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Monday, September 17, 2012

Westvleteren Versus the Competition -- In a Blind Tasting

About a week ago, I got an intriguing email from Evan Cohan, the mastermind behind Beercycling (more on that in a bit).  He and a select group of invitees would be gathering to do a blind tasting of eight (!) strong dark abbey ales.  Among these would be the famous Westvleteren 12, a beer that is regularly rated the best beer in the world.  How would it stack up in our tasting?

[Nerdly digression.  Strong dark abbey ales are typically grouped in a category called quadrupel by American beer geeks.  There is an intuitive way in which this makes sense, owing to the existence of dubbels, tripels, and even--though far more rarely--enkel (single).  These are monastic designations, and monastic beers are ancient, and La Trappe is a monastery that makes a quadrupel.  So surely the style is ancient.  It sort of is.  Strong, dark beers go back a very long time, particularly in Flanders.  The name, however, was invented by La Trappe in 1991, long after other very strong abbey ales already in production.  I have no problem calling them quads as a class, but it's worth knowing the history.  Especially if you happen to encounter one of those people who does have a problem with the name.)

We met at Bazi Bierbrasserie on a balmy Thursday night and settled in for the tasting.  Evan had concocted a two-step blinding process so that everyone could taste the beers and not know which was which--though we did know in advance seven of the eight beers we were trying (he hid from us that one would be a domestic quad).  We tasted:
  • Westvleteren 12 [BeerAdvocate rating 100]
  • Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue) [95]
  • Rochefort 10 [99]
  • La Trappe Quadrupel (Trappist) [91]
  • Straffe Hendrik Quad [89]
  • Saint Bernardus 12 [99]
  • Urthel Samaranth [90]
  • Ovila Quad [87]
There were, as with all blind tastings, miraculous discoveries.  Of the twelve tasters, nine preferred three beers (three each called them the best): Rochefort 10, Straffe Hendrik, and Ovila (my choice).  Only one selected Westvleteren (and that one, to her shock, was Sally--who was nonplussed when we tried it at the monastery).  When I tried beer #5, I was taken aback by how mediocre it was.  I did ask if anyone liked it and got lots of "no, it's lame" in response.  I can't say the group was unanimous on the point, though we may have been.  That beer?  Chimay.

For what it's worth, there were three standouts according to my tasting notes.  Of the Ovila I noted "Layered yeast character--phenols and spice.  A dry beer with leather, almost oaky.  Light body, but boozy; more balanced than some of the sweeter examples."  I was doing quickie ratings so I could sort them later and gave it five stars.  Two beers got four starts.  Urthel, a brewery that hasn't always impressed me, did that night.  I wrote: "English barley wine.  Less yeast character than others, more body.  Boozy aroma and HUGE booze kick.  Rich, nutty malt."  Finally, the original quad, La Trappe's, also impressed me.  "Very phenolic, rich raisin/date sweetness.  Surprising amount of roast.  Pepper and beets.  Sharp alcohol, medium body."  I expected to admire St Bernardus--I love the brewery's beers, but it just missed that top group, getting 3 1/2 stars.

Strong dark abbey ales have never been my favorite style.  They usually have less character than their little brothers and are pretty sweet and heavy.  Tasting eight in a row confirmed this view.  Yet as a group, only imperial stouts get anywhere near the same kind of love from beer geeks.  I think the romantic idea of monks cooking up pots of heavy beer wins people over.  You can certainly see this in the way they rate them.  Westvleteren is currently rated second among all beers on BeerAdvocate and is RateBeer's highest rated.  Yet in a blind test, only one person thought it was the best of just eight beers in its group.  Two of the three highest rated beers in our group get relatively "meh" scores by BeerAdvocates--but they are not boosted by the luster of monks.  Finally, and I think this is most revealing, Chimay--a "world-class" beer on BeerAdvocate--was demonstrably the least interesting beer at our table.  Without the monkish luster, no love.

This is exactly why blind tastings are so valuable and revealing.  I rarely flog my Tasting Toolkit, but the moment is irresistible.  You don't need it to conduct blind tastings, but it is pretty damn handy.  And you should be doing blind tastings.  I encouraged Evan to continue this and maybe even expand it, and I hope he does.  We had a fabulous time, tasted fabulous beer, and walked away much the wiser.


Speaking of Evan and plugging, let me put in an additional plug for Beercycling.  The concept is right there in the title.  He curates two trips, one in Belgium, one in the Netherlands, and guides 12 people on a bike tour of breweries.  Biking is apparently the way to do Belgium--I literally had a half dozen people ask if I would be doing any biking when I went.  But the real value here is that throughout the ten-day trip, you tour a bunch of breweries.  Every beer geek who loves Belgium really needs to go on a tour.  Americans can make exceptional beer, even exceptional Belgian-style beer.  But what they can't do is show you their ancient breweries and equipment and talk about decades of family brewing.  You can feel the history of brewing when you tour the breweries of Belgium, and it will change the way you think about beer.  So go have a look if it sounds like it's up your alley.


