One of the many fascinating beer experiences of my six month stay in Belgium was the recent opportunity to partake of a Westvleteren 12 vertical tasting.
The event was hosted by Danny, the Secretary of an informal beer club called "Öl Juntan", that I joined during my stay here. For non-Scandinavian readers, Öl Juntan means "Beer Group", and consists of about a dozen (mainly Scandinavian) beer enthusiasts who all work in the district and meet monthly to taste new beers. The other participants, besides myself, were the President of Öl Juntan, and fellow RB’er, Kåstå. Danny and Kåstå are keen Belgian (especially Trappist) beer drinkers and both have visited Westvleteren over a number of years, and thankfully kept some of the older brews for tasting at a later date.
Yours truly, Kåstå, and our host Danny.
CELLAR AND AGE:
The bottles from Kåstå’s cellar had been transported to Danny’s cellar several weeks beforehand and religiously allowed to stand alongside the others to re-settle and acclimatize. Danny’s cellar keeps a constant temperature of 16-17 <SUP>o</SUP>C all year round, and as such seemed like an ideal place to store the beers. The site of 3 almost full crates of Westvleteren in Danny’s cellar was a joy to behold.
Establishing the date of bottling for the Westvleteren beers is relatively simple. According to the monks of St Sixtus, the ’use by’ date on their beer is largely irrelevant to them and they only print ’use by’ dates on the bottle caps to comply with state regulations. The date they stamp on the bottle is approximately three years after the bottling date.
The "use by" dates of the beers we tasted were:
1) 8/1/04 (bottled January 2001) - 10.8% ABV
2) 7/9/02 (bottled September 1999) 10.8% ABV
3) 29/10/01 (bottled October 1998) - 11% ABV
4) 21/5/1999 (bottled May 1996) - 11% ABV
5) 7/9/02 (bottled September 1999) - this was the same age as bottle 2, but had been stored in a different cellar. 10.8% ABV
6) A Westy 8 dated 9/9/02 (bottled in September 1999) 8% ABV
7) 2/7/05 (Bottled July 2002) - rated by myself and Kåstå the following day. 10.2% ABV
Date stamps on the Westy bottle caps
It was unfortunate that we did not have a recently bottled brew to make a side by side comparison with the older bottles. We had been trying for the previous week to buy fresh bottles from the abbey but they were sold out. The following day, Kåstå and I rated a fresh Westy 12 at a nearby café. The "use by" date on this beer was 2/7/05 indicating that it was stamped about 6 weeks ago making it a very fresh beer indeed. Interestingly, it was also listed at 10.2% ABV.
Rating such similar high quality beers using the standard RateBeer rating scale I felt would be somewhat pointless because every Westvleteren 12 I have tasted has always rated at either 4.9 or 5. Instead I opted to rate each one relative to the first bottle we tasted (2001 vintage). Beers which in my opinion had a better aroma, flavour, palate and overall qualities than the 2001 were awarded positive points for each category and those with the poorer qualities received negative points. Although I took notes about each of the beer’s appearance and have commented on this I decided not to rate in this category as they were all so similar.
1) Westvleteren 12, 2001 Vintage:
Opening the bottle produced the usual short "phtt" and a reasonably lively appearance as it poured with the classic colour and head. As we expected for a beer which is well inside its supposed use by date, the usual aromas and flavours were all there - chocolate, dried fruit, raisins, light spices, yeast and that wonderful vinous Muscat liqueur alcohol. Smooth, luscious and complex. Perhaps less fresh fruit than I remember in some other Westy 12’s but the bread dough yeast flavour was subtle and faint alcohol still just poked its head through the palate and flavour. Danny’s opening comment on this one was "A young number ready to be drunk". Indeed it was very very smooth and mellow.
2) Westvleteren 12, 1999 Vintage:
This one produced a noticeably quieter and shorter opening "phtt" suggesting that maybe it had lost something during the cellaring. Despite this, the beer still produced a reasonable head and delivered a lively palate and most of the usual flavours and aromas. An immediate obvious difference compared to the 2001 bottle was the noticeably bigger fruitier bouquet, comparable in some ways to other Westy 12s I’ve had recently. The flavour was overall more complex; sweeter, woody, raisiny, musty, and noticeably earthy, but I didn’t think it was quite as mellow or smooth as the 2001.
