Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Westvleteren 12 or Rochefort 10? The Curmudgeon casts his ballot.

By now, the panic has subsided and you’re learning how to cope without your best friend’s able solicitude.

Monks run out of world's best beer (CNN/Reuters).

Well, not really, because the Westvleteren ales, brewed by the monks of Sint Sixtus Trappistenabdij in West Flanders, near Poperinge, always have been considered the rarest of Belgian Trappists even before being belatedly discovered by the on-line community of beer aficionados.

As explained in the widely disseminated wire service article, the continuing policy of the abbey has been to brew only enough ale for its own use and to sell in limited quantities from what amounts to a drive-through window beside a bucolic country lane.

However, in recent years the abbey has aggressively moved into the 21st century by agreeing to supply the Café de Vrede (the extent of the monastery's involvement is unknown), a spanking new version of an old tasting café and taproom across the road, and it remains the preferred venue for tasting three very good beers: Westvleteren Blonde, 8 and 12.

How good? Westvleteren 12 is the choice of readers as the world’s finest beer, but as you might expect, the Curmudgeon begs to differ. Westvleteren 12, while admittedly a world classic, isn’t even the best Trappist ale in Belgium, an honor that goes to Rochefort 10, brewed by the monks of Abbaye Notre-Dame de St. Remy near the Ardennes town of Rochefort, a few hours to the east of St. Sixtus.

To be sure, more Rochefort is brewed, and it is becoming readily available here in the United States, but in its own way it remains reclusive. There is no sanctioned taproom nearby (as with Westvleteren, Westmalle, Achel and Orval), no tour of the facility (as is partially the case with Chimay), and no effort to explain the beer to outsiders -- although the Rochefort ales can be purchased at cafes in the town itself.

Rochefort’s “10” refers to a measurement of the starting gravity, but the alcohol content finishes at 11.3%, and the unfolding waves of richly complex malt character are nothing if not orgasmic.

Westvleteren 12 is similar, a sliver less rich and a bit more vinous – an ale to be enjoyed in bed, though not with crackers, and in my estimation it finishes a close second to the Rochefort 10 in sheer celestial impact.

Diana and I will be in the neighborhood on September 17 and 18, and perhaps bike to St. Sixtus for a visit to the Café de Vrede to see whether the monks saved any of the nectar for the locals. A bottle of Westvleteren 12 would be the ideal apertif before the hop fest parade in Poperinge ... if you can get it.


edward parish said...

The choice is only decided by the flip of a coin, or what may fit your own tastebuds. I love both of these beers, but for me Rochefort 10 is THE best complex tasting beer I have ever had, barnone.

The first time I had R10 was in Namur Belgium and it was the only style beer I had all night. I wanted to savor the sweet carmel malt flavors that make this brew stand out.

Bert said...

I agree with all of the above. I also believe that Rochefort 10 is much better than Westvleteren 12. It is probably the fact that Westvleteren is very exclusive that people made it the best beer in the world.

Reinhard said...

I also agree with the above. Westvleteren is a victim of it's own popularity but not the best beer out there and the nr.1 for me is still Rochefort 10 and then Westmalle Tripel. The both beers are gaining popularity fast but are good available here in Belgium in shops etc.. .

andrestm said...

I haven't had them side by side, but having had ALL Rochefort beers and ALL Westvleteren beers, I'd say that, to my taste, Westvleteren blows Rochefort away. I find the Rochefort beers to be too sweet and cloying, with too intense molasses notes and a very overripe touch. Their Westvleteren counterparts, I found, had a much more balanced taste (with enough sourness to complement the sweetness and bitterness), a much more refined yeast character, and a less boozy feel to them. I don't even think I need to have them side by side—the differences are sharp enough that people can have perfectly educated opinions about which beer they liked better, regardless of the label on the bottle (or lack thereof :) ).

Now, let me be clear, I'm perfectly aware that your opinion (and that of the other three commenters, who also favor Rochefort over Westvleteren) is just as valid as mine is. There's absolutely nothing wrong with preferring Rochefort over Westvleteren. But you can't attribute Westvleteren's reputation solely to its scarcity. By doing so, you'd be accusing anyone who happens to prefer Westvleteren of bias. When I had my first Westvleteren, I tried VERY hard to not be a victim of the hype, but it was so good it just overpowered me. I'm sure my case is similar to that of many people who also ended up loving the big Westy. It's just that good.