In the world of beer there is a lot of myth amongst the reality. Sometimes it seems that half-truths are intentionally told in order to keep legends alive, and of course the more mystery, obscurity, and romance involved, the better. The longest-running rumor amongst Belgian beer fans that I’ve been exposed to is that the legendary Westvleteren, brewed in Trappist monasteries by devoted monks and unavailable in the United States, is the same beer as the St Bernardus Abt 12 available on our very shelves. Of course, the Westy is so rare that most beer drinkers never have an opportunity to form an opinion on the issue – but Nicolay and I can now count ourselves among the lucky few.
I recently acquired a bottle of Westy from a (very) generous sales rep as a thank-you for giving some of his beers a chance in the store. I was really psyched about the opportunity to try such a legendary brew, but the beer-nerd in me was already scheming. Clearly this must be an occasion… and what better way to celebrate trying something so rare than to taste it blind, one-on-one with its purported twin? Exactly… none.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, I headed over to Nicolay’s house with the brown bags and high hopes. He was manning the grill, which was just fine with me (charcoal and light seasoning on several different meats – Brazilian barbecue is the best). We even broke out the Riedel tasting glasses – sometimes our wine roots come out, too. In the glass, both beers showed deep brown colors with red hues in the light. Both broke into rich aromatics of fruits, caramels, vanillas; they’re really quite intense and lovely. But on our little slips of paper we agreed that one beer was clearly superior, and reaching into the bag and extracting the Westvleteren was hardly a surprise. See, the St Bernardus was delicious, rich and full of perfume, but that beer coated the palate and lingered on and on in a curious persistence that bordered on sticky. When we sipped the Westy, the fruits and caramels and lovely, creamy palate dissipated into just the tiniest hint of drying bitterness. The hops are barely perceptible on the nose, but just a slightly different approach to their use balanced out the finish, the palate, and the beer itself.
And so the romance of the monks is still alive for me… they sure brew one hell of a beer.