Sunday, 8 March 2009

Westvleteren 12: The Psychology Behind Drinking the Best Beer in the World

What is the best beer in the world? Ever since I have known about beer, consumed it and read about it, the same beer has been championed as ‘the best’: Westvleteren 12 (see ratebeer or Beer Advocate). But is it really the best?

I think there’s a whole load of complex psychology surrounding these world class beers: We know their story, know their reputation, we expect something life changing from them. But do we actually get it, like actually actually get it?

Westvleteren has a story which raises it up into beer mythology (this post explains it well). It’s hard to get hold of. The brewery tells you what beer is for sale and when. They only make enough to sustain themselves at the monastery. You have to call the brewery/monastery between certain short windows and you can only pick it up between another short window of a few days. It’s limited to three crates per car per month. And you can’t buy all the beers at the same time (they also have a 6 and an 8). And you aren’t supposed to sell it on. It’s a tough one to get hold of. It is coveted. It is prized.

I’ve wanted to try this beer for, like, ever. Everyone wants to drink the best beer in the world, don’t they? But is its status self-perpetuating? And is there a deeper psychological process which makes the drinker expect something amazing and therefore they convince themselves that what they are drinking is amazing? Or on the opposite end - do we raise it up only to face disappointment?

As hard as I tried while drinking it, it is impossible to clear my head of thoughts of greatness. I’ve had the beer for a while now, just waiting, calling me, teasing me with promises. I’d built it up in my mind. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I wanted to be moved. But what if I wasn’t? What if I didn’t particularly care for it? Or didn’t think it’s as good a whole load of other beers? Does that make my tastes wildly different from everyone else? Does that make me – somehow - less of a beer drinker?

Maybe the only real way to try the beer objectively is to have it totally blind. But that’s no fun, is it? This is something that you want to know that you are enjoying. There’s an anticipation to it, an excitement. I want to know that I’m drinking it, I want to pop the golden cap off myself, I want to pour it carefully; I want to be involved with it. But then I am raising its status just by going through this process and loving the careful steps.

I opened a Westveteren 8 last week. It was a good beer but I expected more of it. Beer Advocate has it as the 8th best beer in the world and Rate Beer has it as 18. I thought it was just good. Good isn’t enough! Mind blowing just about suffices. The whole thing with the ratings websites is that they measure hundreds and thousands of votes. Any beer could score maximum points and any could score a big fat zero. What puts a beer in the top few is consistency: if a beer consistently scores high marks then it’ll rise up the list. This happens. Just look at Pliny the Younger. Where was that a few years ago? Where is it now? (Hint: high up)

So what about the Westvleteren 12? It’s 10.2%, brewed with pale malt and dark candy sugar, hopped with Northern Brewer and yeast from Westmalle. It’s unfiltered and bottle conditioned (this book told me that). Making the video was difficult. It’s hard enough saying the right things anyway but when your head is filled with ideas of ‘world beating brilliance’ while trying to be objective and trying to remember what you want to say, it’s tough. And in honesty I am affected by the beer. By the hype. By the lore. And I know this.

When its golden crown comes off it pops gloriously. A funnel of fog wisps out. It pours a russet brown and the aroma booms out the bowl glass. The carbonation is too much to begin, jumping around in my mouth; I want it less lively, I want it to slide around my mouth not bounce around. The nose is dried fruit (you might be able to tell that from the video!), cherry, rum, toasted brown bread and an earthy, woodiness. There’s a lot going on. In the mouth it’s equally complex and rich; rammed with dried fruits, dark cherries, hints of chocolate, booze, toasted grain, brown sugar and nuts. It’s a glorious beast of a beer.

Yet the whole time I was fighting between the thoughts of ‘the best beer’ and the enjoyment of the beer. If anything the pressure of drinking it affected my enjoyment. I wanted more from it but I was also always expecting more to come. Yes it’s a superb beer and just the opening of it feels special, but I genuinely think this affects how the beer is rated overall. And would this beer still score so highly if it was easily available, like the Rochefort or St Bernardus beers?

