So after making my somewhat disparaging comments about St. Bernardus Abt 12 in my review of brewpub Gollem, I decided we should do a side-by-side taste test with Westvleteren 12, just to be sure I wasn’t being a delusional, obnoxious beer snob. (And to learn that about myself if I was.) David was all for the idea and set up a “blind” taste test for me before I returned the favor for him. I’m writing this as we finish off the open bottles. [By way of background, if you’re unfamiliar with these beers and/or missed my earlier post, St. Bernardus brewery was at one time licensed to brew beer using the Westvleteren abbey recipe and some people claim St. Bernardus Abt 12 is the “same” as the renowned and hard-to-come-by Westvleteren 12 Trappist beer.]
Our “blind” test was not blindfolded, just two beers poured in non-representative glasses, side-by-side, so we did evaluate appearance, although that wasn’t the decisive difference. Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12 are very similar in color although the St. B is cloudier. (We bought our Westvleteren 12 last week at the abbey. We bought the St. Bernardus Abt 12 yesterday at our local Antwerp grocery store.)
All it took for both of us was a sniff of each beer to know which was which. There really is no comparison. Unlike David, I find the St. Bernardus to be downright off-putting. There’s something reminiscent of green olives in the nose that I actively dislike. I don’t really get olive on the taste, however. Thank God. There’s a little rootbeer in the nose of the St. B, too, that does show up in the taste, kind of a salty rootbeer, that’s also too sweet for me. There’s a little Belgium barniness on the back end, but overall the St. B just doesn’t work for me. David thinks the St. B is average for a Trappist quad and says he wouldn’t order it out, given other options.
I’ve already reviewed Westvleteren 12 in my post on our most recent trip to the abbey at Westvleteren to pick up a couple of cases of W12 and our visit to In De Vrede café. Suffice it to say I love the beer, and you can read my previous post if you want actual tasting notes. David says Westvelteren 12 is his favorite Trappist beer, “hands down.”
As far as a blind side-by-side test, David and I both had to acknowledge simple familiarity played some role for us. We drink a lot of Westvleteren 12, so we know it. There’s no mistaking it for the St. Bernardus Abt 12 or any other beer for us. We’ve admittedly developed a taste for it, so that has to be a factor in our side-by-side comparison.
Since we had the Westy 12 and St. B Abt 12 open, we decided to open a Rochefort 10 (a stellar Trappist beer) as well since we’d never tried one in direct comparison to either of the others. The R10 is darker than the other two and completely different in taste. Its rich, molasses-y nose is echoed in the taste which also features prune and Belgium barn-y yeast. Delicious. I’d still go for the Westvleteren 12, given the choice, but a Rochefort 10 is undoubtedly a lovely beer.
After all’s said and done, though, “favorite” is an entirely personal thing. If you love St. Bernardus Abt 12, “Cheers!” Drink what you want, eat what you like, spend your time on the planet as you see fit. There are actually people who prefer white chocolate to dark. <shaking head> To each their own. Just give me my Westy 12 and my dark chocolate.
David now says we should have opened a Chimay Blue to compare. Too much beer for an impromptu afternoon tasting today. Soon, though. We have a new mission!
One of the privileges of our frequent extended stays in Antwerp, Belgium, is the ability to walk to legendary beer bar De Kulminator whenever the mood hits us. Kulminator has been named the best and one of the best beer bars in the world. Of course, “best” is as subjective as it gets, but it is a place true lovers of Belgian beer should try to visit at least once. When it comes to aged beers, it really is difficult to imagine a better beer bar. Hardly swank, Kulminator is a cluttered, cozy little dive on a street that’s not the most picturesque in Antwerp, but its cellars hold a treasure trove of everything from rare old beers to rising stars. This is the place to try vintage Belgian beers. Beers from other countries are also on offer, and Kulminator’s collection spans an 81-page menu. The day’s specials are posted on a board and the offerings on tap are always interesting, but there’s something awe-inspiring about having that special dusty bottle, just fetched from the cellar, set in front of you. And the nose and flavor of a fine, well-aged, decades-old beer is something that needs to be experienced to understand.
