The ominous day of 12/12/12 is upon us and it brings to the world of better beer a flurry of special events, including the final release in Stone Brewing Company’s Vertical Epic series. Stone’s ten year aging project will however likely find itself overshadowed by the highly anticipated release of Westvleteren XII, the widely touted and much sought after flagship of the Sint Sixtus Abbey. Located in the western Belgian hop region, near the town of Poperinge, Sint Sixtus was established in 1831 and thereafter began brewing beer to support the monastery. Today, Sint Sixtus produces three beers for public consumption, including Westvleteren 12, often referred to as the World’s Best Beer.

Except that it is not.

As any beer geek would, I sought out this holy grail beer to bask in its presence. I have had the beer in small beer cafes and from bottle shops in various Belgian towns, in the kitchens of friends here in the states, at beer festivals both here and abroad, and while seated at the monastery’s very pleasant outdoor cafe. After getting over the initial novelty, I was at first surprised and then disappointed with the beer. Saving for the wide differences in personal tastes, Westvleteren XII/12 is not a particularly drinkable or even enjoyable beer. I will long carry the memory of drinking the beer while surrounded by hop fields growing skywards in the abbey’s pastoral setting, but I remain surprised at the depth of my disappointment with the 12′s flavor. It’s not even near the top ten or fifteen quadrupels that I’ve had. Of that style, this is what I wrote in my book, Great American Craft Beer:

A curious style inspired and influenced by Belgium’s Trappist monk brewers, the Quadrupel is a potent, herbal, and bready style that boasts considerable alcoholic warmth and fruit complexity. American versions are often modeled on the classic Belgian versions, including the legendary Westvleteren 12. Dark amber to deep brown in hue, boozy alcohol notes swarm the nose, mixed with rich, phenolic yeast notes and dark fruit hints, including plums, cherries, and figs. Often aided by the addition of Belgian candi sugar, which ferments quickly, Quadrupels reach soaring alcohol heights of 8 to 12-percent. Despite these numbers, the style is surprisingly dry, as is common among other Belgian beer styles and a high carbonation level keeps everything in check. The texture is unusually light and medium-bodied, especially compared to the more cloying Winter Warmer and Barleywine styles, and the multiple fermentation cycles fight against flabbiness. Creamy and bready sweet at times, the nuanced phenolics and fruit flavors result in a particularly challenging slow sipper.

When even relatively young, Westvleteren XII is surprisingly sharp. It can be mildly phenolic and there is an underlying wash of malt sweetness that fights to come through. But it is all pummeled into submission by a lurking and quickly invidious yeast bite and bitterness that overwhelm the beer and destroy the finish. On my last visit to the monastery cafe, I ordered the Blond, the 8, and the 12. Of these beers, I personally believe the Blond is the unheralded star of the lineup, managing a beautiful balance of bitterness and malt character. The 8 is a pleasant sipper. And the 12′s for my companion and I sat half-consumed, abandoned castoffs.

The release of the Westvleteren XII today, at a cost to consumers of at least $85 per six pack, will certainly spark mad fervor among beer geeks, and that is understandable. There will be lines out the door of local liquor stores until the clock strikes the opening hour. Hype and novelty drive excitement and prices and that is understandable. And while you can quibble with how the beer is being allocated or sold, or decry how it will be hoarded and then likely resold, it remains a beer geek merit badge of a beer. For that reason, the exercise of experiencing a holy grail beer, it may be worth going in on a six pack with friends. But if you’re looking for an excellent quadrupel, a beer to really enjoy, you already have dozens of better and considerably less expensive options close to home.

With all of this said, I’d recommend you try or revisit Rochefort 10 or St. Bernardus Abt 12, which are much better values and remain eminently drinkable examples of the style. In terms of local options, several American breweries make solid versions of the style, including the Abbot 12 from Southampton Publick House, the Grand Cru from Green Flash Brewing Company, Baby Tree from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, Quadfather from Iron Hill Brewery, FOUR from Allagash Brewing Company, and The Sixth Glass from Boulevard Brewing Company.

My advice: save your money, head to Belgium one day, and try the beers for yourself at a fraction of the price.

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13 Responses to “Save Your Money, Westvleteren XII Really Isn’t Worth It…”

  1. JS says:

    I’ve never seen a more wrong post. Rochefort 10 is a hot boozy mess compared to Westy 12. St. Bernadus Abt 12 is similar, but Westy still wins in a blind taste test.

