We have a lot to catch up on.
If you've ever taken a test or sat through a job interview you didn't feel totally prepared for, you empathize with the feeling I had a couple of weeks ago at a beer bar in Madrid, Spain. On vacation with my wife, I was fully embracing a week in a country known for delicious, plentiful wine and cheap, fizzy, yellow beer. I of course tried the Spanish beers -- Estrella, Mahou, and San Miguel, among others -- but the gratuitous sampling didn't put a dent in my wine and tapas tour. As the saying goes, when in Rome, avoid the restaurants with the shiny plastic pictures of the food out front.
So imagine my delight when we stumbled on a beer bar, the Chimay sign shining like a beacon in the night outside an unassuming establishment on the backside of the Plaza Mayor. Belgian beer in Spain! After passing 457 ham and wine joints, it was good to find something familiar.
For the record, and to illustrate the rarity of the situation, we found two "beer bars" in nine days in Spain. So imagine my socially-inappropriate squeal when I sat down outside, opened the menu, and saw the words "Westvleteren XII" on the page.
Westvleteren XII (that's 12 in really old Italian numbers) is considered the best beer in the world by just about every beer-rating website. Steve Greenlee reviewed it as his last act (Steve's fine, don't worry) on this blog. At that time, I considered him to be one lucky dude. I've never had it, and as someone who has never paid for a beer on eBay, my philosophy on the Westy 12 was, "if it happens, it happens." It was happening.
Made by the monks at the Abbey of Saint-Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium, the beer is supposed to only be available by making an appointment to the abbey, pulling up, and loading some bottles in your car (there's also a cafe on site). A recent, minor release to the United States raised funds for the abbey and saw the usual price-gouging of upwards of $50 a beer on the secondary market. Finding the beer for purchase is, at best, difficult.
I may not have been prepared to review the best beer in the world, but I may have never gotten the chance again. Ordering it was a no-brainer, and even then I didn't quite believe it when my beer came to the table. One note on the bottle I ordered: it was labeled with the lettering Westvleteren XII, suggesting that it was part of the production of the abbey's fundraising beer rather than beer purchased on site by driving up to the gate in your Renault. I considered the fact that I was at least on the right continent as sign that I should go ahead with it. I thought better of bringing the bottle all the way home with me, but I saved the cap.
Poured into a Westvleteren XII chalice, the beer pours a dark chestnut color with a medium-thick head. I allowed myself a moment to stare, and my wife, bless her heart, went along with my request for a photo shoot. When I finally did stick my nose into the glass, I got scents of plums, brown sugar, cherries, and molasses.
The first sip was wonderful. Caramel and figs come through to start, and warming alcohol finished my first gulp. On the next sip I got some gingerbread and chocolate. The flavors and aromas are complex, but to me what distinguishes this beer is the mouthfeel. At times thick and warming, Westvleteren XII finishes nice and dry. It doesn't overpower, even at 10.2 percent alcohol. I could drink a lot of this, and we were sad to get to the bottom of the glass. Maybe because I knew the rarity of the situation, I'm not sure I've ever savored a beer more.
Is this the best beer in the world? A reader comment reminded me that St. Bernardus Abt 12 is a similar beer, and that's one of my favorites. Is one beer better than the other? I'd have to try them side-by-side, but I also think that misses the point. They are both exceptional beers. The St. Bernardus is more widely available, which I am grateful for. But how on earth do you compare the Westvleteren to something like Heady Topper? It's not practical to compare beers across different styles. I say better to just enjoy them.