St Bernardus Abt 12 v Westvleteren 12

What beer-lover isn’t intrigued by the his­to­ry and pro­duc­tion of West­vleteren beers, the12s.jpg 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.

12s3.jpgWe 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.

Brooklyn East India Pale Ale

brooklynipa.jpgBoak’s col­los­sal haul from Quaf­f’s includ­ed one beer we were both excit­ed to try – Brook­lyn’s East India Pale Ale. We’re huge fans of the ubiq­ui­tous Brook­lyn Lager, and of Amer­i­can IPAs, so it seemed cer­tain to appeal.

I’m sure this is the kind of thing that our friends in the US can find fair­ly eas­i­ly, but this is the first time we’ve ever seen a bot­tle in the UK.

We thought it was deli­cious. It’s a love­ly burnt orange colour, with sweet malt and incred­i­bly pow­er­ful Amer­i­can hop aro­ma and flavour.

The obvi­ous com­par­i­son is with anoth­er favourite of ours, Goose Island IPA. We actu­al­ly strug­gled to work out how, if at all, it tast­ed dif­fer­ent, even­tu­al­ly decid­ing that we thought it was a lit­tle more bit­ter – slight­ly “crisper”, to get all la-di-da about it.

It’s also stronger than Goose Island IPA (6.8 per cent com­pared to 5.9) so it might also stand to be com­pared to Titan IPA which we’ve had at the famous Rake bar.

But… Goose Island might still have the edge.

Beer science – the answers

bunsenandbeaker.jpgWe asked some of our brainy friends to answer a few ques­tions about the sci­ence of beer. Tom was the first to respond. He’s a sta­tis­ti­cal genius, obsessed with lasers, and has stud­ied sci­ence at Cam­bridge and Impe­r­i­al Col­lege. His answers, with lots of dis­claimers about how he’s not a chemist and would­n’t want any of this to end up on the Nation­al Cur­ricu­lum, are below.

1. Tom isn’t sure what to make of the idea that a huge head on your beer will cause the hop oils to migrate and ruin the flavour. He says:

Hop oils are volatile organ­ic com­pounds, with the ‘volatile’ indi­cat­ing that they like to evap­o­rate. The evap­o­ra­tion of hop oils is not, how­ev­er, nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing. Aro­ma being a com­po­nent of flavour, you would be left with lit­tle from the hops oth­er than bit­ter­ness if they did not do so.

I’m puz­zled by the word ‘migrate’. To me this would sug­gest a slow process (per­haps dif­fu­sion of the hop oils along the bound­aries of the cel­lu­lar struc­ture formed by the head) but this would then be imped­ed by the pres­ence of a larg­er head. A more log­i­cal argu­ment would seem to me to be that the hop oils dif­fuse into bub­bles form­ing in the body of the beer, and that tur­bu­lence caused in care­less pour­ing would lead to a large num­ber of these form­ing at the begin­ning. Once these bub­bles burst, the beer would have a low­er lev­el of hop oils than if the beer had been poured care­ful­ly, so affect­ing the flavour. The prob­lem would then be not so much the pres­ence of a large head than the *loss* of the head that neg­a­tive­ly affects the flavour.

More gen­er­al­ly, I would expect tem­per­a­ture to have a greater effect on the evap­o­ra­tion of hop oils, which is why it might be a good idea to drink beer a bit warmer, and yet anoth­er rea­son (if one were need­ed) not to go near Car­ling Extra Cold.

2. Tom thinks clear bot­tles are a bad idea.

This one I can believe, since many com­pounds are pho­tore­ac­tive. The break­down of organ­ic com­pounds by expo­sure to light sounds per­fect­ly rea­son­able. Think of it as sun­burn for beer.

3. Tom thinks beer with arti­fi­cial­ly added car­bon diox­ide might well taste dif­fer­ent to nat­u­ral­ly car­bon­at­ed beer.

Inter­est­ing. Car­bon diox­ide, when dis­solved in water, forms an equi­lib­ri­um with car­bon­ic acid (H2CO3) formed, if it is not obvi­ous, from water and car­bon diox­ide. The equi­lib­ri­um is formed slow­ly how­ev­er, so arti­fi­cial­ly car­bon­at­ed beer may con­tain high­er lev­els of dis­solved car­bon diox­ide and low­er car­bon­ic acid than the equi­lib­ri­um, so depend­ing how soon after car­bon­a­tion the beer was drunk it may have a low­er acid­i­ty than beer with nat­u­ral­ly pro­duced car­bon diox­ide.

The Session: Christmas beer

session-logo-r-sm.jpgThis mon­th’s ses­sion is host­ed by the Bar­ley Vine, and blog­gers were asked in this post here to pick a sea­son­al beer or two.