  2. Jeff Alworth says:

    “Westvleteren XII/12 is not a particularly drinkable or even enjoyable beer”

    Hogwash. It’s not the sublime beer everyone describes (except when it is–sublime is always in the eye of the beholder), but it’s perfectly respectable. It is also quite a variable beer, which I guess is one reason to dock it in terms of craft–though that attests to its non-industrial process.

    In terms of worth, $14 a bottle is at least as cheap as it can be found on the gray market, the money goes to monks, and you don’t have to spend $800 on a plane ticket to Brussels. Easily a bargain. Rarely do people have a chance to purchase a legend, and $85 isn’t too steep to find out what all the fuss is about.

  3. Andrew says:

    Couldn’t agree more on this beer, especially having it at the abbey’s cafe patio. My recollection is that the XII was OK, but far from a transcendant beer experience. My guess is that it would need a few years in a cellar at a minimum to age into something more enjoyable: if you get your hands on some of these let them sit! On the bright side, on a unseasonably warm and sunny September day in the Belgian countryside, the Blond was delightful and is the memory I’ll take away from my visit.

  4. Ed says:

    What a poorly reasoned, almost non-sensical, post. The point of spending $85 for a six-pack of Westy12 is not to scale the heights of beer-ecstasy. Hell, I wouldn’t even call Westy 12 a “grail” beer. Rather, the point is to acquire and enjoy a hand-made, old-world product that it very difficult to obtain in the U.S. The experience is better when the beer is shared with friends. $85 is reasonable given the relative scarcity and style of the beer. Suggesting that one is better off buying a $1,500 ticket to Belgium to taste this and other Belgium beers is foolish, arrogant and downright condescending.

    • Ben says:

      “$85 is reasonable given the relative scarcity and style of the beer.”

      No, it’s really not. Regardless of how one feels about Westy, that’s a foolish statement. For $85, it better fucking taste good. By your rationale, the guy who lives next door to me who brews 10 litres a year of horrendous shit that he invented in his bath ub might just as easily sell his rotgut for $85. Mystique and rarity alone don’t justify a hefty price tag.

  5. Zoddy says:

    Have you ever considered why these monks now are selling this beer on the open market suddenly?
    Maybe you should visit their site so you can find out why?

    /Z

  6. Lewis says:

    I have had this beer four times, all of which were procured in Belgium. Two of these were absolutely sublime, despite my general skepticism of anything hyped. Two were somewhat disappointing.

    From my limited exposure, it seems this is, unfortunately, a highly variable beer, but when it hits, it really hits. I ended up buying it on 12/12 because there was a place I had been meaning to check out right near my work that had a large stock and short line. To me, that was worth it, but it would be foolish to pay much more on the black market.

    A trip to Belgium does not cost anywhere near $1500 unless you have no idea how to book a flight. We went for $300 a couple years ago and it was worth every cent. Amazing beers for great prices abound and Belgians are incredibly proud of their beer and love to talk about it and share.

  7. Dustin says:

    Lewis, I am not sure where you were flying from for $300…unless your perception of time is really, really off. You are cannot flying from D.C. or Atlanta for under a grand per person.

    As far as the review goes, I believe the drink to be overpriced, but supposedly they have semi-commercialized sales for monastery renovations. To go with that, I have had really good and bad versions of the exact same beer before, so I find it to be disingenuous to make the assumption that this is something specific to this exact model of brew.

    The beer is very overpriced in the USA for one essential reason: exporters know nobody mass imports this brew to the USA.

  8. timk says:

    It’s possible to buy some westvleteren 12 on this website http://www.westvleterenbeers.com. Don’t know what the prizes but it won’t come cheap:-)

  9. cyril says:

    For the moment there is only one trustworthy site where you can buy westies for a reasonable price, and it’s on http://www.westvleterenshop.com .. for the rest, in my opinion, just avoid them

  10. Bob says:

    It’s all a matter of taste and yours is obviously in a completely different spectrum. Grand cru from green flash is a hot mess to me! Four from allagash is respectable but not even close to Westvleteren XII. It’s not hype people but it will come down to your own taste so try it for yourself.

    • SDA says:

      I have had this beer once, it was in 2008, and it was 2 years old. The taste was more complex than any other beer I have had, and I will never forget it. For people wanting to try it out for the hype, despite the variances, probably won’t be dissapointed. It’s like a fine wine.

  11. Dab says:

    Admittedly my beer experience is fairly limited, but I am very experienced with wine. Aside from all the subjectivity, I won’t attack you for an opinion. I will however say that I don’t necessarily trust the opinions of someone who expects sweetness at high alcohol. Alcohol is made from fermented sugar, and unless substnatial amounts of additional sugars are added, there is not likely to be any residual sugar at 10-11%

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