4.2AROMA 8/10 APPEARANCE 4/5 TASTE 8/10 PALATE 4/5 OVERALL 18/20
Certain products and certain pieces of art have a reputation for such amazing feats of greatness that their reputation is hegemonic. I could write an entire dissertation analyzing whether such reputations are due to authentic reaction and therefore deserved, or due to word-of-mouth hyperbole (especially in the era of the internet). I could also make the argument that the title of "the best beer ever" is an impossibility since that title implies some kind of measurable output and a place in a factual hierarchy of quality. But the method used to judge how "good" a beer is is based on personal taste, not any kind of mathematical, observable performance output. If beer could be judged using a scientific process, we could simply devise a formula and plug in the numbers - in essence discounting personal taste and the notion of a beer critic would be arbitrary.
So while I scoff at the notion of the "best" beer or the existence of a hierarchy of beer quality as a matter of fact (rather than as a matter of opinion), I still want to try beers with good reputations to experience and judge them for myself. And what better beer to do this with than Westvleteren 12 - a Trappist beer brewed by monks and sold exclusively at the monastery in Belgium. It’s roundly regarded as "The Greatest Beer in the World" among the craft beer enthusiast community. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to try it myself I can understand why some would give it that title. And while I do think it’s an excellent beer, it’s not the greatest beer I’ve ever had.
APPEARANCE AND AROMA
I drank this beer twice - the first time I split an 11.2oz bottle with two friends. The second time I poured a bottle into a Trappist chalice. The beer looks more like red wine with a dark brown, extremely hazy body with a slightly ruby red hue. It forms a surprisingly large, frothy, beige head which never completely dissipates and leaves gorgeous lacing on the glass.
The aroma is also wine-like, although many Belgian "strong dark ales" or "quadruples" tend to have this scent. It’s mostly dark fruit with red grape, plum, and cherry dominating the nose with some ribbon candy notes too. There’s a perfume aroma of lavender and flowers with an underlying presence of strong alcohol.
I’ve often found that the more highly-acclaimed a beer is, the more complex its palate. Belgian beers, especially Trappist brews, are known for being so complex that each sip is different than the one before it. Perhaps the best way to describe the taste of Westvleteren 12 would be to simply list adjectives: red wine; oak; Macintosh apple; cherry; vanilla; caramel; dark chocolate; fig; plum; bread, and alcohol.
While I would say this beer is indeed very tasty and appealing, it’s not to the point of being absolutely delicious. The palate is not quite as intense as you’d expect. The flavors begin to light up your palate as soon as they touch it with the aforementioned dark fruit flavors. The middle is noticeably dry with a slight chalky taste of malts and a touch of sourness. The finish is a surprise, though, with rich caramel and dark chocolate sweetness followed by a bitter aftertaste that lingers shortly.
Westvleteren 12 is definitely tasty and complex, but as impressive as it may be, this is still not the most delectable palate I’ve ever encountered. The intensity seems a little lower than it should be, with the alcohol taking some attention away from the palate.
One of the reasons I’ve been slow to warm up to Belgian beers is due to their spastic mouthfeel. I was pleasantly surprised by the gentleness by which Westvleteren 12 crossed my palate. There was no peppery sensation, so the beer was quite smooth going down. However, there is a definite presence of alcohol to cause for some heat in the throat and a dry aftertaste. This is a beer you’ll drink in sips anyway, since you’ll want to savor the experience.
At 10.2% ABV, this beer should be handled with kid gloves. The monks did an outstanding job of making such a weighty beer so palatable, but after one full serving I could tell I had drank a potent beer.
It’s nice to have finally experienced Westvleteren 12 for myself, even if it did cost quite a bit to acquire. And while I enjoyed it a lot, I don’t quite understand how it got the reputation of being the best of the best. If this beer were as common as other Trappist beers like Chimay, Orval, Westmalle, Rochefort, etc. it would simply be regarded as "another excellent Belgian beer" - which it what it is.