Epic Tastings: Belgian Strong Dark Ale Edition
This will be the third time now that I’ve had a relatively epic tasting with the Malty Tasker, and the second time that fellow Beerism writer T.J. attended as well. Until recently the “tastings” that I have been involved in were me drinking beer in my kitchen while cooking dinner, or having a few nice bottles with friends. And, to a certain degree I think those are the best experiences I’ve had while drinking and examining beer. That being said, the ability to compare beers side by side can really open your eyes to the subtle differences that would be missed otherwise. Our first three-way experiment (beer of course) was a few weeks prior where we did a three year vertical with the infamous St. Ambroise Bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout. It was a great time, and being able to have all three years side by side was a also great learning experience, and well, just damn tasty. Check out the Malty Tasker article from that night here.
For this tasting adventure, we are going with an array of Belgian dark ales, and specifically, some of the highest rated in the world! We have two Belgian Dubbels; Trappistes Rochefort 8 and St Bernardus Prior 8, three Quads; Trappistes Rochefort 10, St Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12, and finally from the US, we have a Belgian Strong Dark ale called Grand Cru, from Alesmith. Most of these beers have been in the cellar for over a year; hopefully maturing into something amazing. However, all beers will age differently, so the results could be quite different if they were all fresh. It is also important to note that Trappist breweries do not always brew with the same exact precision as some of the larger craft breweries, so there can be variations from bottle to bottle.
For those not too familiar with Belgian beer classification, it’s somewhat simple and yet oddly complicated at the same time. I’m going to attempt a super quick explanation. The trappistes breweries have four main styles, Pale ale (Patersbier/Enkel/Single/blond), Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel. Although the modern beer community uses the term Quadrupel, there is still debate about whether it should be a recognized beer style. These four usually teeter back and forth from light to dark, meaning that the Pale Ale and the Tripel are a light colored beer while the Dubbel and Quad are both dark. Both the light and dark versions share similar Belgian spicy yeast flavor profiles, but the difference in the way that the grains are roasted really changes the beer substantially. There are several interpretations as to why these beers have numeric names; some say they are to illustrate the number of fermentations that that particular beer went through; for example Dubbels (doubles) are fermented twice and Quadrupels (quadruples) are fermented four times. However, I have also read that they named them in this manner because the monks didn’t have precise measuring capabilities at the time, and simply used double the ingredients for Dubbels, and triple the ingredients for Tripels in order to boost the alcohol levels. On top of these four, there are also Belgian strong pale ales and Belgian strong dark ales, which carry a very similar flavor profile as some of beers mentioned above, but just don’t necessarily fall within the same category constraints.
Okay, so now that you are an expert, let’s get back to the evening at hand. We decided to do this one blind, meaning that we had the beer in front of us, but had no idea which ones were which. So, we were able to visually examine the beer in it’s entirety, as apposed to a double blind tasting, where you cannot see the beer either; something I’d like to try one day. The principal idea behind doing a blind tasting is to make sure that you have no bias when “rating” the beer in front of you. Sometimes we can forget how powerful our preexisting perceptions are. I’m fairly certain that we rate things higher or lower based on how much we love or hate a particular brand. It’s an uncontrollable subconscious human condition.
We did this in three stages, starting with the two Dubbels, followed by the three Quads, and finally finishing with the Belgian strong dark ale. The reason being that we wanted to pin the beers against each other by style, in order to avoid having to decipher all of them at the same time. Trappistes Rochefort 8 is a world renown Dubbel, and luckily for us in Quebec, we can get it a many of the SAQ’s (Government Liquor stores) around town. Sadly, St Bernardus 8 – also a high ranker – cannot be purchased in Quebec; this bottle was shipped to me from Calgary about a year ago.
