Westvleteren Versus the Competition -- In a Blind Tasting

About a week ago, I got an intriguing email from Evan Cohan, the mastermind behind Beercycling (more on that in a bit).  He and a select group of invitees would be gathering to do a blind tasting of eight (!) strong dark abbey ales.  Among these would be the famous Westvleteren 12, a beer that is regularly rated the best beer in the world.  How would it stack up in our tasting?

[Nerdly digression.  Strong dark abbey ales are typically grouped in a category called quadrupel by American beer geeks.  There is an intuitive way in which this makes sense, owing to the existence of dubbels, tripels, and even--though far more rarely--enkel (single).  These are monastic designations, and monastic beers are ancient, and La Trappe is a monastery that makes a quadrupel.  So surely the style is ancient.  It sort of is.  Strong, dark beers go back a very long time, particularly in Flanders.  The name, however, was invented by La Trappe in 1991, long after other very strong abbey ales already in production.  I have no problem calling them quads as a class, but it's worth knowing the history.  Especially if you happen to encounter one of those people who does have a problem with the name.)

We met at Bazi Bierbrasserie on a balmy Thursday night and settled in for the tasting.  Evan had concocted a two-step blinding process so that everyone could taste the beers and not know which was which--though we did know in advance seven of the eight beers we were trying (he hid from us that one would be a domestic quad).  We tasted:
  • Westvleteren 12 [BeerAdvocate rating 100]
  • Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue) [95]
  • Rochefort 10 [99]
  • La Trappe Quadrupel (Trappist) [91]
  • Straffe Hendrik Quad [89]
  • Saint Bernardus 12 [99]
  • Urthel Samaranth [90]
  • Ovila Quad [87]
There were, as with all blind tastings, miraculous discoveries.  Of the twelve tasters, nine preferred three beers (three each called them the best): Rochefort 10, Straffe Hendrik, and Ovila (my choice).  Only one selected Westvleteren (and that one, to her shock, was Sally--who was nonplussed when we tried it at the monastery).  When I tried beer #5, I was taken aback by how mediocre it was.  I did ask if anyone liked it and got lots of "no, it's lame" in response.  I can't say the group was unanimous on the point, though we may have been.  That beer?  Chimay.

For what it's worth, there were three standouts according to my tasting notes.  Of the Ovila I noted "Layered yeast character--phenols and spice.  A dry beer with leather, almost oaky.  Light body, but boozy; more balanced than some of the sweeter examples."  I was doing quickie ratings so I could sort them later and gave it five stars.  Two beers got four starts.  Urthel, a brewery that hasn't always impressed me, did that night.  I wrote: "English barley wine.  Less yeast character than others, more body.  Boozy aroma and HUGE booze kick.  Rich, nutty malt."  Finally, the original quad, La Trappe's, also impressed me.  "Very phenolic, rich raisin/date sweetness.  Surprising amount of roast.  Pepper and beets.  Sharp alcohol, medium body."  I expected to admire St Bernardus--I love the brewery's beers, but it just missed that top group, getting 3 1/2 stars.

Strong dark abbey ales have never been my favorite style.  They usually have less character than their little brothers and are pretty sweet and heavy.  Tasting eight in a row confirmed this view.  Yet as a group, only imperial stouts get anywhere near the same kind of love from beer geeks.  I think the romantic idea of monks cooking up pots of heavy beer wins people over.  You can certainly see this in the way they rate them.  Westvleteren is currently rated second among all beers on BeerAdvocate and is RateBeer's highest rated.  Yet in a blind test, only one person thought it was the best of just eight beers in its group.  Two of the three highest rated beers in our group get relatively "meh" scores by BeerAdvocates--but they are not boosted by the luster of monks.  Finally, and I think this is most revealing, Chimay--a "world-class" beer on BeerAdvocate--was demonstrably the least interesting beer at our table.  Without the monkish luster, no love.

This is exactly why blind tastings are so valuable and revealing.  I rarely flog my Tasting Toolkit, but the moment is irresistible.  You don't need it to conduct blind tastings, but it is pretty damn handy.  And you should be doing blind tastings.  I encouraged Evan to continue this and maybe even expand it, and I hope he does.  We had a fabulous time, tasted fabulous beer, and walked away much the wiser.


Speaking of Evan and plugging, let me put in an additional plug for Beercycling.  The concept is right there in the title.  He curates two trips, one in Belgium, one in the Netherlands, and guides 12 people on a bike tour of breweries.  Biking is apparently the way to do Belgium--I literally had a half dozen people ask if I would be doing any biking when I went.  But the real value here is that throughout the ten-day trip, you tour a bunch of breweries.  Every beer geek who loves Belgium really needs to go on a tour.  Americans can make exceptional beer, even exceptional Belgian-style beer.  But what they can't do is show you their ancient breweries and equipment and talk about decades of family brewing.  You can feel the history of brewing when you tour the breweries of Belgium, and it will change the way you think about beer.  So go have a look if it sounds like it's up your alley.