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.