Top of the brews

Our colum­nist has a taste of what is con­sid­ered the best beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - by michael cheang

WE are not brew­ers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to af­ford be­ing monks,” said the Fa­ther Ab­bot of the Abbey of Saint Six­tus in Westvleteren, Bel­gium, dur­ing the open­ing of the abbey’s new brew­ery in 1992.

“We make the beer to live, but we do not live for beer,” said one of the abbey’s monks in an in­ter­view with the UK’s The In­de­pen­dent back in 2005.

Why all the fuss about Abbey of Saint Six­tus and their beer? Well, that’s be­cause the beer these reclu­sive monks have been brew­ing for over 160 years is cur­rently re­garded as THE best beer in the world.

In 2005, the abbey’s Westvleteren 12 Trap­pist Ale was named the Best Beer In The World by Rate­Beer (www.rate­beer.com), an in­de­pen­dent beer rank­ing web­site. Till to­day, it is still the high­est-rated beer on that site, with a per­fect score of 100.

Trap­pist ales are beers brewed by Trap­pist monks of the Or­der of Cis­ter­cians of the Strict Ob­ser­vance. One of the fac­tors that make Westvleteren beer so highly sought af­ter is the fact that it is brewed and sold ex­clu­sively at the Saint Six­tus Abbey lo­cated in Westvleteren, a small vil­lage in the prov­ince of West Flan­ders, and re­gard­less of how much de­mand there is for the beer, the monks only brew enough to fi­nan­cially sup­port the oper­a­tion of the abbey, and not for prof­its.

On top of that, Westvleteren Trap­pist ale is sold only to in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers who buy it from the abbey, and re­sales of the beer are not per­mit­ted.

Yes, you can still get the beer in spe­cialty beer shops all over the world, but these are usu­ally ob­tained through sec­ondary chan­nels and would usu­ally cost you a bomb.

So, how do you get the beer er ... le­git­i­mately then? Dur­ing a re­cent trip to Bel­gium, my host – in­de­pen­dent whisky bot­tler and beer en­thu­si­ast Luc Tim­mer­mans – gra­ciously drove us to the abbey and walked us through the process of get­ting the beer.

Ac­cord­ing to Luc, there are only two of­fi­cial places you can get Westvleteren beer – the abbey’s beer shop, and the In De Vrede wel­come cen­tre op­po­site the abbey (Donker­straat 12, B -8640 Westvleteren), where you can drink the beers, and visit an ex­hi­bi­tion con­tain­ing in­for­ma­tion about life in the abbey, the brew­ery and the brew­ing process (the abbey and brew­ery it­self is off lim­its to the pub­lic).

If you want to buy a cou­ple of crates of the beer to bring home how­ever, then things start get­ting a lit­tle tricky. First of all, you’ll have to check the abbey’s web­site (http://www.sintsix­tus.be/eng/brouw­erij.htm) to see if they have any avail­able. If they do, then you have to make a reser­va­tion by tele­phone (no, you can’t or­der it on­line), and even then, you’d have to be in­cred­i­bly lucky or very, very pa­tient.

“Please take into ac­count that you may of­ten get a busy sig­nal when you call to make a reser­va­tion, due to the fact that our beer lines are over­bur­dened!” pro­claims the of­fi­cial web­site of the abbey/brew­ery. “Due to our small-scale pro­duc­tion, the num­ber of tele­phone calls is much greater than the num­ber of avail­able reser­va­tions. That means, it’s a mat­ter of hav­ing a lot of pa­tience as well as a lot of luck.”

If your luck is good and you man­age to get through, you then need to make an ap­point­ment with the op­er­a­tor, and pro­vide the li­cence plate num­ber of the car you will be us­ing to pick up the beer. Then on the day of your ap­point­ment, you’ll have to drive all the way to the abbey’s beer shop to get your beer.

