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4×4: Quads Compared – La Trappe v Ommegang v Straffe Hendrik v St Bernardus

February 5, 2012 8 comments

In general, one does not associate Belgium with extremism, but they have given the world some wonderful strong beers. Zak Avery says in 500 Beers that “the journey up the intensity scale from dubbel to tripel must logically conclude with quadrupel”.  However, reading about the style you could be forgiven for thinking the debate about “black IPAs” is merely a little local difficulty.  Much of the literature (excluding Zak, of course) displays a weary disapproval of the naïve, American-influenced neophyte, fooled into drinking and enjoying an inauthentic beer style.

One struggles to find a proper definition, and Ratebeer would seem to suggest that there are two distinct styles or sub-styles: dark, maltier Abts (eg Westvleteren, St Bernardus) and paler “peachy” Quadrupels (eg that of the Dutch Trappist brewery, La Trappe).  Other accounts would have it that “Abt” (“abbot”) or “12” is merely the original Belgian designation for the style described as “quadrupel” elsewhere, the latter term originating with La Trappe.

However,  reading about beers is a poor substitute for drinking them, and I had accumulated four quadrupel/abt style beers.  Given the pleasing symmetry, I thought they were worth trying and comparing over a few nights.

La Trappe Quadrupel (10% ABV)

Pours russet, with a large dense, lasting cream-coloured head. Sweet malty aroma. A rich taste with a lot of sweetness up front quickly revealing a toast (actual buttered toast) and caramelised sugar flavour. Not especially bitter, perhaps just enough to add a bit of definition to the finish. Although it has a thick, oily mouthfeel, it’s actually quite mellow and enjoyable in a warm butter croissant way, although I was left wondering whether there was anything to distinguish it from an English barley wine.

Brewery Ommegang 2011 Three Philosophers (9.8% ABV)

This American quadrupel is actually mixed with 2% cherry kriek. The big head is slightly fluffier and a touch more nicotine-stained than the La Trappe. The aroma shows off a tart sour fruitiness at the edges of the sweet maltiness. In colour it’s slightly darker and redder than the La Trappe. In comparison the taste is still sweet but less so; deep and drier with a kriek tartness. I’d like to try a version without the cherry, but suspect the flavour would be more elusive.

Straffe Hendrik 11° “Brugs Quadrupel Bier” (11% ABV)

When we did the brewery tour in Bruges last summer, they told us that this relatively new beer had been suggested by their American distributors.  The very big fluffy loose head has a bit of yellow to it. This is obviously a much darker beer than the previous ones: deep reddy -brown that looks beautiful held up to the light. There’s not really much of an aroma, perhaps slightly of malt loaf. The taste is immediately warming and alcoholic, a tingle in the mouth.  The sweetness is vinous but tart: almost a hint of brandy, perhaps fortified red wine, and a little dark chocolate. It’s really very enjoyable, a warm bath of a beer.

St Bernardus Abt 12 (10% ABV)

St Bernardus is brewed by the commercial brewery that held the licence to produce St Sixtus beers, before this was withdrawn and the “Westvleteren” beers, including “Abt” (Ratebeer’s best beer in the world) were taken back in-house, or rather in-abbey.  As to how similar the equivalent Westvleteren and St Bernardus are, see this post from Boak & Bailey.  St Bernardus scores very well on Ratebeer too, although it commands less mystique than the hard-to-find Westvleteren.

St Bernardus pours with a relatively light-coloured head, the beer as dark in colour as the Straffe Hendrik, but less red. The aroma is more upfront, signalling the sweet, dark, vinous maltiness within. It has a similar character to the Straffe Hendrik: a little bit of red wine, some dark chocolate, raisins. There’s something else there though, a little spicy, lifting the taste: vanilla, maybe even cardamom.  This, and a less thick body than you might expect from the ABV, makes it very drinkable.

In conclusion it does seem to me that there is a definite difference between the La Trappe Quadrupel and St Bernardus Abt 12, most evident in the colour, but also the taste.  My personal preference is for the darker, deeper “Abt”, and it’s a style/sub-style that I’ll definitely be coming back to.

For another comparison of this style of beer, see this post from Mark Dredge, the comments to which display some of the best and worst of online beer discussion.

Beer In Bruges: Cambrinus, Westvleteren and The Dilemma Of St Sixtus

August 26, 2011 9 comments

Over the last few posts it’s probably become clear that my favourite places to drink in Bruges (De Garre; t’Brugs Beertje) could generally be described as classic examples of brown cafés, serving wonderful beer and some simple food and nibbles in a relaxed atmosphere. However there are of course other types of premises that serve great beer, not least quite a few restaurants and brasseries.

Cambrinus, although it has a bar at which you can sit, is probably best described in UK terms as a brasserie. It’s supposedly styled on an English pub, but reminds me more of an American version of one, with a focus on food and table service, such as Mug’s Ale House in Brooklyn.

When we went on a Sunday night there were quite a few families and a birthday party. The staff were helpful and informed, if at times just slightly abrupt. The one thing that did jar a little was the music: a constant stream of power ballads including “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions, which somehow seems to have been absolutely ubiquitous everywhere on the continent since 1991.

The beer list at Cambrinus is incredibly expansive and presented in a menu with the dimensions of an old telephone directory. After having read Jose from Beer Nerd’s account of his visit I really wanted to try the Westvleteren beers. However, I did have some qualms about buying them. The website of the Abbey of St Sixtus of Westvleteren states in respect of the beer, which is sold only from the Abbey and visitor’s centre for a very reasonable price:

Westvleteren Trappist is sold only to individual customers. Every customer agrees not to re-sell the beer to any third party.  [their emphasis]

So Cambrinus, or whoever sold the beer to Cambrinus, is selling the beers contrary to the wishes of the brewers, who have imposed this condition in accordance with their own beliefs regarding the duties of a monastic brewer. The Abbey could of course earn a fortune from the beer (given its reputation), but they don’t want to, and crucially, don’t want anyone else to either.

