Sunday, January 23, 2011

St. Bernardus Abt 12 - Happy Monk Ale

"Not drinking beer is a sin.  Trust me: I'm a monk!"
Beer: St. Bernardus Abt 12
Brewery: Brouwerij St. Bernardus (Watou, Belgium)
Type: Quad
ABV: 10.5%

Just look at that happy monk over there.  I mean really look at him.  Have you ever seen such a joyous and hearty cherub of a man?  This is the face of a man whose devotion to brewing and drinking fine ales is second only to his devotion to God.  Clearly, this man must be drinking St. Bernardus Abt 12, because this is exactly the kind of brew that would make a man so incredibly jolly.  A man like me, for example.

St. Bernardus is a bit of an anomaly in the Belgian brewing world, because although it has all the "trappings" of a Belgian Trappist ale, it actually isn't technically Trappist.   According to the poorly-translated brewery website (sadly, my Dutch isn't that great), St. Bernardus is the result of complicated negotiations between the nearby Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus and Belgian brewmaster Evarist Deconinck (not related to De Konick Brewery).  In 1946, the monks allowed Deconinck to brew their ales at his own facility of St. Bernardus, and permitted him to include the name "St. Sixtus" on the bottles.  Nearly fifty years later, however, this licence was allowed to expire as the seven Trappist monasteries declared that only brews produced within the walls of a Trappist monastery could be labeled as such, a move to protect both their product and the name.  Thus St. Bernardus could continue to brew variations of the St. Sixtus ales, but had to do so under a new name.  

Meanwhile, the monks at St. Sixtus maintained their own abbey brewing facilities - known as the Westvleteren Brewery - and still release limited batches of Trappist brews.  For those of you who truly are into beer, your eyebrows should have perked up at my mentioning of "Westvleteren."  The trappist ales of Westvleteren - colloquially known as Westy 8 and 12 - are considered to be among the very best beers in the world, if not the best.  The 12 currently holds a Tiger Woods-like streak of being at the top of the Best Beers lists at both RateBeer and BeerAdvocate - it's the #1 beer of all time, according to reviewers.  Chances are, you haven't had one.  Neither have I.  Westvleteren brews are notoriously difficult to acquire because of the monks' reluctance to export their brews overseas and their firm limits on sales to individual buyers.  If one wants to buy a flat of Westvleteren, one must first call a "beer number" at the brewery and arrange an appointment for a pickup if, of course, there is any beer available, and there often isn't.   Beer tours are rarely offered, as the monastary does not want the popularity of their beers to interfere with their monastic activities.  Seems fair, I suppose.

Naturally, I can't wait to get my hands on a bottle of Westy (which, fingers-crossed might be a possibility this summer).  For now, however, I'm willing to be satisfied with sampling the wares of a brewhouse whose history is so intertwined with that of St. Sixtus.  Clearly, as we will see, the Trappist monks' wonderful brewing style has clearly influenced the brews of St. Bernardus.   I managed to obtain a large bottle of Abt ("Abbot", in this case referring to the brewery's "top" beer) 12 when I was in Florida last summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it - so much so that it currently sits in 3rd place in my all-time beer ratings list.  A long six months later and the LCBO decided to bring in smaller 330 mL bottles of this delightful ale, which made me a very happy guy.  This review is from the second, more recent format. 

I poured the smaller bottle of this into my Chimay chalice, a bit of a nod to the brewery's Trappist origins.  This was clearly a splendid-looking brew, murky chestnut in colour with a sturdy 1/2 inch head that would not quit, made all the more appealing as the brew warmed up.  Superb lacing and retention. Looks bloody brilliant, better than from the taller bottle, which I think is a result of the glassware.

The nose has all the best things I look for in a Belgian ale: cherry, plums, figs, white wine, yeast, spices, all overlain with a foundation of classic Belgian ale malts.  Inviting, to say the least.

The tasting notes are similar to those found the nose, all of which work brilliantly together.  In addition to the yeasty fruity goodness, there is a nice toasted brown sugar and caramel flavor as well, a result of the residual sugars involved in the brewing process. Finishes dry and crisp.  A wonderfully balanced brew; hard to believe it's a quad, considering the absolute lack of an alcohol taste. The brew only gets better as it warms, which opens up all the richness within.  Superb stuff.

Carbonation was initially high, but became less of an impediment as it warmed, making it easy to quaff. Definitely a brew to be served after being given a chance to breathe.

St. Bernardus Abt 12 is a real joy to drink, a first-rate Belgian strong ale.  A high ABV means less drinkability, but I'd gladly spend an evening with a tall bottle of this.  Though it may have lost it's claim to being an official Trappist ale, this is a brew that can certainly compete alongside its Belgian brethren.  I will certainly be back to the LCBO for more of this wonderful concoction, because this beer is truly fantastic.  Still dreaming about that Westy though...              (Grade: A+)

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I am so thrilled to know of the appreciationyou have for this most amazing of brews. I find your description to be spot on.It is truly an A+.