To add to the ex­clu­siv­ity of the beer, once you’ve got­ten your batch, you can’t call the abbey on the same num­ber to or­der an­other batch for at least 60 days. And even if you use an­other tele­phone num­ber to call in, you can’t use the same car to pick up the beer within those 60 days as well.

So, is Westvleteren Trap­pist beer worth all the hype and has­sle one has to go through to get it? The an­swer is a re­sound­ing YES.

The brew­ery cur­rently only brews three dif­fer­ent beers, all served in an un­la­belled bot­tle bear­ing only the words “Trap­pist ale”, and the only way to dis­tin­guish them from one an­other are the bot­tle caps. The green-capped Westvleteren Blonde is a 5.8% ABV ale that is served ex­clu­sively at In De Vrede. Then there is the blue-capped Westvleteren 8, an 8% ABV dou­ble Trap­pist ale that ranks all the way up there with some of the best beers I’ve ever had.

The crown jewel of the Westvleteren range how­ever, is the golden-capped Westvleteren 12, a Bel­gian Trap­pist quadru­ple ale that con­tains an im­pres­sive 10.2% ABV.

In­tro­duced by the abbey in 1940, this is the Holy Grail of all beers. This is the beer that is ranked num­ber one on Rate­Beer. This is the beer that is con­sid­ered the best beer in the world, so sought af­ter that people are will­ing to pay hun­dreds of dol­lars just to get their hands on a bot­tle.

The first time I tried the beer, I couldn’t be­lieve that a beer could be THIS good. The bou­quet of rich fruits, nuts and sweet caramel honey scents; the bal­ance of the ever-evolv­ing flavours of malt, honey, ce­re­als, dried fruits; and the won­der­fully long and lin­ger­ing caramel-bub­blegum sweet af­ter­taste ... it was sim­ply too com­plex to de­scribe prop­erly. And that was just the newer ver­sion of the Westvleteren 12, which was brewed in 2012.

Ac­cord­ing to the abbey web­site, the beers may have a “sell-by” date stamped on the caps (usu­ally three years af­ter its brew­ing date), but can last long af­ter those dates have passed. In fact, as long as you store the bot­tles ver­ti­cally in a dark place be­tween 12°C and 16°C, the bot­tle-con­di­tioned beers will “con­tinue to ripen” and be­come even bet­ter (though this ap­plies only to the Westvleteren 8 and 12, not the Blonde).

I got to test this the­ory first-hand when Luc later brought out a bot­tle of Westvleteren 12 brewed in 2007, which turned out to be the sin­gle great­est beer I have ever tried in my life.

It had all the flavours and rich­ness of the 2012 brew, but with the ad­di­tion of a cer­tain bal­anced mel­low­ness that ex­ploded into a com­plex kalei­do­scope of flavours. It was as if all the pos­si­ble flavours I would ex­pect in an ale were hav­ing a party in my mouth. And best of all, was that sweet, long, won­der­ful fin­ish that lin­gered on long af­ter I had fin­ished the fi­nal sip of the beer.

Is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world? In my book, it is. Sure, there may be bet­ter tast­ing beers out there, but for me, it’s not just about the liq­uid in the bot­tle. Ev­ery­thing about it – the hype, the story of the abbey, the monks’ stead­fast re­solve in not sell­ing the beer for profit, the ex­treme ex­clu­siv­ity of the beer, the long and com­pli­cated process of get­ting it ... all of these fac­tors add up to make Westvleteren Trap­pist ale my per­sonal great­est beer of all time.

Michael Cheang wishes he lives in Bel­gium just so it would be eas­ier to get a bot­tle of Westvleteren.

Pre­mium: Westvleteren Trap­pist ale is con­sid­ered by many to be the best beer in the world.

Westvleteren Trap­pist ale is brewed and sold ex­clu­sively at the Saint Six­tus abbey lo­cated in Westvleteren, a small vil­lage in the prov­ince of

West Flan­ders, bel­gium.

Westvleteren Trap­pist ale comes in an un­la­belled bot­tle, and the only way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate its three beers is by the colour of the bot­tle cap.

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