  1. Fascinating, Jeff. I'd be curious how the two-step blind tasting works, so I can participate in my own tastings.

  2. Clearly this refers to the practice of donning blindfolds and dancing the two-step while tasting.

  3. Very interesting indeed! I have a Westy in my fridge, and I'm curious to see how it compares to having had it near the brewery, though of course it's going to be almost random at this point, given the time that has elapsed. I really need an 'event' to get me to crack it open, though - anyone want to give me a new/better job? Moving on...

    I always find the bias toward high-gravity beers in ratings odd because they are almost never *my* favorites (though many are certainly very fine indeed); I suspect we still have a hangover (as it were) from not being able to find much beyond low-gravity, low-taste beers of yore, when now there are plenty of accessible low-gravity, great flavor options out there (and everything else in between, which can be overlooked in the gravity or hops arms races that happen from time to time). I'd like to see the ratings sites even out a bit in that regard.

  4. Tom - You need two people to help with this, and it helps if you have the same exact glasses for the pours. Say you have 4 beers. Make 2 sets of sticker labels with "A, B, C, and D" written on the first set, and "1, 2, 3, and 4" written on the second set. Pour the beers, and label each glass (or coaster) with the first set of labels. Record on a paper which beer goes with which number (e.g, "A = Chimay", "B = Orval"). Then the 2nd person comes in the room and re-labels your labels in a random order, again noting the associations (e.g., "A = 2", "B = 1", "C = 4"). Make sure you're using thick enough stickers so that you can't see through them. Or use a black sharpie to cross out the original letter. So then you have 2 sets of keys to "decode" the beers after the tasting. Of course this works best when the beers are a similar color, but I found that in the frantic-ness of trying to get all the beers poured, I didn't remember which color was which when it was time to taste.

    Probably too elaborate of a system, when you could just have a non-beer drinker friend do the pours for you, but hey, it seems fancy and official.

    Jesse - That comes after the tasting :)

    Cheers, -Evan

  5. I don't know that it's fair to complain about Quadrupel being somehow a less worthy style designation just because it was created in your lifetime. Tripel only goes back to the 1930s, and Dubbel only a century before that.

    What used to really annoy me was "Belgian Quadrupel", because, until very recently, there was no such thing. However, there are some now, like Halve Maan's.

  6. Very cool. I have to say, my recent glasses of St. Bernardus 12 have left me slightly disappointed. I'll have to give Ovila a try.

  7. I'm having a problem with a couple things here.

    Chimay seems to be out of place with some of these heavy weights.

    While all high in alcohol, not sure they all fit within the same comparable Belgian Flavor profile. Some Strong Belgian Brown vs Quadruple. Whether you argue the difference in styles, the flavors of some of these beers are stand alone vs "In Style" vs "Unique."

    It's hard to take credence to a review where one of the reviewers states, "Strong dark abbey ales have never been my favorite style." Then why are you there?

    That being said, it would have been nice to see at least a cross section of reviewers notes per beer.

    I'm usually skeptical of panel reviews. Who are these people reviewing? Seasoned beer judges vs. well seasoned beer enthusiasts vs just a bunch of shlebs who like to drink beer?

    Basically saying, I'm sure all these beers have qualities in their own right, which is best or better is ambiguous and/or redundant.

  8. @Lisa: just a heads up -- my security software complained about a trojan when I tried to hit your site weirdbeergirl_dot_com. Could be a false positive on my end; could be you've been hacked. Hope its the former. :-)

  9. Thanks, Evan, figured it was something like that. I would probably have my wife, usually a non-beer drinker, do the initial pour. Then I could do the re-labeling being none the wiser.

  10. Beer Nut, I agree. I have no issue--I don't see why calling an old style by a new name irritates some, but it seems to. Ah, the battles of beer geeks.

    I intuit by your comments that you have a different frame of reference than we did. This wasn't a contest or a judging panel. For that reason, I can't see how it matters who the people were. My sense based on their comments was that they understood beer--certainly at least as well as the average BeerAdvocate reader. If you're looking to find a way to judge the judges; sorry, can't help you. Skepticism is always wise.

    It was a tasting panel. We weren't enormously focused on style--in fact, I don't think that subject ever came up. Each beer was tasted on its own merit, but the interest lies in comparing them with each other. Chimay was a fine fit in the flight, but the flight exposed it as a one-dimensional beer.

    And importantly, we didn't attempt to judge beers against some measure of "best." We just named our favorites.

    Finally, I gotta take issue with this:

    It's hard to take credence to a review where one of the reviewers states, "Strong dark abbey ales have never been my favorite style." Then why are you there?

    You make your own judgment, but the idea that we can only evaluate our favorite styles strikes me as preposterous. Think about it for a minute.

  11. As I have told you before, you knowledge of Belgian beer sucks. This post is full of errors. For example: monks do NOT make abbey ale, they make Trappist ale. Abbey ales are made by commercial breweries in Belgium. Chimay "least interesting"? Well, if you had actually learned anything while you were Belgium, perhaps you might know why.

