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Posts Tagged ‘westvleteren’

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are as many as ten Catholic saints with the name of Bernard.  My favorite is probably the abbot and scholar, Bernard of Clairveaux.  The saintly monk was known for establishing hundreds of monasteries across Europe and for being the private tutor to four different Popes.  Then there’s Bernard of Corleone.  This guy elevated the medieval tradition of self-flagellation to an art form.  And, let’s not forget Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers and skiers, who is probably most famous for having a dog named after him.

Which Bernard became the inspiration for St. Bernardus Brouwerij, I have yet to figure out.  I’m guessing it’s probably not the flagellation guy.  At any rate, the jolly old monk that graces each bottle of St. Bernardus beer is more than likely fictive.  The name of the brewery is actually derived from a location rather than a person.  The Refuge of Notre Dame de St. Bernard in the Flanders town of Waton was established in the 19th century by monks fleeing anti-clericalism in France.  Like many of their monastic cousins, the refuge became  known for their production of cheese and beer.  After the community returned to France in 1934, a local resident adopted the St. Bernardus name and developed a thriving cheese business.

The story of how this family of cheese makers moved into brewing involves another famous monastic community known for beer – namely, the St. Sixtus Abbey and their Westvleteren Trappist ales.  Prior to World War II, the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus practiced within their confines their centuries-old tradition of brewing beer.  This production was originally meant solely to supply the needs of the monastic community.  But, after the war, the abbey decided to expand their production and distribution making their Trappist ale available to a wider market.

The brewing of the beer, which was marketed under the name St. Sixtus, was licensed to an independent brewer who sold the it under the Trappist name.  The brewer who received this lucrative license was, you guessed it, the same family that ran the St. Bernardus fromagerie.  The original St. Sixtus Abt 12 was born.  As a part of this license, the St. Sixtus monks supplied their rent-a-brewer with their recipes and yeast strains making the St. Sixtus beer a faithful representation of the brew enjoyed by the monastic community.

The deal came to an end in 1992 when the Abbey of St. Sixtus joined the other Trappist brewing monasteries in forming a protective brand.  From that point on, only beers brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery could carry the name Trappist.  However, this was not the end of the brews from Watou.  The family was allowed to continue its operations under the resurrected name of St. Bernardus.

Since then, St. Bernardus has become world-renown for its amazing Belgian ales.  Using the traditional numbering system based on alcohol content, the main line-up of St. Bernardus features two Abbey Dubbels – the Pater 6 and Prior 8 – and a mind-blowing Quad, the Abt 12.  Over the years, the brewery has also added several other offerings, including two Abbey Tripels, a Witbier, and dark ale called Grottenbier.  For my tasting and your reading pleasure, I was able to procure the two Dubbels, their mainstay Tripel, and the delectable Quad.

So, what about the beer?  The story of the Pater 6 is one of subtlety.  The beer pours an opaque red-brown color with light head.  A light aroma of hay, Belgian yeast, and raisins fills the nose.  The taste of this brew is very subdued.  Fruity malts with only a mild sweetness make up a relatively narrow flavor profile.   There’s also a pronounced doughy yeast flavor along with some resin hops balancing it all out.  With a light to medium body and a soft carbonation, the beer has a very pleasant mouthfeel.  It’s not the best stand alone beer, but it would go really well with some appropriate food pairings.

The next step up is their Prior 8, which is in essence a beefed up version of the Pater 6.  The brew pours a rich opaque brown color with two fingers of head that has some gorgeous lacing.  Aroma is sweet with dried fruits especially plum and raisin, and yeast.  The taste is complimentary with a prominent dried fruit flavors, along with spice, doughy yeast, and alcohol esters.   It’s very smooth on the palate, medium-bodied, and has a sweet-bitter balanced aftertaste.  This is what I think of when I hear the word Dubbel.

The grande dame of the bunch is their Quad, the Abt 12.  This beauty is dark brown, almost black in appearance.  The aroma is extravagant – heavily floral with distinct notes of yeast, dried fruit, and citrus. The taste is dominated by the malt flavors, mostly yeast and raisins, but also a touch of banana.  But, the beer doesn’t stop there.  These flavors also bleed into a very firm base of citrusy hop bitterness that carries over into the finish.  What I found out later was that the Abt 12 is using the same Westvleteren yeast strain that the brewery acquired under its license agreement almost 60 years ago.  So, if you’re having trouble getting your hands on a Westy 12, this brew is not far off.

Considering my limited but disappointing history with Tripels, I was looking forward to giving St. Bernardus’s variety a spin.  This version pours a nice opaque golden orange color with a significant amount of dense head. The aroma is citrus, rose-water, floral, and spice.  There’s a corresponding taste of citrus, sweet malts, with a hint of cinnamon.  The brew also has a very mild bitterness – almost like orange peel – towards the end that merges into a lightly bitter finishing.  St. Bernardus has succeeded in getting me excited about the Tripel.

As much as I love Trappist beers, St. Bernardus just proves that quality is not necessarily in a name.  I would gladly stack any beer from this family brewery against any of those monk ales.  Because of their enduring commitment to quality and tradition, St. Bernardus has earned its place in the pantheon of beer greats right alongside the likes of Westvleteren.

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During the first half of our day in Belgium, we scored some really nice weather.  We were graced at Orval with warm sun and blue sky.  But, as we drove into Brussels that evening, that distinctive northern European drizzle started rolling through.  Because of poor planning on my part, we ended up hitting the outskirts of the city right when rush hour traffic picked up.  Sitting in traffic is not the best way to start your evening.  After a good bit of stop-and-go, we finally reached the city center, where we made our way to our first planned stop – the famous brewer of Lambic beers, Cantillon.  Well, our initial disappointment with Brussels continued as we found out when we arrived that we had missed the brewery’s visiting hours by a half an hour.  Nuts.  So, after an hour in Belgium’s capital, it was already Brussels 3, Visitors 0.

