
Served: 33 cl bottle (sell by 1.07.15)
Update – August 1, 2015
And it would seem that they have–lasted, that is. Some two-odd years later, the time finally came to break the next seal in this sacred Six(tus)-pack. And it was quite a coincidence that spurred on the action: engaged in moving, the still-intact cardboard case was withdrawn from its cellaring chamber and a bottle removed to show to an inquisitive acquaintance. In doing so, we realized that the date stamped on its crown was the selfsame day we chose to remove it from its resting place. Fortuitous at the least, an irresistible sign from above perhaps even more likely. So, then, how does the grand master of quads mature, and does he remain as robust and regal as they say?
And how, in brief. To be sure, a 3-year vintage of Westy retains many of the layers that distinguished it when fresh–raisin, woody chocolate, cherry, moderate alcohol heat, roast, raisins, and an uncommon dryness in the finish are all qualities from the first tasting that endure. But here they have fused more artfully, leaving behind that faintly hot or phenolic edge of the fresher batch and developing a maturity of warmth and lively but well-rounded depth suitable to its vintage. Too, the fruit is more layered, at first dates/figs/raisins but eventually unfolding into black cherry and raspberry as the liquid warms, complementing waves of toasted bread crust, creamy milk, lighter toffee, edges of baking spice (mild, though), and a consistent cola background note that helps underscore the beer’s various phases. A slight zip of dried lemon peel can even be picked out, mostly when the dregs are added and the liquid is lashed about with the tongue to generate large bubbles and dissolve. Unsurprisingly, the extra time has been nothing but kind to the XII, and chances are its trajectory is still headed up, for another year at least, one suspects. But there may not be much room left to rise…
Served: 33 cl bottle (sell by 1.08.15)