St. Bernardus and Westvleteren: A Tale of Two Beers

June 30, 2014 Caitlin Hotchkiss


If you’re a beer fan of any capacity, it’s likely you know about Trappist beer. This unique type of beer is brewed by monks at authentic Trappist monasteries, of which there are only ten in the entire world. One Trappist abbey that has earned the distinction of crafting what’s been called “the best beer in the world.” That honour belongs to the Westvleteren Brewery, near Ypres in Belgium.

The brewery exists at the St Sixtus monastery, where the Trappist monks have been brewing Westvleteren beers since 1838. The monastery’s been through a lot over the years – not the least of which being World War II, in which it was the only Trappist monastery to hold on to its copper brewing vessels throughout the war (all the other monasteries had theirs seized by the Germans, who used them for scrap, but since St Sixtus was not occupied by the Germans, it managed to retain its copper). The beers brewed at Westvleteren were originally only served to its lucky guests and visitors, but in 1931, the abbey began selling its beers to the public – yet only in a limited weekly quantities, and only from the monastery itself. If you were an individual buyer, you had to make a reservation for Wesveleteren beers. Suds aficionados agreed: definitely worth the effort.

However, another brewery in the nearby town of Watou came looking for a cut of this fame and boozy deliciousness. In 1946, the St Bernardus brewery –formerly a cheese factory – was granted a license to brew its own beer from the St Sixtus and under the same name. This unique beer was brewed from St Bernardus up until 1992, when the license was ended once the seven Trappist monasteries (six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands) declared that official Trappist beer could only be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery. Because St. Bernardus was a brewery not located within a monastery, it would not be allowed to brew the famed Trappistenbier any longer – because it technically couldn’t be considered authentic Trappist beer. Semantics, we say. The brewery in Watou continues to put out beer under the St Bernardus name, and the product is considered a good alternative to Westveleteren beers due to its similar recipe and greater accessibility to the general public.

We found this out when we decided to try out some Trappist beers for the current edition of “Class In A Glass” – while Westveleteren is now sold in liquor stores, it’s a very rare treat and usually accompanied by huge fanfare. This is especially true for Westveleteren XII, which had an appearance here in Toronto two years ago that caused lineups of eager beer fans. Fortunately, St Bernardus Abt 12 is readily available (and at a much friendlier price point), so we grabbed a bottle to give it a go (in honour of our supremely awesome Belgian Beer Tour, of course).

The first thing we smelled upon opening the bottle was a fruity and dry scent, almost like bananas, but not yeasty like what you’d consider a “typical” beer to smell like. When it came to taste, a mouthful of St Bernardus was as complex as its scent – definitely smooth but not malty at all. Beer fan and resident expert Attit noted that it had a short-lived aftertaste, yet left a warm buzz in the mouth. (He also noted that it’s best served at 12-15°C (54-59°F) rather than ice-cold).

When it comes to classifying the St Bernardus Abt 12, it’s a strange beast – not quite a stout or a lager, but more like a cross between the two. At 10% ABV, it’s as strong as a stout, yet more light-tasting. Plus, its high alcohol level makes it a good choice to cellar for a few years in order to bring more taste complexities to the forefront. Attit personally claims that this is one of the best beers he’s ever had – “it’s an Old World beer,” he says, “plus it’s a good example of a ‘tasting beer’ that you can appreciate rather than just chugging it down.” And, as an added bonus, Attit claims that if you poured a St Bernardus and a Westveleteren side by side, you would barely be able to notice a difference. Perfect if you’re looking for a more affordable and accessible alternative to the Westveleteren.

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