Wednesday, December 12, 2012

For Beer Fans, the Greatest Day

Today, something has occurred that I assumed would never happen. I actually have, in my possession, six bottles of perhaps the world's most legendary beer, Westvleteren 12. The beer went on sale this morning in the US for the first and probably last time.

If you don't know much about the world of beer,  here's the explanation of why this is a big deal: Belgium is the Mecca of the beer-producing world. It is to beer what Bordeaux is to wine. Many, many styles of beer come out of Belgium, but one certain type is held in particularly high regard. This is the ale made by Trappist monks. Belgium has six Trappist breweries, and there is another in the Netherlands. Trappist beers are some of the finest produced, and in general are not very hard to find. The largest Trappist brewery, Chimay, makes ales that are available just about anywhere that sells beer. Every Trader Joe's around here stocks it all the time. As for the others: any really decent beer shop should sell them. If I decided right now that I wanted an Orval, Westmalle or Rochefort, I could hop in my car and have a bottle in my hand within 20 minutes.

The joker in the pack of Trappist beers is Westvleteren. It is the most sought after Trappist beer, but has no official distribution in the US, or anywhere, for that matter. The only place that legally sells it is the actual monastery - or rather the brewery's visitor center. In order to obtain a Westvleteren, you would need to perform the following steps.

Go to Belgium. Proceed to the town of Vleteren.
Dial a special phone number to order a case of beer.
Drive to the visitor center to pick up the beer.
Keep in mind that the brewery is very small, and the demand for the beer is far greater than the supply, and it may take many, many phone calls before you are able to get a case. As the brewery's website wryly notes, it will take a "lot of luck" to reserve a case.

The brewery makes three styles, but the most desirable is the Westvleteren 12, the strongest of the three. The very high quality of the 12, combined with its lack of availability, gives it a certain mystique. It has been voted the best beer in the world on several occasions. Voters on the popular beer ratings sites, RateBeer and BeerAdvocate have placed it in the first and second spots, respectively, in their beer rankings.

So Westvleteren 12 has been sort of the "holy grail" of beers. Thus it was quite surprising that the monastery had cut a deal with EU and US distributors to sell a limited number of "gift packs," each containing 6 bottles of Westie 12 and two glasses. The monastery is not supposed to make a profit on the beer; the only reason they are allowing outside distribution is that their building needs a new roof. The US distribution deal was announced last year, but the release date had been pushed back couple times  - until now. Today, on 12/12/12, a select number of liquor stores in 26 states put the gift packs on sale. This momentous event was big enough to get mentions in mainstream media sources. I knew of a few local outlets that would be carrying this, so I headed out this morning to arrive before opening time.

Not pictured: the tears of joy running down my face.
There are a few nice things (but very few) about living in a large, yet uncultured town like I do. I didn't have to face down any huge lines this morning. There was a steady flow of people arriving to buy the gift packs, but no one was camping out in front of the store.  In Chicago there were reports of lines starting at 4 AM, in Philadelphia, lines "around the block," and so on. A large location in Toronto sold out in 4 minutes. Checking Ebay, I see bids already passing the $400 mark on these gift sets. Also -- sons of bitches are trying to sell the empty gift boxes. Considering that only around 15000 of these packs were available in the US, its not surprising to see that kind of price inflation.

I suppose later tonight I'll actually open up a bottle and try it. Undoubtedly the experience will be a bit anti-climatic. No beer can really live up the title of "best beer in the world." Still, as a beer fanatic, a major gap in my beer-drinking experience will have been filled.

By the way, if you are curious about this beer but don't want to spend $400, here's a little secret that beer lovers know.  There is a very close approximation of Westie 12 that is easily obtainable: St Bernardus Abt 12. The monks from Westvleteren gave their recipe to the monks at the nearby Abbey of St Bernardus. The two beers are often considered to taste very similar, though Westie 12 is usually thought to be a bit better.


Anonymous said...

Being a beer lover from Toronto, I wish I had known about this release sooner... guess I'll have to experience retro games AND good beer via your blog. Let is know how it was!

(This is my first comment in months of lurking and I chose the beer post... hmm...)

Sean Clements said...

Yet again you tease me with a beer I'll never be able to obtain in Hawaii.

Skymaster T said...

Sure you can have a bottle, Sean. Just give Dr. S $1,000.

Skymaster T said...

I have had the Abt 12. Mighty fine beer. Cool bottle too.

Although, I hate spending 10-12 dollars on one bottle of beer when those so many great micros around here for a fraction.

Angry Birds said...

I love shape of bottles ..very nice..

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is inspiring! I mean, the whole chrono-thing you've been doing! I need to get back to mine. D:

Alysandher said...

Congratulations, man.

I'm sure it's just an excellent beer, but I'm happy that you get to drink it.


Dan S said...

Congratulations! I was able to snag some bottles of Westie 12 a few years back when De Struise had a limited-time online deal (also picked up some Pannepot Reserva while I was at it). It came packaged as a "yeast sample", probably to skirt some legal issues. Sadly, it did not come in such fancy bottles or a gift pack. Hell, the bottles weren't even labeled!

Like you said, the rarity of the beer all but guarantees that it places first on the ratings lists. It was a great beer, but I've had plenty of more memorable ones in my lifetime. I'll take a nice Brett sour these days over any Belgian ale.

Oh, and yeah, Chicagoans are insane about beer, to the point where I just don't have the time or energy anymore to hunt down something of decent rarity. "The Chase" for rare beers is a culture here, and after a few years of doing it I decided it wasn't really worth it. I'd much rather just go to the local liquor store and pick up whatever they have, which will most likely be 90% as good as any white whales out there.

The Dord said...

Merry Christmas Dr. Sparkle! Hope you got a good christmas present!

Make a post blog post if you got something cool that you could share with us!

Thanks again for your Series.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Dan C - "Yeast samples." That's hilarious. Of course, its no different that selling "collectable beer bottles" on Ebay.

So if you are in Chicago, it's probably easy to get Three Floyds stuff? Lucky bastards.

Dan S said...

Yeah, the 3F brewpub is less than an hour away. I've been to Dark Lord Day three times and still have a few bottles of 2010 Dark Lord aging in my cabinet right now. We're definitely spoiled out here.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Ok Dan, I'm envious. I guess to comfort myself I'll need to think of the bottle of Alesmith Speedway Stout I have aging.