Tasting Note 7 (of 7) from Doc and Barley’s Killer Beer Night…
Legends often disappoint. My father tells the story of meeting one of his favorite Red Sox players as a kid and getting a handshake like a dead fish. I remember the first time I went to a Smashing Pumpkins concert in high school (I worshiped them back then) and finding out that Billy Corgan was actually a pretty shitty singer.* Everyone has stories of meeting celebrities and politicians and finding out that they’re mostly insincere assholes. The bubble bursts and you’re left with the sad realization that the heroes we’ve championed all our lives are the same douchebags as everyone else.
*He’s still a bad-ass guitarist though.
That was the mindset I had when Doc and I cracked into the holiest of brews…the Westvleteren 12. Flashback about 7 years ago…I was working nights at a Boston package store where Doc was a manager. At that time, you could buy Westy at many high-end liquor stores, including ours. I honestly don’t recall if I tucked into a Westy during my brief tenure there…I didn’t record tasting notes back then. Plus, the beer hadn’t achieved the mythical, reverential status that it has today because it was still fairly easy to find. I moved out to California around the time that Westvleteren was pulled off American shelves. From then on, the only way to purchase the brew was to visit the monastery in Belgium (or through back channels like eBay). Marketing 101 tells us that when a beer (particularly a well-regarded Trappist) becomes scarce, its value rises. In no time, Westy 12 had gone from being a highly-respected Quad to the top-rated brew in the world. It’s the highest-ranked beer on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer and has been for years. Like the Dark Lord (the 3 Floyds offering we often discuss at Aleheads), Westy’s legend is due partly to its quality and partly to its rarity. It’s just a hard beer to find.
Thankfully, the Doc is nothing if not prescient. When he saw that Westy was being pulled from his package store shelves, he bought up every last bottle and stored them in his extensive beer cellar. I got to visit Doc’s secret lair during my trek to New England. It’s a smorgasbord of delights. Stille Nachts from every year since 2000. Aged Eisbocks. A variety of Thomas Hardys. And there, in the back of an old wooden crate, a handful of bottles of the legend made glass…Westy.
Today, since the brew can only be purchased at the monastery, Westy is label-less. But since the Doc’s collection came from the era when it was still obtainable state-side, it had the old, cream-colored label with the Westvleteren logo you see above. The bottle was purchased in 2003, but Doc believes the beer was actually brewed a couple of years earlier. So we were probably drinking a 9 or 10-year-old brew. Doc thought it might have aged a little too long…he said 4 or 5 years was more appropriate, but whatever. I’m certainly not complaining.
We split the 11.2 ounce bottle between two tulip glasses (with a small cognac glass to hold the yeast sediment just to see how much was in there…quite a bit, actually). It pours a deep, rich chestnut color with the single most perfect head I’ve ever seen on a beer. It’s impossibly tightly knit and to say it “lasts” is an understatement. If we had left our glasses untouched until morning, the head wouldn’t have dropped a millimeter. It’s worth noting that for a beer to maintain a persistent head after nearly a DECADE in a bottle…well, that’s pretty fucking special. Hard to tell about the lacing on the Westy since the head never goes away.
Actually, the never-ending head also makes the nose a little challenging to detect. Because the bubbles never popped and the head never dissipates, the aroma is a touch muted. I got some dried fruit…prunes and raisins. Some sweet honey and molasses. A bit of clove and other more subtle spices….and a nice whiff of dark rum. The taste is exquisite…not as sweet as the nose implies, but with a hefty, toasted malt backbone. The fruitiness is subtle. It doesn’t have the big, banana-ester flavor of a lot of Belgians…more like plump, golden raisins. It’s a touch astringent in the finish, though the 10.2% ABV is well-incorporated and there’s virtually no alcohol burn. It’s musty, as you might expect from a well-aged brew, but not like a farmhouse saison. It’s actually more savory…almost mutton-like (I assure you this is the first and last time I will compare beer to lamb meat). The one knock on the taste is that there is an unmistakable soy sauce flavor that lingers in every sip. This certainly adds to that interesting, savory “umami” flavor, but Doc and I decided the soy was simply an after-affect of the beer being aged longer than it probably should have been.*
*Wifey McHops noted that the beer “smells like dirt and tastes like soy sauce”. I chose to ignore her.
The mouthfeel should be full-bodied, but because of the wonderful carbonation, it’s actually light and sparkling on your tongue. Drinkability is sadly high. I say “sadly”, because I knew this was the last bottle I would have for quite some time. Suffice it to say, if I had unfettered access to a cask of Westy, I would drink myself into a stupor every night (Doc somehow managed to do this during our session even without a cask being present). Consider this one legend that won’t let you down.
Is it a 4 Hops beer? No question. Is it my favorite beer on Earth? No…it isn’t. It might not have disappointed like the legends I discussed above, but it’s certainly not my all-time favorite. To be honest, I enjoyed Founder’s KBS much more…and as far as Trappists are concerned, I would still choose Orval. But those are just my personal, highly subjective preferences. The fact is, for any true Alehead, the Westy 12 HAS to be in your Top Ten. And even if it’s not #1 on every Alehead’s list, I suspect it’s the ONLY brew that no one would leave out. Does that make it the best beer in the world?
You know what? I suppose it does.