Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Westvleteren vs. St. Bernardus

One of these things is not like the others...
Disclaimer: this tasting didn't go how I wanted it to.  Not the results, the tasting itself.

A few weeks ago there was a multi-birthday party at the home of our friends Brett and Debbie.  Since lots of our beer-loving crowd was going to be there, I decided it was time to trot out the bottles of Westvleteren 8 and 12 (one of each) that I brought back from Belgium this summer.

To make it more interesting, I decided to make it a blind tasting, comparing the Westy 12 with St. Bernardus Abt 12.  Westvleteren 12 is one of the world's rarest and most sought-after beers: it is only distributed at the Abbey St. Sixtus where it is produced.  St. Bernardus is very easy to find: I bought the bottle for this tasting for $4 at the CVS on East Burnside.  The two beers are often compared to one another, and have some history in common.  I had tried them side-by-side in Amsterdam, but I knew which was which, so I was probably biased in favor of the rarer, more expensive Westvleteren.  This blind tasting -- with a lot of experienced palates -- would be a great experiment.

But the best laid schemes go oft awry, and so it was with this tasting.  See the bottlecaps in the picture?  I popped the blue bottlecap from the bottle of St. Bernardus and poured some samples into small glasses, and then popped the Westvleteren bottle with the blue bottlecap and divided up that beer.  Westvleteren bottles don't have paper labels, so the bottlecap was my indication of which style was in each bottle.  In my excitement about what a fun tasting this would be I let the color fool me instead of reading the numbers, which means that instead of comparing two similar quadrupels, I had pitted  Abt 12 against the dubbel Westy 8 -- also a fine beer, but quite a bit subtler than the 12.  I didn't realize the mistake until all the glasses had been passed around and drained, and I went to open the third bottle as Act Two of my show and tell.  "OK, now try the Westvleteren eigh... uh oh."

Not too surprisingly, the Abt 12 handily defeated the Westy 8 in the blind tasting, 5 votes to 2 -- hey, a couple of people enjoyed the more subtle pleasures of the dubbel, anyway.  Before I knew about the mix-up, I was perplexed by how different the Westvleteren was than my memory of it from a few weeks earlier.  And I was even more disappointed because the Abt 12 seemed a little cloying to me that day, not worthy to knock off such a sought-after beer.

We did share the Westy 12 around after that.  It was as spectacular as I remembered it being, and in my opinion was better than a 3 year-old Westy 12 that Angelo generously shared with a few people back in August.  Cellaring beer is fun, but sometimes your best bet is to drink things fresh.  At the party, I think most of us agreed that the Westvleteren 12 was indeed a notch above the St. Bernardus.  But by then the damage had been done -- it wasn't a blind tasting anymore.

Almost forgot to mention: it was this tweet by Matt at portlandbeer.org that inspired me to finally write this up!


  1. In about six weeks I will be tasting these beer in situ. it will be a joy to see how they stack up against their reputations.

  2. We did a blind tasting of all the main culprits and a 2 good interpretations, surprisingly Westvleteren came in 4th place behind St. Bernardus 12, Southampton Abt 12, and Rochefort 10

  3. Derek: Is there a writeup of that tasting that I can link to? That is very interesting.

    Do you remember if any of those had been aged? Also, do you know the provenance of the Westy and the Southampton (I assume the other two were bought in Portland)? Not debating the result, just curious about the parameters of the tasting.

  4. That title made it sound like you were going to post about some European soccer match.

  5. Bill,

    No idea on the age of the Westvleteren as I didn't purchase it myself, though the others were all the current years batch. By taste the Westvleteren showed no signs of oxidation.

    Not sure if the write up is still around, I'll have to see if it's stored somewhere in the ol' blog back up.

    And also for the record there were a few others in the tasting that placed later in the field: La Trappe Quad, Chimay Blue, Struise Pannapot, Achel Extra.

  6. Bill:
    I was at that blind tasting with Derek (tahanks for recalling what ranked ahead/behind it, DA - I also recall a homebrewed quad thrown in for fun)... somewhere I have a sheet of notes and my rankings, but god knows where they are.
    As I recall, the Wesvleteren was a year old or so. I think we were all surprised, once the 'reveal' happened, about how middle-of-the-pack W12 turned out to be. Certainly it was very tasty, just not the best of the bunch...