Well, well…looks like one of the world’s most difficult-to-obtain beers is on it’s way to Canada in the form of a nice gift pack complete with proper glassware. The beer in question is St. Sixtus’ “Westvleteren 12”, a trappist beer (made by monks, no less) that is normally only sold in Belgium through a lottery system.
You contact them, they call you when your name is chosen, and you pick it up at the brewery (being sure to take down your license plate number so you don’t sneak in for even more cases!). The monks have recently looked at renovating and revitalizing their monastery, and what better way to raise money than to give everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy a coveted beer. That doesn’t happen quite often. We are lucky in Vancouver (being a major city with very persistent beer importers) in that we get a wide selection of beers from all over the globe.
Every now and again a beer comes in that’s rarer than the last. “Westy 12” is pretty high up there, and we have had the opportunity to buy it once before, most likely because someone was able to buy some in Belgium and sell it to certain private liquor stores over here. Probably not very kosher according to the government (be it Belgian or BC…), but absolute bliss to those who knew what kind of chance they were getting.
First off, a bit of a low-down on what it means to be a “trappist” beer. You may have heard that “champagne” is not “champagne” if it’s made outside of the Champagne region of France. This is because it is an appellation, or a legally defined geographical area. The same thing goes for Tennessee whiskey, or Kentucky bourbon. There are rules laid forth in which these products should be made. With trappist beer, there is no defined geographical area, rather the abbey in which the beer is brewed at must adhere to strict rules. They are, courtesy of Wikipedia, as follows:
-The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
-The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
-The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.
-Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to assure the irreproachable quality of their beers.
St. Sixtus is just one of 7 abbeys that brew trappist beer in the world, with Rochefort, Orval, Chimay, Achel, Westmalle and La Trappe being the other 6. If a brewery were to produce a beer similar to a trappist beer, but did not have the authentication, it would be considered an “Abbey” beer, similar to the way wineries outside of Champagne need to call their champagne a “sparkling wine”. A good example of such a brewery is St. Bernardus.
Westy 12 is what’s called a “quadrupel”, a strong ale with over 10% ABV. There is no real judgement on what makes a quadrupel, it’s mainly used to identify that it is stronger in alcohol than a “tripel”, which is stronger than a “dubbel” (Fun fact: the “X”s you may have seen on the tops of barrels is the convention in which monks would indicate what beer was in it. XX for dubbel, XXX for tripel). The beers are fairly different, with a quadrupel being quite dark, and the tripel pale. Now, Westy 12 is considered a “holy grail”, with a ton of hype behind it. There are naysayers out there, who compare it to other trappist quadrupels or abbey ales, but is it vastly different? After having a fresh bottle (still have one ageing), I can safely say there is one big difference: the chewiness factor. I can’t say I’ve ever had a beer that has chewiness to it, and it’s completely strange when you experience it, but it adds another level to this super-complex beer. Aromas of yeast, figs and caramel…raisins and dark fruit on the palate, and a fantastic lingering smooth alcohol aftertaste make it quite an experience.
In Canada, the gift boxes have recently started being released (around July 20th) in Alberta and Ontario. More provinces will follow suit, though there is no indication as to when I’ll see it here in BC. The US will see them in September, so it looks like they’re trying to release in short bursts so as to not be overwhelming. The average cost of these packs is $75, and though it might seem pricey now, keep in mind that I shelled out $40 for 2 bottles…no glassware, no fancy box…nothing but the beer. It’s a great opportunity to try something historic. Call around to your local private liquor stores to see if they will be carrying it. I would recommend having a trappist/abbey night where you compare the various dubbels, tripels and quadrupels, or perhaps age some of them and do a comparison with a meal to pair it with. As for myself, I currently have a bottle of Rochefort 10 that I’ve aged for about as long as my 2nd bottle of Westvleteren 12, and I’d like to settle the differences between the two once and for all (though trust me on the chewiness factor…I don’t think Rochefort 10 has that magic). Expect to see a post on that fairly soon! Until then, go check out some of these trappist and abbey beers. Here in Vancouver, the only two that are not readily available are Achel and Westvleteren (well, yet…). Chimay, La Trappe and Westmalle even have big 750ml bottles (share if you’d like, they will floor you if you’re not careful!), and they are all totally reasonable on the wallet. Go forth!