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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reviews: Red Rising, Westvleteren 12

One thing you have to say about the beer bloggers conference: insanely good beer. At every moment, in and out of sessions, someone was handing you a beer. Things got rolling in the first half hour, when Angelo started waving a bottle around in the universal, "what some?" gesture. We were at the back of the room in a scene that recalled my school days, sniggering and whispering and generally goofing off. He might have been proffering a Budweiser, but I was happy to thrust my glass forward. By way of communicating what the chestnut beer in my glass was, he handed over the cap: Westvleteren 12. And we're off.

I'm not going to review every beer I tried over the weekend (and maybe I shouldn't be reviewing beers at all--the general consensus among bloggers held that reviews are mostly boring) but a few can't be missed. Here they are.

Westvleteren 12
This is easily the most coveted beer in the geek-o-sphere. In order to secure a bottle you must travel to the abbey of Sint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium (or get one from someone who did). The brothers don't distribute. So perhaps it's the rarity or maybe the beatific setting, but Westy 12 has this reputation: ambrosia on earth, god's tears, holy water. (Behold the love.) Styled a quad in the literature, I was shocked to see that it was brown. This was not the only surprise. Angelo said he thought the bottle (secured via eBay) was three years old, and it definitely exhibited the qualities of age. But beyond that, it was very much like an English barleywine. It has a bread pudding aroma with caramel and alcohol. The palate is deep and figgy, with notes of caramel and cola, boozy in the fashion of Thai Mekong whiskey. I wouldn't call it especially complex, though. There was little in the way of yeast-contributed complexity. Perhaps as a Westy unbeliever I am not a reliable witness; for me the beer was not made blood. I wouldn't turn down another pour, though, don't get me wrong. Call it a solid B.
Deschutes The Stoic
Speaking of quads, we've got a new one in town. Last week, Deschutes released a beer that's been in the works awhile, an 11% quad aged in rye and pinot barrels, spiked with sugar and pomegranate molasses, and aged and refermented four times. ("Stoic" is an interesting choice. A Greek philosophy holding that man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief. As one observer said, 'pomegranate molasses--what's stoic about that?") My main reaction is that it seems a bit green. It's still sweet and a bit rummy. There's a mild phenolic note. It is exceedingly smooth, though, and there are no higher alcohols to make it sharp or prickly--which does make it an easy-sippin' 11% beer. I would love to see it grow past this youthful stage and into a more mature...stoic one. I'll get back to you in a year.

Hopworks Galactic Red
It may be that Hopworks will transition slowly into the Imperial brewery. They seem to really hit their stride at about 9% alcohol. I missed Galactic Red when it orbited earth last year, so this was my first opportunity. With big beers, the key is to create clean, clear flavors that don't fuzz out like sounds on an overmatched speaker. It's easy to add intensity; hard to produce clean, bell-like notes. Galactic Red nails it. It's got a candy-like malt base that offers just enough of a foundation for the hop assault, which is vivid, varied, and violent. In a kaleidoscope of hop flavors, you pass from earthy to spicy to piney to citrusy. Like a mushroom trip for hop flavors. They are distinct, though, and a joy to behold--in that eyelids-pasted-back kind of way. An A- any day of the week, and possibly an A if I'm feeling good.

Cigar City Tocobaga Red Ale
One of the hottest breweries in the country is Cigar City, from Tampa, Florida. They are brewing in the classic "International extreme" mode--a sure way to attract geek attention. (Though their list of beers is longer than your arm, so who knows what lies at the heart of their vision.) I approached the beer with a hearty skepticism. Sure, Floridians think it's good beer, but what do Floridians know? Turns out: something. This was a very nice beer, and more to the point, something fresh and new (Alan might take note). The red was, like Hopworks', based on a candyish base, maybe just a touch of caramel. The hopping though, was unique. It was very long and woody, resinous, and cedary. "Woody" doesn't always mean spicy, but here it does. Spicy-oily. And for those who think things must be tame in the South, this beer is a nice refutation. It was very big and very bold. Perhaps just a notch behind Hopworks, but what the hell, call it an A-.

Double Mountain Black Blood
Just a word or two on the robust porter produced from the cherries we picked on Kriek Kamp. Charlie Devereux brought up a growler for the conference, and I got to sample a splash. The main thing is that it was an intense, slightly disturbing color. "Black blood" was right on the money. My palate was a bit shattered when I tried it, but I recall thinking of desert--chocolate, cherry, and a twist of tart. You probably won't have a chance to try it unless you're passing through Hood River in the near future. Still, it was a cool beer.

Apologies again to Matt Wiater, whose photo I've stolen. Matt was sitting next to me when we tried the Westvleteren, and his photography is always sumptuous (whereas mine is blurry and poorly-composed).


  1. I was amazed at the amount of beer flowing at every turn over the weekend. Outside the conference room? Beer. Inside the conference room? Beer. On the buses? Beer. Everywhere beer. Good beer.

    I'm not sure about beer reviews, either. I think beer tasting is largely an individual matter. What I like you might hate. And vice versa. But a little perspective on particular beers has to be helpful to folks not in the know. Providing too much detail means we're writing for beer geeks.