We thought we’d bend the rules slight­ly and pon­tif­i­cate on Christ­mas / “win­ter” beers, and pos­si­bly get round to drink­ing one lat­er. It’s not through lack of choice – Lon­don’s pubs are full of var­i­ous sea­son­al offer­ings, and at the Pig’s Ear beer fes­ti­val in Hack­ney I count­ed around 50 beers described as “Christ­mas Ales” from Britain and a dozen or so for­eign offer­ings. It’s just that it’s an inter­est­ing top­ic in its own right: what, if any­thing, makes a Christ­mas beer?

In Britain, Christ­mas ales tend to be dark (but not as dark as porters) and spicy. This no doubt is relat­ed to our Christ­mas foods, which tend to be dark and spicy. The spices used tend to be cin­na­mon, cloves and nut­meg – all ingre­di­ents that shout “Christ­mas” at you. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these spices are quite dif­fi­cult to get right. Too much and you end up with quite astrin­gent flavours and “the wrong kind” of bit­ter­ness; too lit­tle and you may as well have not both­ered – it’s just a gim­mick to make the beer sound attrac­tive. It’s quite rare to get a beer where you can taste the spice BUT with­out it being over­pow­er­ing – like Dorset’s Advent-ageous which we tried at the Pig’s Ear fes­ti­val.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Christ­mas ales in Britain are often not that strong. While some brew­ers see it as an excuse to whack up the malt and there­fore the strength, most seem to stick to around the 5% mark. The evi­dence for this comes from the pro­gramme of the Pig’s Ear Beer fes­ti­val, where there are plen­ty on offer at under 5%. Prob­a­bly a good job giv­en the amount we drink at Christ­mas in this coun­try…

Bel­gian brew­ers are not ones for being con­strained by styles or rules, and this applies to Christ­mas beers as well. Some are light, some are dark, but from the cou­ple we’ve had, they don’t strike us as being more spicy than usu­al. They do tend to be stronger than usu­al though – e.g. Dolle Brouw­ers “Stille Nacht” at 12% (a nice drop, from what we remem­ber, but that was a while back).

How about Christ­mas wheat beers? We’re not experts on the Ger­man brew­ing scene, but it was inter­est­ing to dis­cov­er last time we were there that sev­er­al brew­eries pro­duce win­ter wheat­beers. We had an excel­lent beer called “Schnee­waltzer” from the Her­rn­brau brew­ery in Ingol­stadt, described as a “Win­ter­weisse”. It tast­ed incred­i­bly Christ­massy, even though we were drink­ing it in April… but then it’s not that sur­pris­ing, giv­en that one of the dom­i­nant flavours of many Ger­man wheat­beers is cloves, which we Brits always asso­ciate with Christ­mas.

belenos.jpgBut back to the Ses­sion top­ic! We tried a Christ­mas beer from Spain: Belenos de Navidá. I spot­ted it in El Corte Ingles, the leg­endary depart­ment store where you can get every­thing, includ­ing decent beer. It’s 9%, made in the Asturias region by “Exclu­si­vas Tor­mas”, who seem to most­ly be an importer / dis­trib­u­tor. It says “we made this beer to cel­e­brate Christ­mas 2006” in strange Castil­lian (archa­ic? region­al? I would­n’t dare say). I won­der whether that means they made it around Christ­mas 2006, or to sell over Christ­mas 2006? It’s best before Novem­ber 2008, at any rate.

There’s no oth­er infor­ma­tion on the label. Is it bot­tle-con­di­tioned, top or bot­tom fer­ment­ed? The only source of fur­ther infor­ma­tion on the inter­net is a web-forum about Span­ish beer, from which I’ve been able to ascer­tain that:

  1. you can get it on tap in Oviedo (Asturias) but not many oth­er places, though I don’t know if that would be the same as this “Christ­mas” beer;
  2. there’s rumours that it’s made in Bel­gium and only bot­tled in the Asturias, although these rumours are con­test­ed; and
  3. it reminds sub­scribers of this forum of a Bel­gium triple.

It pours a nice red colour and def­i­nite­ly has yeast sus­pend­ed in it. It does indeed taste Bel­gium abbey / trap­pist through and through – good body, tof­fee-apple flavour, mild zesti­ness and spici­ness. Extreme­ly drink­able for its 9% and quite pos­si­bly the best beer in Spain.

Not that that’s say­ing much.

In con­clu­sion, pos­si­bly the only thing that links Christ­mas beers is that they are an oppor­tu­ni­ty for brew­ers across the world to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, to exper­i­ment with their recipes and make some­thing spe­cial.