Wednesday Food: Dear Westvleteren, I’m In Love
Last night I had a rare experience in a beer lover’s life. I traveled not to Belgium, but to a bar in San Diego where I shared a glass of Westvleteren 12*.
For those not familiar, Westvleteren is a Quadrupel Trappist ale from a Belgian village of the same name. The village (and the beer) are named for the monastery where the Brothers uphold a brewing tradition. Trappist ales are unusual– in order for them to earn the title of “Authentic Trappist Product” they must adhere to the regulations of the International Trappist Association (ITA). These rules maintain that the production of the beer must be contained within the monastery walls, must be brewed by the monks only, and must support the monastic values, meaning profit from sales can only be applied to sustaining the monastery or go to charity. Only seven breweries fall under this designation– Westmalle, Orval, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Achel, Chimay, and Koningshoeven. This makes the Trappist beers more rare and expensive than your average domestic (the exception is Chimay which is pretty widely available– I honestly don’t know how they maintain the ITA approval with such broad distribution).
These beers are special because of an inherent allegiance to quality resulting from their limited production, and the traditional recipes which are preciously maintained. We can attribute their modern popularity to the great work of The Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, who brought our attention to the modest but phenomenal contributions of these operators.
The monks may not be cashing in, but somebody is. Bottles can be traded but are rarely sold stateside (I’ve heard it’s not even legal) and if you do come across one it will set you back somewhere between $40-$150 for a 33 cl bottle.
I was lucky enough to be with a friend who knows someone in the industry with an undisclosed quantity of the rare bottles cellaring in his bar. The bottle arrives with its own stemware and without a label– the crown top (bottle cap) is the only indicator of what’s inside. Our bottle poured without a head, but exhibited a healthy level of carbonation. While we waited for it to warm up, I saw that it was very cloudy with noticeable sediment drifting to the bottom. It was dense and opaque, with a dark brown color that turned almost eggplant purple in the light.
Then we smelled, and sipped. The aromas were dried fruit– prunes and raisin– in fact it smelled a lot like freshly baked raisin bread. In the nose the alcohol was assertive, but when tasted it dissipated into a boozie port wine. I could taste black cherries and concord grapes balanced with a mild rye flavor like in Black Bread. There was a musty mineral quality similar to wet stone, which made me think of the conditions of the monastery. The single most unique feature of the beer was the mouthfeel. “Smooth” is such an insufficient word! Not quite creamy or gelatinous, the heavy viscosity was lifted in suspension by a cloud of effervescent bubbles.
I’ve spent the entire day trying to find the right words to describe the feel of this beer. I keep coming back to the experience of baking a cake. When you fold beaten eggwhites into a thick batter it doesn’t change the flavor, but just inflates the cake. I once read that the best way to visualize spacial expansion in the universe is to think of a cake baking– the composition and the content doesn’t change, but everything recedes from one another as the cake expands. And that’s what happened with the volume of this beer. It was like the universe expanding.
So a typical night became anything but that. If life ever imitates art, and you’ll agree that brewing is an art, this beer would be followed by fireworks, a symphony, or extraordinary sex (sorry, monks). Alas, that world is not our own, as my mind-blowing beer experience was followed only by car troubles.
I’ll close with a concession that last week’s post may have been unfair. It seems San Diego beer bars do have something to offer– really exceptional beer.
*This post is not without hyperbole. Some things can’t be helped. And hey, I’m not the only one who loved it.
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