  12. Glad to see De Halve Mann (Straffe Hendrick) get so much love. I really enjoyed their trippel when I was in Brugge this summer.

    Of the three Westy beers, I think I enjoyed the dubbel the best. At the time, I said that it wasn't the best beer I've ever had, but probably the best dubbel.

  13. I do a fair amount of blind tastings and find them fascinating. I've done several with IPAs or IIPAs and it is interesting how low Pliny the Elder always performs (worlds most overrated beer -- and I love Russian River).

  14. I wondered when you'd come by, willfully misread the post, and call me ignorant of Belgian beer, Mike. Of course, I never said monks brew all abbey ales--that's just a term used to describe these beers. That was the point of my post. When that style is brewed by monks, people rate the beers more highly.

  15. I think Mike's rather wearisome point is that "Abbey" ale is a technical term in Belgian beer which does not include Trappist ale. Trappist Beer is not Abbey Beer; Abbey Beer is not Trappist Beer.

    But any sane person can tell from your context what you mean.

  16. Right. It's true that there are technical legal designations about what constitutes an "abbey" ale. I am not obliged to follow those designations, though. Nor, in failing to do so, does it mean I'm unfamiliar with them.

  17. Sure, what do the Belgians know about beer anyhow? How nice there are people like you around to set them straight. Quadrupel, sure, why didn't they think of that?

    You know, I wonder how you would like it if some fools in another country came along and rewrote your conventions and traditions to suit their provincial ideas?

    "Technical legal definitions", right. Why people choose to write about something they know nothing about is really beyond me. When I'm speaking with a German about beer (particularly if he knows a lot about German beer), I wouldn't in my wildest dreams try to argue with him or tell him that I don't care about his "technical legal definitions."

    I would *respect* his views, something you, Jeff, haven't learned how to do yet.

  18. Naming conventions and technicalities aside, would any of you agree that different forms of "hype" (BA scores, reviews, word of mouth, limited availability, advertisements, packaging, previous experiences, visuals of monks with giant wooden paddles, etc) do in fact play a role on how we enjoy / taste a beer? That was really my intention of this tasting; To strip that away. Good beer is good beer, but when presented with something we know of as special, rare, expensive, etc, our brains will start to jump ahead with a conclusion, for better or worse. I think it's just human nature.

    One thing I hear a lot is, "That beer tastes SO much better on draft (or bottle)" or "It gets SO much better when it's aged". It's not a big deal to say those things, but some people seem VERY passionate / opinionated about their conclusions. Could be true, I've def noticed differences between aged/draft beers, but I wonder how those same people (and myself) would rate each in a blind side-by-side taste test. I've tried aged Orval side by side with young Orval, and although I did taste some minor differences, I'd be hard pressed to choose which was actually better. Of course, my palette isn't as fine tuned as others, so I'm not speaking for everyone...

    I think next up I may do a tasting with Dubbels... I could pretty much use the exact same breweries from this list, as all of them make that style as well. Last week was just plain fun... good beer, company, and everyone learned a thing or two. Don't really care too much about the results, it's just a good excuse to share some beer... Maybe we can all wear robes just for added effect? :)

  19. Evan, I think you've raised some interesting points and I'll do my best as a non-American non-geek to reply.

    Taste is a personal preference, and means nothing more. What is "good beer" to me, may be awful to you. For example, many of the highly rated beers on BA and RB I find to be nearly undrinkable.

    No, I do not think this is human nature. I think it is cultural. There remains considerable difference between the US and Europe, for example, on both what people enjoy drinking and how much of the factors you listed play any role.

    I agree with you that tastings can be "just plain fun." However, the beer may be reason for the tasting, but it is the company who provide the enjoyment.

    A group of Americans come to a beer pub in my city every year or two. Each time, they ask the barman to make a mystery tasting of several beers they then have to identify. It is fun and the people enjoy it. However, as a contest, no one pays any attention to the result. But, I'm pretty sure several of them make a note to try beer #3 or so next time they are around.

  20. Way too much conjecture in your post. So because you don't like the style and YOU think it's too heavy, etc. (which was stated matter-of-factly, rather than as an opinion) than it's overrated by all those other people? And your explanation is that they like these beers because they are enamored by the association with monks? Weak. Like the guy above says, why should anyone put any stock in the results of your "panel" or treat them as at all representative of other beer drinkers?

    I read your post because it was linked by Beer News and am quite disappointed that I did.

  21. Way too much conjecture in your post.

    I take it then, Anon, that you believe beer tasting is a science and that taste is quantifiable?

  22. Good heavens!

    A lot of really negative vibes here. Previous arguments aside, I think it's a good example of "group think" and the perpetuation that can accompany it. I wish I could say I'm immune...

  23. Where's Doc Wort when ya need him?!

  24. Hmm... I kinda thought the old Doc might already be in the mix somewhere above. It's no secret he likes pseudonyms and inflamatory rhetoric. :-)