Brewery: Brouwerij Westvleteren
ABV: 10.2 percent
It usually follows that the most highly rated beers in the world are also the hardest to get. This shouldn't be surprising; as a beer's acclaim grows, demand for its flavor will eventually outstrip the supply. This is less of a problem in breweries whose goal is to turn a profit, as they can use funds from sales to expand and produce more of the beers people are pining for. But what if the brewer of a world-class beer cares nothing for revenue?
Such is the case with Trappist Westvleteren 12. Take a minute to Google "best beer in the world," and you'll find Westy (as it's known among beer lovers) at or near the top of almost every list that pops up. It's a coveted brew among American drinkers.
The cruelty is that it's brewed by Trappist monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, and while the monks' religious tenets allow them to brew, consume and sell beer, they also require that the monastery only sell enough to support itself. This means that, until recently, only a few cases of Westvleteren beer made it into the hands of drinkers each month, and the process of buying bottles was trying. First, you would've had to call the abbey to make a purchase reservation, and with the phone lines only open for a few hours every two weeks or so, chances of getting through a busy signal are about the same as trying to win tickets to a Bieber concert on the radio. After setting up an appointment with the operator, you'd need to travel to Belgium and purchase the brews from the gift shop across from the Abbey Saint Sixtus. You'd also be limited to a single case of the beer at a cost of 39 Euros.
I use the past tense in the paragraph above because the situation has changed. In November 2011, the abbey began selling gift packs of beer in stores around Belgium to raise funds for urgent and immediate renovations at the monastery. Nearly 100,000 boxes were created -- each containing six bottles of Westy 12 and two monogrammed chalice glasses -- and in a day-long spree like apocalyptic rioting, every single box was sold.
After the dust settled, the monks made another announcement: they'd do it again in 2012, this time sending their beer beyond Belgium's borders. Around 15,000 boxes are slated to ship to the states at the end of April with a suggested price of $85 per pack. Of course, there are ways to get your hands on a bottle currently, especially for a hardened beer trading criminal like me.
Poured into a chalice, Westy 12 has an absorbing look. The beer pours a cloudy dark amber, opaque, with hues of maroon and orange shimmering throughout. The head is fleeting -- a rosy tan that becomes a quick ring and film, but leaves some mountainous craggy horizontal lace.
The aroma's replete with scents swirling about that are so well-blended they're hard to decipher. After a good amount of pondering, I got brown sugar, molasses, gingerbread, graham crackers, fig, cinnamon and some light maple syrup. Each whiff reveals something new. It's exquisite -- and the brew tastes just like it smells. There's inviting spiciness in the flavor, with peppery notes of coriander, cardamom, saffron and rye. Sweet figs, caramel, cinnamon, brown sugar and sweet dark molasses dance in the sweet finish.
With beers like Westvleteren 12, sometimes rarity influences perceptions of quality, and the effort that went into procuring a beer is ascribed to its flavor, adding to the mystique. This might be why Westy has enjoyed its place at the top of the charts for nearly a decade. Or maybe it's just that good. When bottles finally arrive in America, you can be the judge.
Food pairing suggestions:
Savory meat dishes will work very well with this Belgian quad. Duck is a classic, and Westy's dark fruit sweetness will interact very well with the gamy meat. For a more intense pairing, try the beer against smoked brisket, adding the meat's campfire notes to the already complex malt in the beer.