So is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world? It wasn’t the best beer that I’ve ever tasted. But it was excellent (I think it was excellent anyway, maybe my mind was playing tricks?!). In my honest opinion it was too young (much like the 8 I had – the use by date is 19.11.11 if that means anything to anyone?). It needed longer to develop. There was a tinny harshness at the end which would mellow with a few years in the cupboard, I’m sure. I’ll try it again in a year or so and share it with a few beer-loving buddies (I will accept shotguns on the remaining bottles that I have, that’s the fairest way!). Right now it wouldn’t make my ‘Top 10’ list or my own ‘Best Of’ but I’m very glad to have opened it; this was the most excited I was about opening a beer yet and the whole process fascinated me. Although I was left wanting more. I guess it’d be like finally getting a date Cheryl Cole/Sienna Miller and then they leave before dessert (and on the dessert menu is something you really want!). Something like that.

Have you had it and what did you think? Do you reckon the psychology behind opening it plays some part in the way the beer is experienced? And this doesn’t just go for Westvleteren, what about all the other ‘great’ beers? Or great books/movies/albums…

(FYI - and don’t think less of me - I got my beer from ebay! And the suit is because I was drinking the beer after graduating from my Master’s, read about that here. Oh yeah, and visit my youtube channel, it's a veritable hub of beery activity)


  1. Liam, I had several pints of Alpine's Nelson last night. Christ, what a beer. Hopped with the very distinct Nelson Sauvin. They also had Stone Ruination on cask, which was also superb. I'll have some pics up later of my cask offering. Initial reports are on the wonderful side of the spectrum.

  2. That's a great hop - Thornbridge Kipling uses it and BrewDog Chaos Theory is mega-hopped with it. Ruination on cask?! Yes please!!

  3. I've always suspected the Westvleterens got higher ratings than they deserved due a psychological trick played by their rarity and reputations. Yes, they are tremendous beers but are they really better than the Rocheforts? I've drunk plenty of both over the years (I was selling the full range of Trappist beers for while) and its the Rocheforts that have provided more pleasure overall, especially the 8, my favourite.

  4. Hey Jeff, I'm with you on the Rochefort thing, I personally preffered the Rochefort 10 to the Westy 12. I've got a bottle of each at about the same age so it'd be interesting to try and tasting with both of them, maybe with the St Bernardus too and even an aged Chimay Blue...

  5. I was hoping you were suited and booted for the beer occasion! And I kept waiting to see if you were going to use the catcher's mitt in the tasting. Haha.

    I know what you mean about hype informing the experience, and feeling this pressure to "get" it. I don't like Timothy Taylor's Landlord (though maybe I've just had off pints?) and maybe this makes me less of a beer drinker because everyone else seems to love it.

  6. impymalting, to be honest I was gonna put a suit on for the beer anyway... I even considered a bow tie :D

    Landlord is a good pint but only if served well. I prefer a London Pride to a Landlord any day!

  7. Very nice article. Just one thing though: the correct pronunciation is west-flay-t'r'n, with the stress on the second syllable.

  8. Hmm...I think context is all. To wit: I was at the Bruges Beer Festival in November (don't ever's...err...rubbish...honest...)

    ...anyway, the night before my fiancee and I were in 't Brugs Beertje chatting to a true boozehound. You could've mistaken him for a barrel - a charming fellow. We asked him for recommendations - he said, in whispered tone - 'I probably shouldn't say, but the whole Westvleteren collection will be at the festival.'

    Now I'd fallen through the net - despite being a total beer geek, I'd never even heard of Westy (this is akin to the Doctor and Rose suddenly realising 'Bad Wolf' had been there the whole time and they'd never...ok, let's not go there.)

    Anyway, at the fest, the whole lot had gone before we scrambled to the stall - all apart from one lonely bottle of Westy 8. We shared it - it was sublime, like a James Bond-smooth Orval.

    A little sozzled, we left the mad chaos of the fest for the - admittedly slightly soulless - Gambrinus beer bar. More in hope than expectation, I asked if they ever had Westy12 - not only did they have it sometimes - they had it *then*.

    I drank. I loved. It was an epiphany. It was sublime. Like all your Rocheforts and Barnaduses all in one. Pow - what a beer.

    Bear in mind: I hadn't built up such a huge expectation (only having heard of the beers the night before) *and* I was in a pub - my favourite place to enjoy a beer. Like I say, context is all.

  9. Hey jesusjohn. Context is so important to beer, I completely agree (day, time, place, who you are with, mood, etc). Really interesting that you didn't know about it but still rated it very highly (although this boozehound had planted the westy seed and made you go looking for it!!).

    Really interesting comment, cheers.