While writing a very unrelated piece on the naming system for celestial bodies, I came across a mention of exoplanets named for the TRAPPIST telescope, an instrument that was, in turn, named for the astronomers’ favorite beer, made by Trappist monks. That got me curious—what was the deal with these Trappists, and their beer?
I found that one particular beer, made by the Trappist monks at Sint-Sixtus Abbey in Belgium, was widely considered the “holy grail” of the beer world. The Westvleteren 12 had been named the best beer in the world many times, but even more compelling was its backstory. The monks only make and sell enough to support themselves, refusing to increase production to satisfy demand. As their beer’s reputation has spread, it’s become harder and harder to get it.
To buy a crate of 24 bottles from the monks, one must call in advance—a far more difficult task than it sounds. One beer fan claimed to call 1,600 times in the two-hour window provided, achieving nothing but a busy signal. If you are lucky enough to get through, you provide your name and license plate number, and schedule a time to pick up your crate. On the appointed day and hour, cars line up with their trunks open, license plate numbers are matched, payment is made, and a representative of the abbey places your order into your vehicle.
You can only pick up beer every 60 days, and you can’t call from an anonymous number. You must also agree not to resell the beer, otherwise you’ll be banned. The scenario is reminiscent of the “Soup Nazi” from the Seinfeld TV show, except quieter, more contemplative, and with beer instead of soup.
Since I had no plans to travel to Belgium, I wondered if there was any way I could sample this legendary beer. It turns out there’s a healthy “gray market” of resellers who charge several multiples of the monks’ price for the beer, but still come in cheaper than a trip to Belgium.
Two and a half weeks later, my bottles arrived, in a box labeled “breekbaar” (Dutch for “fragile”). Soon after, somewhat awed by the enormity of the occasion, I poured and tasted it.
It was pretty good.
That’s my honest assessment. I liked it, and I might buy it again if it didn’t cost so much. But “pretty good” doesn’t quite cut it when describing a beer, it seems. Other reviewers have described the Westvleteren 12, seemingly contradictorily, as having a “a light and fluffy mouthfeel,” a “thick mouthfeel with slight effervescence on the tongue,” as well as my favorite description, a mouthfeel that’s “really nice full and chewy.”
Personally, I like to drink my beer, rather than chew it. But the food comparisons, as “notes” in the brew detected by beer connoisseurs, are legion: caramel, brown sugar, raisins, licorice, toffee, dates, warm bread, dried cherries, figs, damsons, prunes, chocolate, clove, banana, and fruitcake. Also, tobacco, leather (hence the chewiness?), ovaltine, and oh yes, alcohol. No wonder the beer is often called “complex.”
Much of the appeal of beer, and monkhood, is in its lack of pretense. (One review of the Westvleteren 12 called it “sincere.”) So it’s tough to separate the beer from the often overblown attempts to describe it. Good lacing, pleasant estery quality, and prominent phenolic notes notwithstanding, of course.
Was it the best beer in the world? It wasn’t even the best beer I’d ever had. That title would probably go to some anonymous $10 per six-pack offering at a backyard barbecue—a cold beer on a hot day, its name forever forgotten.
Meanwhile, tasting the (supposed) best beer in the world inspired me to finally pull out the Craft-A-Brew kit I’d been given a year before. After all, what did Trappist monks have that I didn’t, other than time-tested equipment and a thousand years of accumulated beer-making experience?
The kit’s several pages of instructions were a bit off-putting, and it took some time to familiarize myself with the equipment and terminology. Included in the kit, for example, was a one gallon glass container that, except for the missing “XXX,” looked like it came straight from a cartoon moonshiner’s hand. Most people would call this item a jug, but in craft brewing circles, the proper term is “carboy” or “fermenter.” Apparently, craft brewers enjoy esoteric synonyms and uncommon turns of phrase just as much as beer reviewers do, a phenomenon also evident in craft beer names, which increasingly resemble the names of contestants at dog shows. See if you can pick out which of these are craft beers, and which are winners of the Westminster Dog Show (answers below): 1) Dhandy’s Favorite Woodchuck; 2) Ominous Formations Marshmallow; 3) Duck Duck Gooze; 4) Midkiff Seductive.
I spent several hours following the instructions—mostly—and mixing in the pellet-shaped hops that resembled either the food or the excreta of a small animal. Soon the place smelled like dog food and looked and sounded like a mad scientist’s laboratory, complete with tubes and strange bubbling noises.
After two weeks, it was ready. I didn’t exactly look forward to this tasting—it was more of an obligation, like a dental appointment, or the reluctant duty of an officer leading his soldiers into heated battle.
I detected (off) notes of chalk, medicine, crabapple, yeast, and sediment, with a slight hint of mold. A craft brewer I’m not, but I am much wiser for the experience—I may not know which is the best beer in the world, but I certainly know which is the worst.
*Items 1 and 4, above, are show dogs; 2 and 3 are beers.