They both poured out a similar auburn brown color with a frothy little head that eventually dissipated into a nice little ring circling the glass. They were both very similar, and obviously they should be, given that they are the same style of beer. The aromas on the Rochefort 8 were quite boozy, with a mix of spicy Belgian yeast, some caramel, and this kind of fermented cheese thing that I had trouble placing (although not off putting). I’m terms of taste, I again found the alcohol quite present, with some residual caramel sweetness and a surprisingly bitter finish. St. Bernardus 8‘s aroma had nice burnt caramel thing happening, with lots of zesty and spicy yeast components, mixed with light smoke, dust, and some star anise. On the taste front, I got a lot of the same; burnt caramel, yeast and a nice star anise component. Overall I preferred the St Bernardus, however my preference was marginal as they were both well crafted and delicious. I will say though, that Dubbels are on the lower end of my favorite beer style spectrum, I much prefer their stronger counterpart: the Quad.
I was particularly excited about this next portion of the night. We were about to side by side the top three Belgian Quads in the world, including the almost mythical Westvleteren 12 from St. Sixtus. Westvleteren 12 has been called the one of the rarest and most sought after beer in the world. Their beer can ONLY be purchased in person from their monastery in Belgium, you must call ahead, and there are strict limits as to how much you can buy. No stores can sell this beer. As with all the other (authentic) Trappistes Breweries, the profits made from beer sales can only go towards the monastery itself or towards their charitable endeavours. Last year, the St. Sixtus monastery needed a new roof, so they decided to release a special edition 6 pack, equipped with two matching glasses. I procured mine from a friend out West who found some at a local liquor store. However, when these cases hit the LCBO in Ontario – keeping in mind that these 355ml bottle 6 packs were 75$ each – they sold out in 4 minutes. So that can give you an idea about the hype that can get created around a particular beer. And this in particular, is why I’m excited to taste these three blind. Rochefort 10 and St Bernardus Abt 12 also have a legendary status, however given their (relatively) wider availability, people certainly don’t freak out over them in the same way (both are often available at the SAQ and occasionally at the LCBO).
Similar to the two Dubbels, all three poured out a chestnut brown color with red undertones. I have to say it was fun staring down at the three of them, seemingly looking like the same beer, but knowing that they were all different, and having no idea which was which. Here are the results:
Westvleteren 12: was rather boozy on the nose, with some slight caramel notes as well as zesty and spicy Belgian yeast, and a slight fermented aroma, almost reminiscent of cheese rind. There was an earthy, almost dusty aspect as well. On the taste front it was dry and, like the nose, carried caramel essence with a big Belgian yeast backbone. It was also quite earthy and had a slight acidic edge.
St Bernardus Abt 12: had slightly more apparent sweetness on the nose; taffy and caramel in particular. There was some star anise, hops, and hints of what I’m tempted to call, fermented meat yeast esters. Not off putting, but I certainly smelled it. When tasting this one I’m getting some star anise, caramel, zesty yeast, and some sweet plums. I enjoyed this one more than the Westvleteren, there were more complexity to the flavors.
Rochefort 10: had a huge toasted grain and honey aroma. The first thing that came to mind was “Honey bunches of oats!” Derek and T.J. agreed, however laughed at me in the process. Lots of sugars were apparent on the nose here and there is a smoky thing happening as well. On the taste front there were a lot of similarities to the previous two, with a slightly stronger licorice/star anise presence, and a big honey and toasted grain flavor. This was my favorite of the three.
We all had some differences in opinion with regards to the top two ranking Quads, however oddly enough, we ALL placed the epic and mythical Westvleteren 12 dead last. I know right, crazy! Rochefort was my favorite of the three, with Bernardus trailing shortly behind it. All were great specimens, and were certainly quite pleasing to the palate.
Last of the night was the Grand Cru from Alesmith. This one was of course not served blind as it was the stand alone bottle. It poured out slightly darker than the others, with a deep brown color and some red highlights. On the nose I got caramel sugars, with some spicy yeast and some zesty elements as well. On the taste front, this one was a bit richer than the others, with a fuller body mixed with a sweet and almost tangy flavor profile. Like its Belgian counterparts, there was caramel and some toasted malt, but this one finished with a bit more bitterness and a stronger alcohol burn.
Overall this tasting was a lot of fun, and a great learning experience. It looks like we are going to be doing more side by sides, and more verticals soon, so please look out for new articles down the line!
An Article by Noah Forrest