Service has been notoriously slow for as long as we’ve been visiting Kulminator. The bar is owned and run by a married couple, Dirk Van Dyck and Leen Boudewijn, who founded Kulminator in 1979. [The bar is named after a favorite beer of his and with the dual intent that the bar reflect a culmination of the beer brewing and drinking experience.] She does her friendly, dogged best to keep up with orders and he fetches bottles from the cellar. The problem is that he’s had some health issues and it can be a long wait before those dusty bottles arrive. We try to get our next order in a little early when we catch her eye to avoid dry spells, and they’re currently encouraging patrons to “pre-order” their next rounds. She speaks a little English and I couldn’t tell you about him; he often stays behind a piled-high table when not retrieving beer.
Thankfully, Dutch-speaking friends (of the variety it’s easy to make for an evening in Kulminator) explained to us nearly a year ago that Dirk was having back/knee trouble and that they were even considering selling the bar. (No idea if this last is accurate.) On our most recent visits, there’s been an addition to the voluminous menu explaining that Dirk is post-knee surgery and asking for understanding if service is slow and hours are irregular.
The menu also explains that some of their stock may be temporarily out-of-reach in their cellar(s)–an Ali Baba’s cave of beer treasures I’d absolutely love to see! To simplify, they’ve bolded certain items on the menu that are definitely accessible.
Kulminator is small and sharing a table with strangers is common. Fortunately for us, English is widely-spoken and my French often fills in any gaps so we’ve never had trouble drifting into beer chat with table mates and neighbors. We even met a couple from Philadelphia who’d come to Antwerp and booked a hotel near Kulminator for the sole purpose of checking off a bucket list item of visiting this renowned beer mecca! There is a narrow covered courtyard area in the back, too, that’s especially nice in warmer months. Look for the cat that likes to bask in the sun atop the roof. This is not a restaurant, but you can order plates of Trappist cheese cubes, either young or aged (and small servings of Chimay cheese come gratis with every Chimay beer).
Kulminator is located at Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp 2000, Belgium. Opening dates and times are currently subject to change due to the owner’s convalescence (They’re advising they might close early if Dirk’s knee is acting up, business is slow, etc.) although we’ve found them to be open as usual. Opening times are officially 4pm-midnight, Tuesdays – Saturdays; 4pm-8pm on Mondays; and, Kulminator is closed on Sundays and holidays. The current note indicates they may close the Rosier street cellar/warehouse an hour earlier and close up shop a half-hour early. They’re also operating on a cash-only basis and note that the nearby bank closes at 11pm for cash withdrawals. Despite the current adjustments, Kulminator was doing a lively business on a visit last week.
Update March 29, 2017
We stopped off at Kulminator yesterday afternoon and found the place bustling with tourists and locals. Although service was slow as usual (but no more so), they were fetching lots of interesting things from the cellar, including bottles not included in their highlighted, easy-to-reach selections. David had a 30-year old Oerbier (a Belgian strong ale) from La Dolle, a highlighted choice on the menu. We’d had a new Oerbier at Beer Lovers Bar last week, so wanted to compare. The aged strong ale had a nose like a barleywine with hints of fig. The taste was also barleywine-ish, reminiscent of a good sherry, slightly tart, fruity and with a hint of something that always reminds me of Christmas trunks in the attic.
I had a 2010 unfiltered gueuze from Timmerman that was not nearly sour enough for my tastes (unlike the usual Timmerman offerings I find at Kulminator). A pair of Massachusetts long-time homebrewers and beer afficianados at a nearby table had a 1977 Chimay, a brand new Westvleteren 12, a 2011 Pannepot from De Struise, among others. We were soon sharing beer talk and sips with them and a documentary filmmaker from New York who had an aged Loterbol tripel, a Stillenacht from De Dolle, and a vertical flight of Orvals.