3) Westvleteren 12, 1998 Vintage:
What surprised us about this one was that that it produced a bigger opening "phtt" than either the 2001 and 1999 vintages. The head was excellent in terms of size and staying power. While the aroma for this beer was similar to the 1999 vintage, if anything the palate was livelier still, with more "pucker action" on the sides of the mouth although the body was slightly thinner, not filling the mouth quite as much. Plenty of flavour present and while the earthy character was still there, it was much fainter than the 1999 bottle.
4) Westvleteren 12, 1996 Vintage:
Opening this bottle produced about the same "phtt" as the 1999 vintage. The head was excellent in terms of size and dissipated fairly quickly. The aroma still contained some fruit, was even more vinous and had a faint fresh tobacco aroma. The palate was much softer and sweeter than any of the other beers with only mild bitterness and yeastiness remaining, though these were still sufficient to still mask the alcohol. Flavour wise, it reminded me of an aged, slightly over-the-hill tawny port. Despite all this, it was still highly drinkable and demonstrates the excellent longevity of these beers.
5) Westvleteren 12, 1999 Vintage:
This beer was the same (bottling date) vintage as beer number 2 but stored in a different cellar. Slightly more "phtt" but not quite as big a bouquet as beer #2). This time there was no earth and it was marginally smoother than all the beers. I also had more bitter, producing the finest balance of palate of all the beers we tried. A surprising feature of this beer was a faint hint of the "low voltage battery on the tongue at an intensity just pleasant enough to be a buzz" effect, which I have not sensed before in my tasting. Neither Danny or Kåstå detected this so it may have been something peculiar about the fillings in my teeth or some other effect.
6) Westvleteren 8, 1999 Vintage:
A medium "phtt" and the biggest head of all the beers we rated. As expected this beer had lighter aromas and flavours, softer body and lighter palate. The reduced alcohol, less vinous character allowed the more delicate components of the aroma and flavour to show through than all the other beers. Still an excellent top rate beer.
Rated by myself and Kåstå the following day. The outright freshness of this new beer surprised me somewhat. Quite highly carbonated. Massive fruit almost smothering the usual rich festive assortment aroma. The palate was quite unusual, a little more sour and less sweet, mouth feel not as smooth, nor flavours as subtle as any of the Westy 12’s I have ever had. The bitterness component also had a slight harshness to it which combined with all of the other differences seemed to allow the alcohol to show through a little more than it otherwise would.
Although the tasting notes illustrate that the beers were discernably different in a number of ways, it was still very difficult using the relative scale I adopted because each of the beers also had their own unique characteristics that made it very difficult to place a number on. The ratings I gave each of the beers are as follows
My ratings of Aroma, Flavour, Palate and Overall relative to the 2001 Westy 12
As you can see there is actually very little difference between the ratings. In most cases the difference between a rating of a 1 or a 2 for any particular category is marginal. However, taking the ratings on face value a couple of conclusions may be drawn. <UL><LI>The worst beer overall was the Fresh Westy 12. </LI><LI>Of the vintage beers the oldest beer was the worst of the 12s </LI><LI>The two, three year old beers (beer #2 and #5) were the best. The best Westy’s thus seem to be around 3-4 years old. This is consistent with the results of a previous tasting performed by Danny and Kåstå, where they rated a 3 year old beer higher than an older beer.</LI><LI>Interestingly all of the vintage beers (even the Westy 8) were better than the fresh Westy 12.</LI></UL>
Danny believed that, "As a vintage beer in its own right, the oldest beer (1996) was still the most interesting", but agreed that the second of the 1999 beers was probably the best overall beer of those we had tasted. Kåstå also agreed that the second of the 1999 beers was the best.
Trying to read something into why the ratings worked out as they did is extremely difficult. The consistency of the brewing process, intermediate storage variations, cap reliability and a host of other factors could easily outweigh the variation due to the aging process. Whatever the circumstances one cannot deny these are right royal brews and I want to thank Danny and Kåstå for providing me with the fantastic opportunity to sample such wonderful elixirs of the beer world.