Ode to the Brothers

Guest post today from my good friend and beer hero, Ken Hilton. It’s probably no coincidence that I was brewing a patersbier yesterday, the day this hit my inbox. Enjoy!

The Brothers at Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium….that is.

Westvleteren-logoAfter a particularly bad day at work, the only thing I wanted to do was hit the beer fridge, grab something, pop the cap, slosh it into a glass, retire to the deck….and sulk. So, I did just that…….

Diane said, “Oh, what a pretty bottle! Is that one of your home-brews?…it does not have a label.”  I looked down at what I had just opened…brown curvy bottle…no label….and a cap that simply had a “12” on top. Oh, crap!!!!  In my foul-tempered mood, I had just opened the only bottle of a cherished Trappist ale that I have ever had….given to me by a real beer lover…that one can only get by traveling to Belgium and purchasing from the only place in the world you can get it…..the monastery of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium. I was horrified that I had defiled what should have been one of those unique moments in a beer lover’s life….opening and savoring one of, if not the best beers in the world….one that should be sipped, savored, slowly and lovingly sampled and shared in a special moment. But no….I sloshed and dumped the world’s finest Trappist ale in a heathenly manner into a vessel…..at least I have enough class to have grabbed a Belgian style snifter.

St. Arnold of SoissonsSlowly, I poked my nose into the snifter…..ummmm…..no real overt Belgian Yeasty “funk”. A surprisingly clean, mildly caramel nose. No real hops clouding up the aroma…..no hot alcoholic vapors. Not really all that exciting. But, I sniffed again, because there was something soooo inviting. The first sip……OMG!!!!  A hint of Chocolate…..not the dark Belgian Godiva chocolate one might expect….but a lucious, smooth, rich milk chocolate….pervading the front and sides and back of my palate. But wait….there is more….oh, so much more. Even more subtle is a hint, just a hint, of dark fruit.. rich dark fruit like figs and prunes and dates. A complex layering of sweet, caramel exudes luciousness…..light and dark caramel blended wonderfully in the background….almost reminding me of a Werther’s butterscotch candy and one of those chewy caramels with the white center in your mouth at the same time. A lightly toasted nuttiness adds a touch of complexity to the very clean base of the beer….in a way that suggests the “Brothers” really know what perfection is…..Balance.  Balance, sorta like having a monastically balanced life….devotion, reverence, creative pursuits, intellect, simplicity….making the best beer, cheese, and breads in the world and remaining humble about the significance.

Is there more to this beer?? Oh, yes!!!! After half a bottle, I realized that this lucious, full-bodied wonder has a kick…..I am slowly drifting into a state of oblivion to the day’s tribulations and entering the world of beer prayer and reverence. The balance is awesome…. the sweet introduction gives way to a wonderfully dry finish. The carbonation helps fill the mouth with all these taste and aroma sensations at the same time.

I arrive at the finale……I am humbled by the sheer genious of this beer. But, wait…what is that lingering flavor filling my mouth?? I cannot quite pick it out, until I lift the bottle and gaze upon remaining dregs and floaties in the final 1/4 inch of the bottle. Yeast.  A small sniff, a larger inhalation…….gently swirl and consume the final 1/4 inch…straight from the bottle. An orgasmic wave shudders its way through my senses. It is the yeast that has created all of the subtleties in this beer. Yeast which is so secretly guarded as to its origins and is only cultivated in this one Trappist monastery. I have just consumed the key to this marvel without even considering the fact that I could have “cloned” this yeast for my own use.

I hear the birds chirping around me….smell the roses on the trellis….see a beautiful sunset unfolding. The day’s tribulations???? Who gives a hoot!!! I am in Beer Nirvana.

Tomorrow, I book my flights to Belgium to ride my bicycle to Westvleteren in quest of the “Holy Ale”. Thanks to the Brothers of Saint Sixtus…..and to you, Matt, for giving me this beer.


Editor’s Note: That’s not Beer Nirvana, Ken; it’s brewvana. Thanks for sharing.


4 Responses to Ode to the Brothers

  1. Tim says:

    Ken is in luck. Westvleteren does not have a unique yeast strain that they cultivate and guard closely. They pick it up at Westmalle on brew day. I hope this fact doesn’t diminish the specialness of this beer for Ken (it shouldn’t).

  2. bailey says:

    Ken’s got a way with words. I enjoyed reading his account of Westvleteren 12 more than I enjoyed drinking it! And I enjoyed drinking it…

  3. Wilson says:

    I believe you’re right, Tim, but I do think there’d be something kinda sexy about the yeast from that bottle. It did get to be part of “the world’s best beer.” Why not brew with it and step one’s own stuff up a notch, if possible.

  4. ken hilton says:

    Well, I tried to brew a St Sixtus Westvleteren clone, but only succeeded in making two different batches, blending them, and getting two wonderful brews that are still elusively “close, but no cigar” to the Trappist nectar. Gotta keep trying. But….I learned a great deal about simplicity and Belgian candi sugar syrups. I made my own light, medium, and dark candi sugar syrups and used them in these brews…..these, my friends, are the secrets….along with the Westmalle yeasts.

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