Located just off the beautiful Grote Markt in Old Antwerp, Gollem was the first beer bar in Antwerp to pull us in. Gollem (and former bartender and our first “beer sensei,” Sam) launched our love of quality beer, and it’s still our most frequent destination when we’re in town. Although located in a touristy area, Gollem is the real deal when it comes to beer: 30 beers on tap and an extensive menu of bottled beers as well. The service is always friendly, knowledgeable and fluently multi-lingual. The inside is cozy on a cold winter day, cool in the summer and the outdoor seating has some of the best people-watching around (although they don’t get afternoon sun–a plus or a minus depending on the season).
There’s a modest menu of sandwiches, burgers, croquettes and cheeses. Their atypical “croque monsieur,” while nothing like the traditional French staple, makes for a surprisingly satisfying lunch and is my favorite Gollem meal. Ham and cheese is rolled in thin bread and skillet fried in butter, then sliced and served with mayo and ketchup and a side of shredded, slaw-like salad.
On our most recent visit, we tried a St. Bernardus Abt 12 on tap and a Swedish “New England IPA” from Stigbergets Bryggeri. We’ve had St. Bernardus in bottle, of course, but it was our first opportunity to try it on tap. We detected no big difference between the tap and bottled version and found the beer to be a bit boring and somewhat of a disappointment. Still, it was worth a try. St. Bernardus Abt 12 gets a lot of mileage out of a reputation for being very similar to Westvleteren 12*. For a while after World War II, the monks of St. Sixtus at Westvleteren licensed their recipe to the nearby St. Bernardus brewery so the claim is that now St. Bernardus makes an unofficial version of Westy 12 that is the “same”. Yeah, I don’t think so. St. Bernardus is a reasonably good beer, but it’s too sweet for me and it’s no Westvleteren 12. Not really even close, IMHO, although I know people who will disagree. If I’m going to pick up a Trappist or Trappist-style beer in a (Belgian) grocery store, I’ll take a Chimay Blue or a Rochefort 10 any day over a St. Bernardus Abt 12. To each his or her own, though. There’s a beer out there for everyone. And no question, St. Bernardus is much, much easier to come by than Westvleteren 12. [Writing this led to David and me doing a blind side-by-side taste test of Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus Abt 12…and then adding a Rochefort 10. I’ll write that up in another post.]
The second beer we had, Muddle, really was exceptional. The grapefruit nose hit us the minute the glass arrived. The head was tall and slowly gave way to a marshmallow-shaped, meringue-like center that lasted on and on. It was so cloudy it looked more like peach or apricot juice than beer. Served very cold, the flavor was crisp, bold and refreshing, full of American hops. This is a beer we’ll gladly have again.
To wrap things up, David ordered a final “maple coconut toast David Strachan Imperial Porter” named Lorelei that tasted more to us like a chocolate stout. It’s the product of a collaboration between Siren from the UK and Omnipollo from Sweden who based this beer on submissions from home brewers, the winner in this case being David Strachan. This oily, black confection was super rich, smooth and chocolatey, almost begging to be eaten with a spoon. The dense head was the darkest tan I’ve seen on a beer. Really a special dessert beer, this is another one we’re likely to get again.
Gollem is located at Suikerrui 28, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium (on the road just to the left of the Stadhuis/City Hall as you face it that leads from the Grote Markt to the River Schelde). It’s open seven days a week: 11am until 1am, Sunday – Thursday; 11am until 3am, Friday and Saturday. http://www.gollem.be
Year after year, Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quadrupel beer brewed by Trappist monks in a rural Flanders abbey has been named the “Best Beer in the World” by the major beer rating sites. While I’m the first to say that claiming any food or drink to be the “best” of its kind is always going to be a subjective exercise, “Westy 12″ is undoubtedly an outstanding beer. It’s also really hard to come by. I’ve read that only five monks brew the beer and another five help when it comes time to bottle. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I am sure that the Westvleteren Abbey is a small beer-making operation with no signs that it cares to be anything larger. The monks’ primary focus is on being monks, not brewers. The reputation and mystique around Westvleteren 12 has led to a mad and highly competitive scramble to buy this elusive beer.