Well, Cantillon would have to wait for another day.  We made our way through the rain-soaked streets to the historic center of town where we parked our car and proceeded on foot.  Our goal was the world-renowned bar and beer mecca, the Delirium Cafe.  However, the moment we stepped out of the garage in which we parked, the light northern European drizzle turned into southeast Asian monsoon forcing us to flee for cover under the nearest awning.  It seemed that our time this city would end in futility.  But, whenever you think things are at their worst, something always seems to come along to shine light on a dreary situation.  For it just so happened that the awning under which we took cover belonged to a quaint little store called Beer Planet!  Things were looking up!

Beer Planet would have to wait though for soon the rain let up enough to allow us to continue on to Delirium.  Delirium is known around the world as the bar with the most available beers for sale – totalling over 2,000!  The bar is located in a narrow side alley a mere few hundred meters away from the extravagant Grand Place.  The inside would remind you of just about every other bar you’ve been in before – worn down wooden bar stools, antique tin signs on the walls, young people sitting around chatting while drinking and smoking.  But, the real treasure of the place is not in the decor but in the beer offerings.  First off, there is no menu per se that you use to select a beer you want.  You actually have to spend 5€ to purchase a magazine-like catalog with a list of all of the beers available.  Once you figure out how to procure that, then the real challenge begins.

Looking back it was probably a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about Belgian beer to make the massive selection terribly overwhelming.  I knew that I would choose my first beer based on a recommendation from a friend who lived in Belgium.  At the bar, I picked myself up a bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 8.  This Belgian Strong Ale poured a beautiful dark brown color with a medium head.  The aroma was rich with dried fruits and dark sugars.  The taste was complimentary with a strong raisin flavor combined with alcohol making it almost rummy.  But, this fruitiness wasn’t overpowering, and it didn’t remain – the light hop finishing balanced out the malty sweetness.  This was a worthy follow-up to the other Trappist delight we experience that afternoon.

Being in Belgium and knowing we had missed out on Cantillon, I thought it almost a duty that I try at least one Lambic beer.  So, beer #2 on the hit list ended up being Oud Beersel‘s Oude Kriek.  Now, I must say, I’ve never been a fan of Lambic beers.  I never quite developed a taste for that funky sourness that marks the style.  But, I figured that this trip was all about being open-minded, so I gave it a whirl.  Poured into a nice sniffer glass, the brew looked attractive enough – a nice deep red color like cherry wine.  The beer, however, didn’t quite do it for me.  The cherry-like sourness combined with a sort of beer-esque hoppiness is probably acquired taste.  But, it was an interesting enough taste experience that I wouldn’t consider it a waste.

On our way to our final beer destination of the evening, we made a pit stop at our former rain sanctuary, Beer Planet, to shop for a few bottles of take-away beers.  This place had within its tiny confines essentially every Belgian beer out there for sale.  It was a convenient place to pick up a few souvenirs.  However, there was one particular brew that Beer Planet could not offer us.  The Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus in western Belgium produces what many consider to be the most coveted beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.  This beer is even more difficult to find than its six other Trappist brothers owing to the fact that the monastery only sells it by reservation at their location in Westvleteren.  But, fortunately for us, we found out about a pub in Brussels that served this rare brew.

But, it turned out finding the Best Beer in the World would be a bit more challenging than we had expected.  We ended up wandering around the streets of Brussels for a good hour trying to find the locale.  We finally stumbled upon it in a dimly lit back alley not far from the Grand Place.  Walking into this pub was like being transported back 100 years to the time of aristocrats and robber barons.  The place looked like one of these swanky old establishments that have been around for centuries catering to Brussel’s upper class residents – genuine wood-paneled walls, brass bar rails, old gentlemen sitting in the corner booth smoking pipes.  My friends and I definitely de-classed this joint a few rungs simply by walking in.  But, if you tried to imagine the bar the served the Holy Grail of beer, you figure it might look something like this.

We would not be intimidated though.  We found a nice quiet corner to sit down and flipped open a drink menu where we found spread out on one entire page in large type: “Westvleteren 12 – ‘The Best Beer in the World’ – 10€”.  The deep dark brown brew came to us served in a typical Belgian goblet.  The aroma was nice enough – spicy and caramel smell with a nice dried fruit sweetness.  But, honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I took my first sip.  The taste was a lot more mild than I figured it would be.  I guess it was a problem of expectations.  When you anticipate drinking the greatest beer on earth, you might expect the first sip to send you into immediate convulsions of rapture.  Perhaps we were expecting too much.  But, in the end the beer did indeed satisfy.  As I took more sips, the real complexity and subtlety of the beer began to emerge.  By the end of glass, we knew we had experienced something special.

By the time we left the place, we knew the hour had come to make our way back home.  After walking around the city center in order to work off some of the lingering effects of the night’s consumption, we climbed in our car and hit the road back to Cologne.  After a full day of Belgian beer exploration, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized that I had seriously misjudged the Belgian brewing tradition.  There was a whole world of beer here that I had never taken seriously but was now open to me.  Secondly, my foray into Belgian beer had expanded my appreciate for beer in general.  After experiencing Belgian brewing, German beer in my eyes was not any less wonderful.  On the contrary, the Belgians gave me an even greater love for the unique and beautiful aspects of the German art.  In the end, it was this trip that led to the creation of this blog and my desire to know more about beer.  Each beer style and culture has something to offer – whether it is German, English, American, or Belgian.  Our joy as the consumer is that we get to find out what that is.

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