Am I a bad beer drinker for not being familiar with Westvleteren and its three classic Belgian Trappist brews? Probably.1 Regardless, once I sat down and started doing a little research, I quickly found out I had something special in my possession. If you were like me and unfamiliar with Westvleteren, let me get you up to speed on what my Google Search results overwhelmingly reports as one of the best beers in the world.
The Brouwerij de Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren is one of six Belgian breweries recognized by the International Trappist Association to get the “Authentic Trappist Product” stamp of approval.2 Founded in 1838 at the Saint Sixtus Abbey, the Westvleteren brewery has been brewing beer for quite awhile, and you could say they’ve gotten pretty good at it.
The brewery hasn’t always been what it is now of course. The founding of the brewery in 1839 was only eight years after the Saint Sixtus monastery started, and the operation was a small one. From its founding, the monks only brewed beer for themselves and guests up until 1931, at which point they started selling beer to the public. A few short years later in 1946, the abbey gave the St. Bernadardus brewery licensing rights to sell beer under the St Sixtus branding, which lasted for quite sometime – all the way until 1992. At that time, the Saint Sixtus Abbey’s brewery was updated, and all brewing and sales of Westvleteren beer returned under their roof.3
Opting against turning their product into an international commercially sold item and only selling enough to support their abbey, the brewery only produces 60,000 cases of 24 bottles each year. The demand for the beer far outweighs the production, but the monks have decided to only sell their beers at either their abbey through a reservation system, or their cafe across the street. Perhaps in line with their lack of desire to go commercial and only selling what they need to survive financially, their prices are actually quite reasonable as well. To get a crate of 24 bottles, you only have to pay €40, plus a €12 deposit for the crate and bottles, of which you get most of that back if returned. For such a highly sought after beer, an approximate price with today’s conversion is only $2.38 a bottle, including the deposit.4
As we get to the actual review, truth be told I started doing the tasting part before all the research, so I was going into this with significantly less expectations than I would have otherwise. Popping the cap off there’s a bit of yeast residue that’s built up on one side, so I pour from the other and do it gently so I don’t disturb the rest of the sediment at the bottom. It pours a dark brown that only a little bit of light shines through, while the head builds up to around a half an inch on the pour, settling down to around a quarter of an inch after a minute. The aroma is a combination of warm alcohol, some yeast, bready notes and some caramel malty notes. As far as the aroma goes, there’s certainly nothing off putting about it, but it’s just not the most exciting thing ever.
Taking my first sip there’s some brown sugar up front, followed by some warm alcohol and fruit notes. The mouthfeel is right in the middle of ideal, with just enough weight to it and a decent amount of carbonation. The finish is rich fruit, caramel and a touch of bitterness.
Swirling the beer around the glass a little bit the head quickly builds back up to a creamy, thick topper to the beer. Letting the beer warm up, the aroma of yeast and caramel malts increases, along with a dried fruit note – much better than the cold aroma. The taste of brown sugar sweetness increases with the temperature change, while the fruit notes shift to more specific flavors of dried raisins and rich dates. With the finish there isn’t much change, with continued rich fruits, caramel and a very light touch of bitterness that counteracts the sweetness well.