A Little Background on Trappist Beers
Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monasteries. As of today, only 11 monasteries produce beer officially recognized by the International Trappist Association: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy, the United States (New Jersey). Many of these are very old breweries with recipes going back to medieval times, but one in the Netherlands and those in Austria, Italy and the U.S. are recent entries, only being recognized in the years since 2012. Some are tiny, like Westvleteren (producing only 4050 US bbl/year), while others are substantial producers, the largest by volume being La Trappe in the Netherlands which produces 124,000 US bbl/year. To be able to designate their beer as Authorized Trappist Product and display a special logo, these beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewing should be secondary to and in keeping with the monastic way of life, and the brewery should not be a profit-making enterprise, but rather to support the monastery and the monastic lifestyle.
Westvleteren 12 and Our Beer Journey
I first heard of Westvleteren 12 in reading about Belgian beers prior to the first housesit David and I did in Antwerp. When we discovered our favorite local beerpub, Gollem, and attached ourselves to our favorite bartender/beer sensei there, Sam, I asked about this then-unpronounceable beer. Sam informed us they had it–at a very steep price since, except at the abbey, it’s a gray-market product. We balked then, but soon went for it at our second favorite Antwerp beerpub, the legendary Kulminator. We were total beer newbies at the time with no real way to evaluate except to say, “Hey, this beer is really good!” Sigh. We’ve come a long way.
Since then, David and I have done an awful lot of beer tasting, reading and even brewed our first batch of homebrew. David became so obsessed with The Beer Bible, a Christmas gift from my elder son, that he read it every night for over a year and lugged the tome with us around the world. (Thankfully, we’ve got it on Kindle version now, so can read up on iPad or cellphone…even sitting in a pub.) You can get your own addictive copy of The Beer Bible on Amazon.
Buying Our First 6-Packs of Westies at the Abbey Café
So, of course, as part of our beer odyssey, we wanted to try Westvleteren again at the abbey. When my younger son, Dillon, arrived to spend a week with us in Antwerp in August 2015, we used the opportunity to drive the hour and 40 minutes into rural Flanders where the St. Sixtus Abbey sits amid fields of crops and sheep.
A modern and spacious abbey-owned café called “In De Vrede” (“In Peace”) lies across the road from the main abbey building.
The three Trappist beers brewed at the abbey are always available to drink on-site at the café. These are Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren 8 (a tripel) and the Westvleteren Blonde. At random times 6-packs of whatever beer the abbey happens to provide are sold at the café shop. On that first trip, we were thrilled to learn that 8’s and blondes would be available in the café shop after 2pm, but disappointed that none of the top-of-the-top 12’s were available for take-away. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with breakfast Westy 12’s before showing Dillon some of our favorite World War I museums and sites until it was time to return for the afternoon beer sale. Back at In De Vrede, we happily joined a long line and bought the maximum two 6-packs/person of the unlabeled brown bottles. [The sum total of packaging information on a Westy bottle comes on the cap and in the simple molded glass collar on the bottle that reads “TRAPPISTENBIER.”]
Buying Cases of Westvleteren: The “Beer Hotline”
The only way to get more than those random 6-packs at the abbey is to make an appointment to pick up cases of beer. To do this, you have to consult the abbey’s website and click through until you get to their beer page. There you’ll find a page displaying a 2-week schedule: On the left is the current week with times blocked off when the “beer hotline” will be open for the abbey to receive calls from those wanting to place an order for beer. (Only calls from identifiable numbers, land or mobile, will be accepted.) On the right is a schedule for the following week showing the dates and times when the maximum 2 cases/car is available to pick up and which beer (12, 8 or blonde) will be available. David and I have done this twice now. The first time, it took us over 400 calls, using three phones to get through to a monk. Usually, you are required to give a license plate number, but the monk very kindly agreed to take our name instead since we planned to rent a car to pick up the beer.
