Thursday, April 28, 2005

Tasting notes - Westvleteren 12

Ambrosia? Routinely championed as the greatest single beer in the world, Westvletern 12 (aka "yellow cap") is shrouded in boozy mystery for the rest of us lay-drinkers as it's always been the sort of beer that's touted as being impossible to find outside of Belgium.
But, as you can see from the picture, it's not all that obscure an item these days. Look! The label's even (mostly) in English. In fact, I've long been of the mind that W12 was only #1 on those two sites because of it's scarcity. And let's be honest: as a result of the hype, it's almost impossible to enjoy fully. But that's not the whole story (see short rant below). Let's begin this review in typical BeerAdvocate fashion:

Cap reads: 15.10.05 Which is interesting, as it's only April. Fascinating. Poured a ruby, cherrywood amber into my hand-engraved "Beer Hunter" goblet, with traces of pink diamonds in the close-knit bead of dense yet snowy, tight yet billowing head. Raisins, prunes, figs, and other Near East fruits and vegetables danced across the palate before a warming - yet brisk - alcoholic bitterness entered the room for a friendly game of pinochle. They all left a few minutes later after a bittersweet tussle, only to have a finish of oaked sherry and lycee call in the middle of the night to mention they'd forgotten their wallet... A marvelous encounter...

Truth is, it was simpler than that - it's a hot (read "you can taste the booze, man") and dark brew with layer after layer of flavor. Des and I agreed that the up-front alcohol burn seemed out of sorts for a beer that's given such ga-ga reviews, but it's possible the anticipation of "the perfect beer" left us a bit on the defensive side. The interplay of deep flavors is nonetheless phenomenal, increasingly complex as it warms up - yet with characteristics that I've found just as intriguing in a draft of St. Bernardus 12 (whom St. Sixtus has taken to court) or Aventinus Eisbock or even a bottle of (seriously!) Allagash Grand Cru. I must admit, however, that the thought of sitting down at the café across from the monastery with a freshly poured glass of yellow cap sounds like nothing less than beer heaven. It is truly special stuff, and well worth 5, even 6 euros. But is it worth $20?
This is straying from the format of a "tasting notes" post, but I think it's a relevant tangent/rant. Consider if you will: Across the street from the St. Sixtus Abbey is a café where regular, non-Trappist folks like you and me can sit down and enjoy the fruit of their labor for around 3 euros per glass, and if you drive up to the monastery to load up your trunk with a couple cases (five's the max), you're shopping in the ballpark of 1.50 euros per bottle. And that's the way the monks want it - affordable, local, and unpretentious. In fact, they're apparently quite disturbed by all the second-hand labeling and somewhat clandestine distribution, noting defeatedly that "once the beer leaves the monastery, there's nothing we can do". Knowing full well that 330 mL bottles can go from anywhere in the range of $10-$25 has the monks concerned about regular people's ability to afford what they see as a simple, basic element of sustenance - along with bread and cheese - not an item reserved for the wealthy and privileged. Capitalism seems to be doing these folks a disservice: They don't want to charge locals more for their beer, so they refrain from expanding their capacity and distribution in any way that would increase their production costs, which has resulted in a sort of black market export trade where prices go unchecked abroad, in turn leaving the monks debating how to continue their business within the terms of their strict moral code.
I bring all this up because, in the end, you're going to come across some bottles at some point and ask yourself, is it worth it? It's an extraordinary beer. Is it the best in the world? Probably not. And if the bottles you come across are stamped with a price tag that seems extreme, it's still a tough call. Someone as obsessive as me is going to have to try at least one (or two) bottle(s), but for the vast majority (I can't believe I'm writing this) I'd recommend skipping it. You're not only alleviating some of the guilt the monks of St. Sixtus feel, but also telling the folks selling it that you're above the hype. It's a very tough call, considering that it is a very fine ale, and hell -you probably wouldn't even be reading this if you weren't open to the idea of plopping down a Jackson for less than 12 ounces of beer (I'll write about the überexpensive Deus when I've gone totally nuts). But considering that the quadrupel style is being more commonly approached by domestic craft brewers, it's becoming less and less of a novelty item and worth considering the many equally wonderful options you have with considerably less spiritual baggage.
If, however, you've found yourself in that café across the street from the abbey, do yourself a favor and reward yourself with one the world's rarest beers. And bring some back for me...



Post a Comment

<< Home