Best Beer in Belgium?
There is nothing quite like spending an evening tasting some of the most revered beers in the world. Once again, RateBeer.com has named Westvleteren XII the best beer in the world, but we wanted to test it out among the other top beers in the Belgian Quadrupel style. So I put together a little blind tasting.
Sarah was our master pourer, a job she is excellent at, and Kathleen, being pregnant, was only a sniffer. Sarah reserved a small pour for herself, but she also reserved her judgement. My brother-in-law Bobby and myself were the tasters of record.
The night started with La Trappe Quadrupel, a stand out beer for it’s lighter golden color and pronounced alcohol presence. While Bobby found La Trappe quite pleasing — noting a strong dried apple flavor, I found it a little astringent for my taste. La Trappe Quadrupel is an outlier for the style. It’s quite drier and lighter in color than most and lacks a big malty character.
Second, and most widely forgotten, was St. Bernardus Abt. 12. As the legend goes, Abt. 12 is based on the original recipe for Westvleteren’s famous 12, but brewed commercially in a non-Trappist facility. In my notes though it only stands out as a more traditional Quad than La Trappe. Abt. 12 is juicier — raisins and dried cranberries, but still dry. It has a hint of brown sugar, but it’s dry and a bit lifeless. Especially when compared to the original.
Westvleteren 12 was served third. The most revered beer in the world, it didn’t disappoint. 12 is darker than the St. Bernardus interpretation, with a hint of roasted malt. 12 has a big grapey flavor, not entirely unlike Port, raisins in brown sugar. As it sat and breathed the flavors became even more intense and rounder.
Rochefort 10 actually contains more alcohol than the rest of the field, 11.3%, but it hides it well. Grapes and berries are layered all over, with a subtle alcoholic burn. I found 10 to be the spiciest and most balanced. There was just something different; I still can’t exactly place it.
Really, it’s hard to decide which is better or best. Bobby and Sarah liked the La Trappe Quadrupel, but it was my least favorite. Between the Rochefort 10 and Westvleteren XII there was only the thinnest slice of daylight. When we tried guessing which beer was which, I got the first two spot on, but reversed 10 and XII. Who knows, maybe thinking that Rochefort was Westy made it taste just a little bit better.
All I know is that both were very, very tasty.
I got it! I got it! Now what?
I’m thinking share one for a blind tasting.
Horde one for myself.
And save the rest to be parceled our over the next few years.
What can you say about St. Bernardus?
The brewery is built in an old cheese factory in the 1930s. They make abbey style beers based on recipes based on Westvleteren’s original line up. Some say the original Westvleteren yeast strain still lives in St. Bernardus bottles — from a forty year period of contract brewing for the monks. Since then they have remained independent from the major brands. And St. Bernardus is huge in Japan.
St. Bernardus isn’t made by monks, profits don’t go to charity, and no one prays eight times a day, but the beer is delicious. Abt. 12 is full of figgy pudding, dates, and toffee. There is a hint of chocolate, almonds, and cola. It’s a full and round — smooth like an oatmeal stout. Who cares about monks, this is great.
I drank my first Trappistes Rochefort 10 in Bruges. I bought this bottle in Amsterdam. It’s been moved from fridge to cellar — a box in the closet — to fridge and back again for months. I’ve wanted to drink it, but I wasn’t sure if it was time.
But there was homemade vanilla ice cream, and Sarah was a little bit interested in trying it. At first the scent was tangy and the taste was dark and roasted like coffee — bitter. Like a pleasant porter with some spice and fruit. So I let it settle and open up. The fruit got brighter, more yeasty spice. Almost a port wine character. This is what I wanted. It’s not as viscous as I remember. It’s not as sweet. Maybe that’s the extra age? It’s lighter and delicious. There is an aroma that stays with you. Every inhale and exhale has a hint of raisin and warmth. I could split a bottle of this every night.
I bought this bottle of The Stoic months ago. It’s been moving from the fridge to a box I call the cellar and back again. I just couldn’t get myself to crack the wax. But I found the best by date last week and figured it was time to open it up.
I split my Stoic with Sarah last night. I figured she could appreciate an ale aged on pomegranate seeds and a mixture of fancy barrels. The first thing I noticed was yeast. That spicy Belgian yeast all hot and tingly. But the heat might have come off the alcohol. The Stoic is only eleven and a half percent, but it was hot. Tingly too. The pomegranate came through so heavy that even Sarah said it was nice. Maybe even a hint of nectarine. And some wine barrel.
My criticism are aimed at the look of the beer. This is not a dark quad. I want some more sweetness and some heavy fruit in my quad. The Stoic delivers fruit; it has the heat; it’s tasty, but it isn’t the same as other quads out their.
Last night was full of strong beers. I started with the Bayern Mai Bock with dinner. Bock is a strong lager from Germany brewed for Spring festivals. This American interpretation tasted pretty traditional as far as I know. It’s the first bock I think I’ve ever tasted. My initial reaction was that it tasted similar to a quadrupel, raisiny and boozy, maybe there is a taste of fig. It tasted very full, heavy almost, but left my tongue dry and wanting more.
When I got home, I decided to break out the La Trappe Quadrupel I picked up in Amsterdam. I was expecting something a bit darker. The scent of booze was about all I got from this beer. The taste was spicy and lacking in the usual dark fruit. No prune, no raisin. I was reminded of a dubbel, but with more warm alcohol. As I took the last warm sip I thought, Belgian barley wine.
Last night, I shared the Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel I bought at the Halve Maan brewery with my cousin Briana and her fiance Steve. They have been on a weekend trek through every brewery in Portland, but they stopped by to share some Belgian beer with me. And Steve filled my fridge with some delicious sounding home brews.
I’m convinced, I like quads. The Straffe Hendrik is so fruity and dark, but not heavy. There is no bitterness but a good alcohol warmth. Something reminds me of port, but with a honey-like sweetness or dark brown sugar. At this rate it will only take me a few months to empty my fridge.
I went to Europe and all I brought home was more beer: a ton of Cantillon, some glasses, some quads, and three of Mikkeller’s single hop IPAs: amarillo, apollo, and citra.
Bruges is a great beer city. Every restaurant and bar serves a full selection of great Belgian brews. I started the evening with Indian food and a Duvel. It’s a pale Belgian ale with a great spiciness. It’s dry and tingly with a peppery hop finish. I followed that up with a Gouden Carolus Classic which was darker and figgy. Sarah said she got a hint of hazelnut. There is definitely a little nutty flavor with a lingering molasses flavor. We couldn’t get a table in the big beer bars, so we headed out of the main bar squares to a tiny, dark bar blasting 80’s music and drank Abby beers feet from a pinball machine. My Rochefort 10 was served super cold, but while it warmed up I sampled the St. Bernadus Tripel Bobby ordered. It was decent, I’m not crazy about tripel, but it was pretty good. It was a little bit floral but super dry with a floral nose. Kathleen hated the Gulden Draak, too sweet? There was definitely a hint of something savory. My Rochefort ten never really warmed up completely but it was delicious. Sweet and dry. Roasted and fruity. There was a ton of potential in that glass, definitely unique.