The second time (this past week) it took us over 1100 calls to get through, again using three phones. Since the hotline opened at 8am that day, we started dialing in bed, getting busy signal after busy signal. Three times, we thought we’d gotten through only to have a Dutch-language recording of a female voice (apparently from the phone company) give way to yet another busy signal. Hungry and discouraged, we went downstairs to make breakfast, but kept doggedly dialing in the process. Finally, the recording gave way to an actual dialing and finally, a monk. This time we had a license plate to give (thanks to the friends for whom we housesit), chose one of the available dates the following week, and were done. Victory!
Part of the reason the monks ask for a license plate or identification is that the same vehicle or person cannot buy cases of beer from them again for 60 days. You must also agree not to resell their beer. This is a widely ignored prohibition and an active gray market exists in Belgium and elsewhere for the beer. We, on the other hand, buy for our own consumption, to cellar and to give away. Besides, there’s just something about lying to nice monks that just wouldn’t sit right!
Both times we’ve bought cases of Westvleteren beer, we’ve had a 1pm pick-up time. We drive over from Antwerp, arriving in time for lunch at In De Vrede (which I’ll review later) before picking up our cases. The iconic wooden crates are available at a small drive-through loop adjacent to the abbey.
A lone monk mans the stacks of cases and will help load if need be, although he’s fine with you loading yourself.
Once we have our beer, we pull forward to pay by credit card. (The monks don’t accept cash.) Although a single bottle of Westy 12 can run €13-20 on the gray market, at the abbey a case of Westvleteren 12 costs €42, a case of 8 is €37, and a case of Blonde costs €32. In addition, there’s a €12/case deposit that you can get back if you return the case and empty bottles to the abbey.
So What Does it Taste Like?
Now that we’re a little past “Hey, this is really good beer!”, how would we describe the taste of Westvleteren 12? Well, first, for the appearance: It’s a medium dark beer with a warm red-brown color and a dense tan head. It pours clear, but there’s often lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The nose is rich, molasses-y, fig-sweet with that wonderful Belgian “barny” yeast smell that conjures for me images of horses and the green pastures of Flanders. The taste is fig, prune, toffee/molasses, yeasty “barniness” and warm spices. (So, now we had to go open a bottle to double check our perceptions and report them in real-time. It’s a tough job, but we’re willing to go that extra mile!) Westvleteren 12 is well-carbonated, effervescent with tiny bubbles that foam in the mouth. At 10.2% alcohol, it’s a substantial beer, but the alcohol is not too forward. It’s wonderfully easy to drink.
I also really like the Westvleteren 8 and love the Blonde, which is harder to come by and needs to be drunk fairly quickly, not being amenable to cellaring like the 12 and 8.
And finally, how to get it home?
We’ve discovered that a wooden case of Westvleteren beer fits perfectly into the reinforced “medium-extra strong” cardboard moving box sold by Shurgard in Belgium (a branch of which in Antwerp is particularly handy to us) for €3.50. We wrap each bottle in bubble wrap to wedge it securely into the case. Then, we line the bottom of the box with foam pads and/or styrofoam peanuts, set the whole case inside, pour in more peanuts and tape like crazy, being sure to reinforce the corners. Packed like this, each case becomes our 2nd piece of luggage on our international flight home. It’s within airline size and weight limits, so there’s no charge. On our last flight home, our beer arrived perfectly, with no breakage or leaking. This time, we brought a light-weight duffel bag full of the recycled peanuts and bubble wrap to repeat the process. We’ll just fold up the duffel and stash it in a suitcase for the return.
