Edifying Edition/Locked in the Cellar mashup: closing 2020 with Trappist Westvleteren 12

When it got time to sit down in the fall and write my column for the December issue of Edify, it was apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic would lay waste to my usual year-end theme: beer recommendations for holiday entertaining.

Like so many Alberta breweries, I adjusted my plan to adapt to the less-than-ideal situation we’ve all found ourselves in. Instead, I did my best to wring a bit of humanity and humour from a year that has brought so much death, anxiety and uncertainty by asking a few folks in Edmonton’s craft beer community what beer they planned to drink to usher out 2020.

I capped off 2020 with a bottle of Trappist Westvleteren 12. As I said in the article, the end of 2020 called for the kind of beer that’s best enjoyed with slow sips and quiet contemplation. I didn’t feel there was much reason for a metaphorical victory lap with a celebratory beer. In the back of my head, I was also thinking that if 2021 is any worse, I should get around to drinking a rare beauty like Westy 12 before the world totally falls apart.

Westvleteren 12 is the object of considerable reverence in the beer world — and it’s totally justified: it’s a delicious, complex beer with rich dried fruit flavours of raisins, dates and prunes. Its considerable 10.2 per cent alcohol is well hidden and it goes down smoothly with a pleasant, spreading warmth.

But there’s also no denying that at least some of Westvleteren 12’s mystique and its acclaim as “best in the world” has to do with the fact that it’s so hard to find. The monks of the Saint-Sixtus abbey famously refuse to allow anyone to resell the beers they brew. There’s a thriving underground market for Westvleteren beers, but the only legitimate ways to get them were by drinking them in the café at Saint-Sixtus or picking them up at the abbey — a process, which, until recently, involved using an archaic telephone ordering system. The café isn’t open for dine-in service during the pandemic, and the monks’ ordering system has moved online but appears equally byzantine and sales are currently restricted to people with an address in Belgium.

(If you’re intrigued by Westvleteren 12 but have never tried it, don’t despair: St. Bernardus Abt 12, commercially brewed and widely available in Canada, is a more than acceptable substitute. The St. Bernardus brewery in Watou, Belgium, brewed Westvleteren 12 under contract for the monks for several decades. Today’s Abt 12 is brewed with the same recipe the monks provided in 1946, with a couple of key distinctions: the monks of Saint-Sixtus use a different yeast strain today and the water used by each brewery imparts subtle differences.)

The monks of Saint-Sixtus made an exception to their ban on commercial sales in 2012, when they exported a quantity of Westvleteren 12 to help finance an expansion of the abbey. I seized the opportunity and bought several bottles at the time, sampling a couple of them fresh and keeping six or seven for special occasions.

The bottle I opened on New Year’s Eve was my last one. Was it worth holding onto for eight years? Yes and no. The common wisdom is that Belgian quadrupels like Westy 12 peak after about five years of aging, and experience has led me to the same conclusion. Make no mistake: my eight-year-old bottle was still delicious and I enjoyed it tremendously, but it had lost a lot of the complexity that makes the beer so highly regarded. The layers of dried fruit had receded and were replaced mainly by sherry-like notes and some cola. The thick head and rich mouthfeel had changed to a quickly-dissipating ring of foam and a thinner body. Even in this state, it was a tremendous beer, but it didn’t deliver the same sensory experience.

But the biggest difference between this bottle of Westy 12 and others I had enjoyed wasn’t a product of age: it was the absence of the shared experience that so often goes hand-in-hand with drinking great beer.

I shared the second-last bottle in my collection a couple of years ago with our friend Almas, who was in Edmonton visiting my wife, Lea, and me. Almas isn’t a beer nerd like me, but she’s one of those people who has a good palate and a genuine love of great food and drink. In a similar way, I’ve always valued the fact that Almas has viewed me as a kindred spirit in this sense: I’m not a wine person, but Ali has always made sure that I get a glass of the good stuff along with everyone else, confident that I will fully appreciate it. (And I do.)

It was in this spirit that I decided to open a bottle of Westvleteren 12 and share it with Almas after I had done some evangelizing about beer over supper at our place. While I recall that the beer hadn’t quite fallen off as much as the one I had on New Year’s Eve, my most vivid recollection of that second-last bottle was seeing that metaphorical light switch on as Ali realized just how diverse and complex beer can be. Being able to share that beer, and my enthusiasm for it, is a big — and inextricable — part of why I enjoyed it so much.

With my supply of Westvleteren 12 exhausted, it looks like the only way I’ll be able to acquire more is by visiting the abbey in Belgium. That would mean being able to travel again and being able to enjoy it in the company of friends and loved ones. And that will beat a dusty old bottle from my cellar every damn time.