Friday, February 26, 2010

Belgian Reviews 10 and 11: A Pair of Westies

Knowing several beer geeks and knowing how beer geeks salivate over Westvleteren, the Trappist beer only served at the monastery and accompanying the cafe across the street, my boss decided to venture into the grey market for a few bottles. I had stunning shots of the Westvleteren 12 and 8, but thanks to my iPhone bricking out and losing any unsynced photos, a narrative will have to suffice.

Westvleteren 12 tops most of the beer rating website's top beer lists, with the Westie 8 somewhere in the top 10. Is it because these beers are so rare and such a pain in the ass to even get a sample of, or is there something intrinsic about the beer itself that gives it its grail-like fame?

This was the question we sought to answer when, a few Fridays ago, my boss stopped in with a bottle of the 8. His shipment of assorted hard to find Belgians had arrived and he had tried the Blonde the night before and was suitably impressed. Wondering what the rest of the line was like, he shared the 8.

The Westvleteren 8 is a Trappist Dubbel--a brownish ale with tight, tiny carbonation. It gives off a perfumy aroma, with slight caramel and phenolic hints of alcohol. The taste is well-blended, subdued caramel malt accented with complex florals, and a dry, powdery finish. The beer is easily drinkable and hides its alcohol well.

After nearly finishing the 8, curiosity got the best of us and we headed to the fridge to crack the 12. The 8 was a solid beer--perhaps not the best beer I've ever had, but so smooth and complex that I wondered how the 12 could top it.

I was pleasantly surprised. The 12 is a difficult beer to describe--to call it complex and nuanced oversimplifies it. There are so many flavors, all wonderfully blended, but all distinct in their own rights.

Like the 8, the 12, a Quadrupel, is a brown beer, this one with a billowing tan head. An assertive vanilla first dominated the nose, but gave way to floral hops and slight hints of cherry. My notes devolve into a steady scratching of complementary and conflicting flavors in trying to describe the taste, including tea, spice, citrus zest, tobacco, clove, vanilla, caramel malts--a mildly acidic beer with slight grassiness as it warms and a cherry cola effervescent. In reflecting on this beer, I imagine it a lot like a mood ring, in that there is so much at play that whatever you are feeling in the moment may act as a catalyst for certain flavors to dominate. And despite all that, the beer has such remarkable and understated balance that there is no wonder this beer ranks so highly. Unlike many of the over-the-top, in your face extreme beers, despite all of its complexity, this beer is so easy to drink and so unassuming.

One of my beer-loving co-workers is coming into town soon, and when he does, my boss has promised a sampler to include the 12, 8, blonde, and some rare Westmalle and Chimay. I'm interested to try the 12 again in particular to see if there is any truth to my mood ring hypothesis.

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