The effect of this is of course to create a ravenous grey market for these legendary beers. I can see that today a single bottle of Westvleteren 12, which is routinely rated the best beer in the world on US rating sites, goes for about $25 on ebay.com.

However I managed to set aside my moral qualms and tried the two beers that were available (they were out of Abt/12), for around €8-11 each: the Westvleteren Blonde before dinner and the Westvleteren Extra 8 afterwards. The Blonde had a musty, resiny quality and was very enjoyable if not mindblowing, which you wouldn’t expect of the style in any event. It went well with a simple farmhouse beer pâté starter.

For the main course I had Dover sole. This was very nice, simply fried in butter and served with a huge porcelain cone of chips. With this I wanted a pale hoppy beer so went for a Lefebvre Hopus. This came with an enormous glass with a gothic design and poured with a pretty huge head. I could imagine the Finnish Eurovision metallers Lordi guzzling from these glasses as busty bat-winged succubi cavort before them. Anyway, it was just what I fancied: quite sweet, refreshing (especially for 8.3%) and pleasantly hoppy with a lasting bitter aftertaste.

I had the Westvleteren Extra 8 after dinner and it was everything I expected of a very good dubbel, given my moderate previous experience of the style. It was a nice brown, cola colour and had a sweet, malty, yeasty aroma. The taste included chocolate, liquorice and raisins and was a very pleasant beer to end the meal with.

So as regards Cambrinus, I would say that the food was straightforward Belgian cuisine done well, with Kate also enjoying a rich Flemish carbonnade and some great chips.  The service was helpful and efficient but perhaps a little too so at times: they took away my chips when I was still picking at them! A truly heinous chipcrime, in my book.  The atmosphere (if you can cope with the power ballads) was upbeat and buzzy if not in any way romantic.  The beer list, however, is indisputably great, so if you visit I will leave you to struggle with the Dilemma Of St Sixtus.

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Beer In Bruges: Erasmus, Viven Imperial IPA and De Dolle Bos Keun

August 23, 2011 2 comments

This was a bit of an odd one.  Erasmus was one of the places I’d read about a number of times before coming to Bruges and had been described as a must-visit.  I understand that it’s a hotel that has had an exceptional beer bar for some years but which, over time, has become more of a restaurant. 

We went in and took a window seat in the modern, minimalist restaurant when it was very quiet at around 3pm on a Sunday.  However the beer list on the menu seemed oddly curtailed, with less than two dozen beers.  I was very confused, not least because we were sitting by a window that boasted of the “200 artisan Belgian ales” (or similar) on offer.

After a slightly awkward (verging on cryptic, I thought) conversation, the gentleman serving us explained that, due to recent renovations, there wasn’t as much room in the cellar as there had been, so there simply wasn’t space to store all those beers any more.  However he said that there was a small selection of interesting beers downstairs, although he didn’t have them on a list.

He then asked if there was anything we were looking for.  “Christ,” I thought, “this guy clearly knows everything there is to know about beer and I’m obviously a tourist who knows bugger all squared about Belgian beers.  He’s just asked me what beer I would like with no parameters whatsover.  What can I say that isn’t going to make me look like an idiot?”  

So I asked a question certain to make me look like an idiot; or if not an idiot certainly a dickhead: I asked if he had any Westvleteren.  Apart from almost certainly mispronouncing it, I know you’re not supposed to be able to buy it anywhere other than the Abbey and visitor’s centre.  However, I knew they were available in at least one other bar in Bruges, regardless of whether it’s ethically suspect and contrary to the wishes of the brewers themselves.  He said that they couldn’t be bought anywhere, to such an extent that I suspected there might be a little glint in his eye.  However, I respected his apparent honour and let the matter drop.

Instead I explained that Kate was quite keen on pale hoppy Belgian beers and I wondered what he had to that end.  So we ended up with a Viven Imperial IPA and a De Dolle Bos Keun.  The Viven is a beer that Phil Hardy had recommended and I really enjoyed it.  It had a great mango aroma, a bitter but sweet fruity taste and a nice alcoholic warmth in the bitter finish.

However I should say that, for a Belgian beer, it tastes completely like a US double IPA.  Whether that’s a good, bad or indifferent thing is debatable: I noticed that in all the superb beer bars I went to there were hardly any non-Belgian beers on offer.  This speaks of a confident and diverse national brewing scene but surely it wouldn’t be at all out of place to put a few De Molen on the list?  Or Mikkeller?  Or Stone?  After all, the US craft beer scene’s approach to ABV and sipping beers has more in common with the attitude of the Belgians, than to us British session drunkards.

The Bos Keun was a different kettle of hops.  This 10% blonde ale had a lot of Belgian yeast character as well as  a lot of hops.  A nice bubblegummy aroma and a dusty, musty hoppiness came through, and the helpful barman warned us about the extensive sediment so we poured carefully.   It was a great beer and one of those that helped convince Kate that she could really like Belgian beers over the course of the holiday.  Luckily when we came back we found that Further North had a few left in the fridge so we could pretend to still be in Bruges.

So I found Erasmus a bit confusing really.  The gentleman who served us, however inscrutable he seemed initially, clearly knew his stuff and was very helpful.  However it’s not quite a warm and laid back place to enjoy a good beer.  We didn’t eat there so maybe it’s simply more of a great beer restaurant than a beer cafe now, as the decor would suggest.  If you’ve been recently, please let me know your thoughts.

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