Wednesday 27 June 2012

Getting Real about Westvleteren

When I was a young boy, we used to play a game called, “kill the guy with the ball”.

The rules, such as they could be defined, were rather straightforward. Someone would pick up the ball and start running, and the rest of the gang would chase him down, drive him into the dirt, and pile on top of him until he couldn’t breathe. There were no boundaries, no safe zones, and no time outs. If you ran into the woods or onto the road and were tackled there, then so be it.

Your pulverisation was inevitable. Even fast runners would tire out eventually and get creamed into the ground by the hunting pack. And dropping the ball in fear would only lead to your getting whoomped twice as hard for being such a wuss.

It must have seemed great fun at the time, because we’d usually play for hours, often until someone had to go home for iodine and bandages, or to the hospital for stitches.

Looking back on it across a span of time too long to mention, I cannot easily understand what ever inspired any of us to pick up the ball in the first place. I mean, other games that have more or less the same rules -- say, rugby -- at least have the marketing sense to change their name to encourage people to take it up. But this was a model of truth-in-advertising: no one could mistake “kill the guy with the ball” for anything else. You knew what was coming.

What pushed us to put ourselves forward for slaughter was, of course, social pressure. The boyhood dare, the challenge of tempting fate, of trying to be the top of the group for even just a few seconds... that was the glory and social credit to which we aspired. It seemed well worth any scrapes and bruises.

Peer pressure can certainly make us do strange things.

It is much the same story for me with Westvleteren beer. OK, maybe a little less violent, but hear me out...

When I first became interested in Belgian ales, everyone told me that Westvleteren was the best. It was hard to find, they said, yet worth the extreme trouble. In fact, the near impossibility of acquiring it gave Westy the aura of a holy grail. The hardship of the quest itself confirmed its excellence.

So, I picked it up, and I ran with it. That was what everyone expected.

Well, now I’m going to drop it. Specifically, I am going to remove it from my list of top ten Belgian beers.

Don’t get me wrong. Westvleteren is an excellent beer, and I'll never turn it down when it's on offer. However, there are two problems with it. First, I’ve found some inconsistency with Westvleteren 8 and 12 over the years: a few batches I’ve had have been overly porty and sour.

But more importantly, I just like other brands more. Even in that style of heavy dark Belgian ales, I prefer St Bernardus Abt 12 or Achel Brune Extra. (The latter is also quite hard to find if that’s what you need to confirm greatness.)

I’ve not dared admit any of this before, but I now find I have the confidence to say what must be said: Westvleteren is not a top ten Belgian beer. I can no longer bow to the social pressure of tradition and the expectations of others who maintain that it is.

If I am grounded into the dirt as a result, so be it.


  1. Only one thing for it: Blind tasting. Some people shower beers with praise because it has a great reputation. Others actually do the opposite - 'I'm not going to conform with other people's high opinions'. Not saying you've done either, but a blind tasting is always the best way to get around this. I've got 5 Westvleteren 12 in the cupboard, and I often ask myself am I treating them like gold because they're so amazing? Or is it just because I paid too much money for them...
    Abt 12 is wonderful, as is Rochefort 10, and I think I prefer both over the Westy 12. The extra money just isn't worth it!

    Love the blog btw,
    Killian @ TheDrunkenDestrier

    1. Too right: I've got to arrange a blind tasting of these at some point. It will require a bit a a raid on the cellar, but it would be worth it.

  2. I don't think you deserve a pounding for that, but... have you tested your purported preferences blind? I was shocked to discover how much better I thought Westvleteren 12 was compared to Abt 12 in a blind taste.

    (Oh, and I can give you an address to send any overly porty ones you may have for safe disposal.)

    1. Porty and sour, though. Is there a disposal facility for those?

    2. Sit outside Beer Temple and flog 'em to the Yanks.

    3. Good thinking. Could get 20 euros a pop each -- or whatever crazy price they're going for these days.

  3. It would be no fun to follow your writings if you just followed the self-reinforcing mass opinions from RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. Of course St Bernardus is made with know-how and yeast from Westvleteren, so you can't get away ;-)

    Being generous, I allow myself more than ten top beers, my top-rated Belgian beers (in alphabetical order) are

    3 Fonteinen - Kriek
    3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze
    Alvinne Porter "Chelmsford Oak Smoked"
    Band of Brothers S01E01
    Bon Secours Framboise
    Bon Secours Myrtille
    Bons Voeux (Dupont)
    boon framboise
    boon gueuze
    Boon Gueuze Mariage Parfait 2005
    boon kriek
    Brussels Calling
    cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella, Lambic 2006
    cantillon gueuze
    cantillon kriek
    cantillon rosé de gambrinus (framboise)
    chimay bleu
    cuvée de l'ermitage (from the 1990s)
    Cuvée Delphine
    Dulle Griet
    Duvel groen
    Gouden Carolus Tripel
    Gouyasse - Brasserie des Géants (bio)
    Graal Triple
    Gueuze Cuvée [de Ranke]
    Hop Ruiter
    Ichtegems Grand Cru
    Kapittel Watou
    L'Vapeur Rousse
    La Mère Supérieure
    La Mère Vertus
    La Moraipire
    Mac Vertus
    moeder overste
    moinette biologique
    moinette brune
    Moinette II
    Naked Ladies
    noir de dottignies
    Oud Beersel Oude Kriek
    Oud Bruin experimenteel
    Oude Gueuze de Cam
    Peated Oak Aged Embrasse
    Père Noël (de Ranke)
    Petrus aged pale
    Saint Feuillien Triple
    Saison Cazeau
    saison dupont [bio]
    Saison Voisin
    Single Hop "Cascade" Washington
    st bernardus abt (12)
    st. bernardus pater 6
    Stouterik (cask)
    Struise Rosse
    Struise St. Amatus 12
    Taras Boulba
    Tilquin Gueuze
    Tilquin Lambic Blend
    tsjeeses kerstbier
    VI Wheat
    Vielle Provision Saison Dupont
    westmalle tripel
    Westtoek XX
    wit goud
    witkap pater tripel
    Schieve Tabernak
    Vapeur en Folie

    1. Nice list. Those single-hops have just been reissued by the way, so get over to a Delhaize if you can and stock up.

  4. It's just a matter of personal preferences... St Bernardus Abt 12 is quite close to Westvleteren 12 so it really becomes a matter of which direction you prefer (e.g. slightly sweeter)
    And when it comes to being rare, Achel is actually still brewing a little less than Westvleteren and the Extra is indeed hard to find, unfortunately!

    1. Indeed the Achel Brune Extra is very hard to find for a reasonable price. I seem to pass the monastery about once a year luckily...

  5. Believe it or not I just found a bar in Toronto that sells Westvleteren. They advertise it and they stock it. I will take it over Rochefort 10, but IMHO it still trails Chimay red, or Westmalle Triple.

  6. I found it at bar/microbrewery in Stockholm, Sweden. I did not buy it though, as it was priced at €60 per bottle..

    Going to Brussels in December, would be awesome to taste the Westy 12, but then again, there are hundreds of other Belgian beers to taste!


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