    I don't think I got to try any of the beers on your list. Looks like those weren't very small. Looking forward to the Mighty Mites.

  2. Rating a Westvleteren 12 as a "B" in quality truly shows your lack of understanding and appreciation for one of the rarest and highest rated beers in the world. I really hope it wasn't aged, that would have been a waste of beer. Stick with poorly reviewed RED beers, that's more likely where your taste buds belong.

  3. Wow! Is this beer blogging for buffoons?

  4. Mekong Whiskey?!? Take it back....

    With all due respect to Angelo, there are some gaps in what we know of the provenance, shipping, and storage of that bottle. He said he had it in his fridge for three years after buying it on Ebay. Did it get hot during shipping? Who had it before Angelo, and how did they store it?

    That said, I think it still tasted great. Not as good as my memories of fresh Westvleteren last month, but still a delicious beer, big all around but with no flavor dominating the others. Certainly not like Thai whiskey!

  5. I was considering giving Westy a B+, but I knew my apostasy would provoke better comments. For what it's worth, that beer was in great shape. It was no doubt different than one released at the brewery, but a 10% beer can manage three years of life.

    I will accept all the ad hominem attacks you can dish out, but I find they lack a persuasive quality. No doubt at some point Stan Hieronymus will stop by and smack me around, but I'm prepared for that. Stan gets special dispensation.

  6. Sometimes the Uber-hyped beers just aren't all they're cracked up to be. I've definitely had that experience a few times, although I haven't had the pleasure of trying Westvleteren.

    I have a lot of strong beers that sit in my fridge. Most of the time, I'd rather drink a Mirror Pond.

  7. For some reason a whole load of Westy 12 turned up in Victoria, BC on the shelves, along with the 8 too. I picked up a few. Very reasonably priced. Not my first time drinking it, but I have to give it an A. It's lovely stuff. I think that you need something of a sweet tooth to really dig it, it's a bit rich for some.

  8. Wow, the beer geeks come out of the woodwork. Is there some signal that shoots into the sky when someone is giving a less-than-amazing review of a rare or geeky beer?

    I just had a friend get back from Belgium a few months ago. he tried Westy there and had before. He's a certified beer judge etc etc etc. his take? "It's pretty good, but not great and not really worth the hype." Of course, I can't imagine that any beer would live up to that hype.

  9. Oh, and I forgot to mention. Bill, Mekong whiskey wasn't supposed to be a slag. It's sweetish like rum but with a bit more depth in my view. But, just to fully discredit myself, I love Mekong whiskey. So that was supposed to be a plus.

  10. It's just a beer. I give it an A+ because I got to share it with my friends. Plus I thought it tasted amazing. That being said, I feel that rating beer cheapens the experience just the same way that BA and RateBeer geeks ruin the fun of enjoying beer.

  11. Jeff, obviously your palate is lacking that 6th taste of rareness.

    A year or so back we did a blind tasting of the Trappist "quads" and I think the Westvleteren 12 took like 3rd or 4th place behind St. Bernardus 12, Southampton Abt12, and Rochefort 10.

  12. "BA and RateBeer geeks ruin the fun of enjoying beer"

    et tu Angelo?

  13. I often wonder where I would find a Westy 12 in rank in a blind tasting of quads, though I feel I'd be hard pressed to find anyone wanting to use a bottle to throw into a blind taste test.

    Maybe it is the hype, though that doesn't bother me. I have been privileged enough to pop 4 bottles of Westy 12 over the last 5 years (Jeff, I am SHOCKED to hear this was you first taste), and every time I can only describe it as gorgeous and flawless. Just amazing liquid.

    Try some Cigar City Hunuapus if you can get your hands on one. I like you am wary of Imperial Beers, but this is one of the most impressive Imperial Stouts I have ever tasted, and I have had a ton. Drink it at 55 degrees or more, you won't be sorry.


  14. Angelo, we declared you the Next Fred Eckhardt at the conference and your "any beer shared by friends" standard confirms our judgment.

    Ben, I haven't been to Belgium before, and the monks prefer the aura of rarity. (I will rectify this problem in November.)

  15. I've been wondering what to do with the half-pint of Thai whiskey my neighbor gave to me a couple years ago. Regift!

  16. Where's the love for beer reviews? I've got some…

    In my humble opinion, there’s no "right" answer in beer reviews (or any other form of subjective review). Each reviewer brings their own personal preferences, biases, and physical taste sensitivities. Readers should read reviews knowing that “their results will vary”.

    First, I like reviews because the universe of craft beer is vast. Reviews help to highlight individual beers. Call me a rube, but I didn't know Westvleteren 12 was "special" until Jeff reviewed it. I just wish I realized it last Friday night when I was walking around that room filled with amazing beer.

    Secondly, I don't have tons of cash to spend on one-off and special edition brews. Reviews help to highlight beers that may warrant further consideration.

    Finally, whether someone rates a beer as an "A" or a "B" or 4 stars or 3 stars is largely irrelevant to me. I'm more interested in their sensory descriptions.

    I am more likely to try a beer that is "highly" rated, but after I taste it, I'll form my own opinion.

  17. For the moment there is only one trustworthy site where you can buy westies for a reasonable price, and it’s on .. for the rest, in my opinion, just avoid them