Toppling the craft beer pedestal

Belgium's Westvleteren 12 is considered one of the rarest, most sought-after beers in the world. — Wikimedia Commons photo
Belgium’s Westvleteren 12 is considered one of the rarest, most sought-after beers in the world. — Wikimedia Commons photo

I think every craft beer nerd probably has a bucket list; a list of beers they want to try before they kick said bucket.

Last year, I had the opportunity to cross one of the beers off of mine. My wife and I were in Amsterdam to celebrate our anniversary and we ended up in one of the city’s many amazing “brown cafés” – the tiny, historic beer and gin bars that are tucked into every nook and cranny of that incredible city. After sampling a Cantillon gueuze with euphoric delight, the bartender asked me if I was interested in trying something off the menu. My hair stood on end, because I had a feeling about what he was going to offer me.

“I have a few bottles of Westvleteren 12,” he said in a hushed tone.

For those unfamiliar, “Westy 12” as it’s known, is one of the world’s most highly sought-after beers, and generally considered to be among the best. It’s brewed by a trappist monastery in Belgium, and only released once a year. Those who want to purchase Westvleteren 12 must line up at the monastery’s door and may only purchase a single case of 24 each.

“Y-y-yes, please,” I whimpered, sweat now beading my forehead.

Now, technically this whole transaction is a big no-no. The monks expressly forbid the resale of Westvleteren 12, and, if you are lucky enough to purchase a case at the monastery, you must also agree that you will not sell it..

The modest, plain brown bottle arrived, with only a yellow cap to identify it. The bartender poured the dark hazy elixir into a goblet and the head dissipated almost immediately. I inhaled deeply, letting the sweet plummy aroma fill my nose. I took a sip and was flooded with complex flavours of dried fruit, caramel and molasses, and finally a bracing rush of characteristic alcoholic warmth (this a quadrupel, after all, clocking in at 10.2% ABV).

It was… merely fantastic. I’ll be honest: I was disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a truly incredible beer. But in my mind I had built this beer up to be something more. I was expecting a transcendental experience, an epiphany, orgasms and fireworks.

And that’s a lot to ask of a beer.

Now, that’s not the fault of the good monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus, of course. It’s on me for having such unrealistic expectations of this beer. I had put it on a pedestal, and by doing so, ensured that it would only disappoint me.

A friend of mine had a similar experience after he managed to track down a bottle of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder – arguably the beer responsible for the entire West Coast’s obsession with IPAs. With much anticipation, he poured himself a glass and was greeted with what he felt was a rather uninspiring beer. Again, there were no orgasms or fireworks. Only disappointment.

He’s since convinced himself the bottle was old or possibly light struck, which it may very well have been. So he’s decided that to experience this beer in all its glory, he’s going to get it from the source and make a pilgrimage to Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, California. I truly hope it’s worth the trip.

The funny thing is, when I think about my best beer memories, none of them involve beers that are likely to end up on anyone’s bucket list.

There’s the cold pint of Coopers Sparkling Ale I had with my dad after a hot day spent walking through his old haunts in Sydney, Australia, where he grew up. There were the endless Big Rock Grasshoppers I shared with my wife and in-laws backstage at the Edmonton Folk Festival one summer. There was that time my mom and I both shotgunned cans of Lucky together at my 30th birthday (and she spilled beer all over herself because she had no idea what she was doing).

Good company, good thirst and good times seem to be the constants, as is the complete absence of expectation. There may be a lesson in there somewhere.

• What’s the best beer you’ve ever had, and what is the story behind it? Let me know at!




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