Last year, if you asked a random sampling of enthusiasts what the best beer in the world was, the vast majority would likely — and without hesitation — answer Westvleteren 12, a Quadrupel-style ale produced by the Trappist monks of the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren, Belgium. It's also fairly likely that none of the people asked would have ever tried it.
The monks who produce Westvleteren have the most rigid beer distribution model in the world, restricting sales exclusively to the abbey itself and the adjacent, abbey-owned In de Vrede cafe and gift shop. Sales of Westvleteren 12, the brewery's most popular beer, are limited to one case per vehicle; you must call in advance to reserve your case and find out if, and when, it will be available. This is all due to the fact that the Saint Sixtus monks brew only as much beer as they need to sustain their abbey; the brewery produces roughly the same amount of beer it did in 1946.
As a result of this scarcity, Westvleteren 12 has gained a near-mythical reputation. For those of us on the opposite side of the Atlantic, the only option is to either dream of a European vacation or attempt to find a bottle for sale. The latter option involves a gray market created specifically as a result of this one beer's scarcity, a practice that the monks of the Saint Sixtus Abbey vocally oppose.
Of course, the scarcity of this beer would hardly be a story at all if it weren't widely considered the best beer in existence. In 2002, Ratebeer.com gave Westvleteren 12 the title of "Best Beer in the World." Currently, Westvleteren 12 boasts perfect 100 scores on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate, the primary rating sites.
And therein lies the beer connoisseur's conundrum: the world's best beer is also the most difficult one to get your hands on. That is, until the Saint Sixtus Abbey's roof sprung some serious leaks, prompting the monks to export 15,000 six-pack gift boxes of Westvleteren 12 to the U.S. market late last year to generate enough extra profit to repair the abbey. The six-packs consisted of six bottles of Westvleteren 12 and two goblets, encased in an oversized cardboard box designed to look like a stone abbey with windows, and priced at $84.99 retail. These were released in select locations in 22 states, primarily at Total Wine & More stores, on Dec. 12, 2012 — 12/12/12.
Amazingly, I missed this release, only hearing about it the day after it was over. But on Christmas morning, I unwrapped a heavy and awkwardly-sized box gifted to me by my wonderful, beer-loving girlfriend and saw the name — clearly, unmistakably — Westvleteren XII. I was now the proud owner of six bottles of the best beer in the world.
Later that day, my excitement was offset by a sudden fear — what if it was underwhelming? Could it possibly live up to a decade of anticipation? I had placed a bottle in the fridge earlier and it was ready to drink. I set my expectations right where I felt they should be and cracked it open.
The beer poured a deep chestnut brown, with about three-quarter inches of thick, creamy head. As always, I started with the nose, detecting a sweet, raisiny aroma as well as a faint hop bitterness. I took a sip. It was good. Really good. I've heard that Westvleteren 12 was overly sweet, but it struck me as perfectly balanced. The initial alcohol blast — 10.2 percent ABV — was immediately and fully dissipated by a complex palate of moderately sweet, rich fruit and, surprisingly, straw and grass. Earthy, sweet, densely-layered.
Was it the best beer in the world? Perhaps. It's certainly the best Belgian Quad I've ever had, by a fairly wide margin. As many would consider that style to be the apex of craft brewing, it stands to reason that Westvleteren 12 would be an extremely strong contender for the title. Rather than describe it as the best beer, I would call it a perfect beer. It contains absolutely zero flaws and is the finest example of one of the most highly-regarded styles of beer in the world. It stood up to the hype.
Unfortunately, the Saint Sixtus monks have indicated this would be a one-time-only offer. After years of waiting patiently, then finally getting hold of the Holy Grail of beer, it's going to be tough going back. As it stands, I'm already two empty bottles closer to a plane ticket to Belgium.