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The world's greatest beer? It could've been yours

I recently stopped into Mr. Dunderbak's, a German restaurant and biergarten in North Tampa, for a quick beer. I couldn't stay long, which I didn't see as a problem, as most short trips to the bar are relatively uneventful. What I didn't know is that I was about to come face to face with one of the rarest — and most sought-after — beers in the world. A beer that I'd dreamed of tasting since the day I first caught wind of its heady reputation a decade ago; a beer that, regrettably, I was in too much of a hurry to savor at the time.

Serious beer nerds have likely gathered that I'm referring to the West­vleteren 12, the fabled Quadrupel ale produced by the Trappist monks of the St. Sixtus Abbey of Vleteren, Belgium. Westvleteren 12 is not commercially available outside of the brewery itself, leading to a scarcity that has resulted in the formation of a black market specifically dealing in this one beer.

So what's the big deal? Of the seven Trappist breweries — Belgian and Dutch breweries officially recognized by the Trappist order of monks — Westvleteren is the only one not produced for sale overseas. In a lineup of the different Trappist ales, West­vleteren is the easiest one to spot — it has no label, with the only recognizable feature being its signature yellow bottle cap.

The lack of labeling is probably why I didn't notice three bottles of Westy 12 tucked away on the bottom shelf of the cooler at Dunderbak's. The bottles had a large, golden, "XII" printed on them, so I didn't immediately recognize them. The overhead electronic beer menu had the scoop — bottles of Westvleteren 12 were available, with an accompanying glass to keep, for the modest price of $50.

Oh, that price sounds a bit high? Then I take it you've never tried getting your hands on the stuff. The Belgian Shop, one of the most popular online "retailers" (I use the term loosely, as resale of Westvleteren 12 is expressly prohibited by the monks who produce it), sells bottles for $40 apiece, and that's before shipping. Six-packs pop up on eBay from time to time, always selling for well over $100, and those don't even come with the souvenir glass!

This is the beer that enjoys a perfect 100 rating on both Beer Advocate and Rate Beer; a beer that nearly everyone agrees fully deserves the title "best in the world." And with the exception of a brief window of opportunity earlier in the year, when the brewery released about 7,000 six-pack gift sets in the United States to pay for monastery renovations, it's all but impossible to obtain legitimately without personally visiting the brewery. The bottles at Dunderbak's were remnants from this sale, which explained the labeling on the bottle and the souvenir glass.

I figured that the steep price tag would deter all but the most serious beer drinkers. I thought the bottles would stay safe for another two weeks, when I'd be able to return to experience an officially sanctioned, non-black market bottle of the best beer in the world. After a decade of dreaming of the beer, I had no hesitation in lighting a $50 bill on fire for 12 ounces of beer's Holy Grail.

I called Mr. Dunderbak's to confirm that the bottles were still resting safely on the bottom shelf of the beer cooler and I was told that, no, the last three had been sold.

To whoever beat me to the last three bottles of the Westy 12, bravo — I hope you enjoyed them. Now that my interest in the world's best beer has been repiqued, it won't be long before I enjoy a bottle of my own. Sure, it'll most likely be a leftover gift pack purchased on eBay, but for a beer like this, I may just have to travel. That's the way the monks want it, and if they're brewing a beer that even partially lives up to its reputation, then who am I to argue?

— jg@saintbeat.com

The world's greatest beer? It could've been yours 08/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 23, 2012 12:41pm]

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