Yesterday we had a successful trip to Belgium to buy beer:
I was looking for the Big Belgian Quads (those cases you can see in the photo) and Gena was looking for some Lambics, which she enjoys (in the middle and zoomed in the other photo)
It became glaringly obvious that after going to the effort (and the Westy really is an effort) of getting these three huge Belgian Quadrupel style beers, they should be pitted against each other in battle! I set about arranging a simultaneous tasting of these three rare, expensive, and oh-so-delicious Belgian ales. Gena also tasted a bit and commented.
Westvleteren 12°, 10.2% ABV, bought at the abbey, brewed 17 October 2007
Rochefort 10°, 11.3% ABV, bought at a beer store, brewed apparently 4 October 2007
St. Bernardus 12°, 10% ABV, bought at a beer store, also a recent batch but date unknown.
As you can see, all of these beers are very recent batches, which doesn't give a good comparison of the beers at their peak - it's said the Westveletern is best after 3 years, for example, although the brewery stamps a "best before" date which is two years after date of brewing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to re-taste this set after a year, or two, or five!
Back to the tasting. Here are the bottles and the caps:
I surprised myself that I actually had all of the glasses for these three. Obviously, I'm a fan! I don't collect glasses or anything, I got two of these for free at different stores.
Visually, you can see the St. Bernardus has the lightest color, Rochefort is much darker, and Westvleteren is almost black. The head also shows some differences. The Westvleteren was poured last, but the head never did go down:
Aromas: At this point I should explain that all three of these beers are really masterpieces in their own right, and comparisons between them are like comparing the height of different telephone poles - one might be shorter, but you can't really tell if you are looking from the ground!
Aromas are fun to go back and forth between the beers, because the beer doesn't go away as you smell, and it's easier to clear your nose of smell than your mouth of flavors. All three have very complex malty aromas, and alcohol. Not a lot of hops aroma. Of the three, the Rochefort smelled the most different, both St. Bernardus and Westvleteren smelled roasted, but the St. Bernardus more sweet and the Westvleteren more burnt. Rochefort didn't put forth a lot of aroma (relatively), it smelled a little like cherries and cleaning product(?). All three were a bit strong in alcohol smell also. They are still young.
Taste: I started with the St. Bernardus. Alcohol is very obvious from the beginning, but after a sip or two it's normalized. It's sweet caramelized malt, well balanced by alcohol and a touch of bittering hops evident. This is a malt profile beer. Mouthfeel is aggressive, sharp. Gena: Even more sour smelling. It's not very good after the Westvleteren. The second sip is much better.
Rochefort doesn't come through nearly as sweet, in fact after the St. Bernardus it's rather bitter. A slight soap taste in fact (yes I wash my glasses well). The mouthfeel was smooth, super small bubbles. Gena: Very Crisp. Tiny tiny bubbles - "it's like it's cleaning out my mouth!"
It's ridiculous how much better the Westvleteren is even in this elite company. It's so smooth, easy, balanced. There are similarities, but while the other two seem unrefined, sharp, and young, the Westvleteren is fine and smooth, and delicious. Complex malt profile, maybe a little roasted malt but probably a rather long boil caramelizes the sugars at bit. The finish is almost a tannic dry. Gena's quote: "Woah! Much more intense flavor, not as scrubby. It feels so good..."
Similes: St. Bernardus was like candy, Rochefort was like a cleaning product, Westvleteren was like tar. Good tar.
I have adored Rochefort in the past and was honestly disappointed this time. To be fair, in the last few sips it seemed to have transformed suddenly, like a Bourgogne opening up in the last glass-full. It leaves a question mark - needs to breathe, maybe. It has the highest ABV also.
This is really just a preview, these beers really are designed to age and the flavors meld together. In a year from now it should be done again, and maybe soon I can taste a "new" Westvleteren 12° and a year-old one, side by side. As things stand, given the metamorphosis of the Rochefort in the final minutes, ratings are:
Westvleteren >> Rochefort > St. Bernardus
If you have these beers, I recommend opening and pouring all three, smelling them all, then drinking half the St. Bernardus, then half the Rochefort, then half the Westvleteren. Go slow. Then you can go back and taste back and forth. This way you can first appreciate each as being fantastic, yet still compare in the end, if you are still sitting upright. They are big beers!