What beer-lover isn’t intrigued by the history and production of Westvleteren beers, the most reclusive of the Trappist producers? The angle that always caught our attention was the similarities (or not) between St Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12. The St Bernardus brewery has its origins in a commercialisation experiment by the monks at the abbey of St-Sixtus in Westvleteren, whereby they licenced commercial production of the abbey’s beers to an enterprising cheese producer. The licence ended in 1992, and since then the St Bernardus brewery has continued, removing references to St Sixtus and Trappist beers.
There are various rumours about the similarity of the recipes; that they’re the same but the yeast and water are different; that once they were exactly the same but now they’re different for various reasons etc. We’re not beer historians, so don’t know what’s true and what isn’t; if you want to read more, an old article by Stonch with related comments and links is a good place to start.
We thought we’d try the two together and see how similar they were. We tried to make the experiment as fair as possible, serving them in identical glasses at the same temperature etc. However, our Westvleteren has been “aging” in our “cellar” for about five months whereas the St-Bernardus was bought last week.
There’s an obvious difference in that St Bernardus is 10% whereas the Westvleteren is 10.2%. Interestingly though, the St Bernardus (right on our photo) has a stronger body and better head retention.
As for colour – there is a slight difference, with Westy being more brown and St Bernardus being more red-black. But that could be down to the amount of yeast shaken into both.
There is a stronger aroma with the St-Bernardus – it smells like a good sherry, with lots of fruity flavours. As for the taste – we always struggle to describe the flavour of Belgian beers, but here goes. We’d describe both as fruity, but Westvleteren had more milk-chocolate flavours, whilst the St-Bernardus had more tangy apple overtones. St-Bernardus was both sourer and more bitter (though in a very balanced way). As you go down the glass, the St-Bernardus gets more tangy, whereas the Westvleteren gets sweeter.
We concluded that we would be pretty happy to be served both; Bailey had no preference but Boak preferred the St-Bernardus. But they’re definitely different beers with their own identities.
Of course there is a slight possibility we mixed the two up during the photo-shoot…
The Westvleteren website is here and has got to be my favourite beer related website… You should go there to purchase your share, but you could also have a look on the “top shelf” of various touristy beer bars in Brussels.
St Bernardus site is here. Their products are available in a few more locations, including Quaffs in London where we got ours.