Follow up to our latest transport of Westy 12’s back to the States, 5/2017: Our latest two cases (plus a few extras) made it home on British Airways in perfect condition; no leaks, no breakage. The handles on the cardboard boxes had started to tear despite our reinforcement, though, and we’re considering having the boxes plastic wrapped at the airport next time. (It would be best if the handle holes weren’t used at all.) There was also a small hole in the bottom of one of the boxes, but it was a non-issue given the protection afforded by the wooden crate and the layer of styrofoam on the bottom. We saved the styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the duffel and stored it away for repeat duty on our next trip to Belgium in the fall.
The St. Sixtus Abbey website is: http://sintsixtus.be/ It’s in Dutch for the most part, but hover over “Gasten en bezoekers” at the top then click on “Bierverkoop” to get to the information about buying beer. There you’ll have an option to choose “English” (or French or German) which will pull up a screen with the beer hotline number as well as the method and rules for buying their beer. Once read, close that window then click on the big green button that says “Bierverkoop, Ventes de Bières, Beer Sales, Bierabsatz”. This will take you to the screen with the 2-week schedule for calls and pick-up times described above.
Belgians love their french fries (and are the probable originators despite the name), although here they’re called “frites” in the French-speaking part of the country and “friet” in the Dutch-speaking regions. In Antwerp, our not-infrequent home-base, fries are sold at little shops called “frituur”, literally “frying pan.” Traditionally served with mayonnaise, they also come with a variety of toppings beloved by the Belgians.
Recently, there’s a new, upscale arrival on the frituur scene, an upstart from the Netherlands called “Frites Atelier Amsterdam” that’s teamed with Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. [Herman, formerly of Oud Sluis, is currently chef at Antwerp’s posh The Jane restaurant.] In addition to three locations in Holland (The Hague, Utrecht and Arnhem), there’s a beautiful little shop Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 in Antwerp. Yesterday, David and I couldn’t resist dropping in for a fresh-from-the-fryer box of crispy goodness. So, of course, I had to share our experience.
First off, the location itself is a gem. On a popular pedestrian street next to the wonderful old Dutch step-roofed building that houses chocolatier Mary and across from renowned bakery Goossens, Frites Atelier Amsterdam occupies a charmingly decorated space. Uniformed “waiters” and “waitresses” greet guests, explain the set-up and take your order.
Then, you wait to hear your name called by the fry chefs behind a back counter. You can choose your own seat at one of several small tables inside or out or take-away your treat.
The “menu” is strictly fries and toppings. A simple box of fries like we opted for costs €3.50 and you’re offered your choice of two out of five homemade sauces available in ceramic self-serve vats: andalouse, classic, basil, bernaise and truffle. In addition to basic fries, there’s a chef’s Seasonal Special (currently an Asian creation with kimchi, crunchy wonton, sriracha, Greek yoghurt, furikake and curry mayonnaise) for €6.50, a Flemish Beef Stew (a take on traditional “stooflees”, beef stewed with brown beer and served at the Atelier with cress and mustard) for €8.75 with mayo, Indo Peanut (peanut crunch of fried onions, peanuts, rempejek and lime zest) for €6.50 with mayo, all three, of course, served over fries. Beer, wine, bottled water and homemade teas are also on offer.
Our fries came out piping hot and they were very good although I’m not so sure I got anything extra from the vaunted Zeeland potatoes and samphire salt. In truth, what’s not to like about fresh, hot, perfectly fried, skin-on French fries, whatever the variety of potato or salt?
We chose the andalouse and bearnaise sauces and found both to be good, if not particularly remarkable. The andalouse sauce is made with tomatoes and peppers and is mildly spicy. The bearnaise is rich and tasty. In the end, though, we both would have liked plain mayo or ketchup. All in all, it was a fun stop. Service was quick and friendly and the prices fair. Still, we won’t be forsaking our other favorite frituurs for an exclusive future with Frites Atelier Amsterdam.