It was my birthday yesterday and although we didn't do much, as I had a headache for much of the afternoon, I had recovered enough by the evening to start baking bread and breaking out the three bottles of Westvleteren I bought in Brussels a few weeks ago.
Before I start, I should note that the hype around these beers put me against them somewhat. I always reckoned the rarity of them alone would make the general community pump them beyond the actual flavour, but I was prepared to open my mind and let them wash over me while waiting on my Bauernbrot to rise.
First up, the Westvleteren Blonde, weighing in at 5.5%, the baby so to speak. A honey-gold colour with a large billowy head that just would not disappear as it was constantly fed from below by a stream of tiny bubbles; I thought I was going to need a spoon to break through it. It has an aroma of fresh, sweet yeast, clean, floral hops -- just like sticking your nose into a bag of the things -- and hints of mandarin orange. At first taste, the hops seemed to dominate, again like the raw product with a pleasant floral hit. But an orange pith flavour is present that builds up in intensity. The finish is a long lasting hop spiciness with an orange pith-like bitterness. An enjoyable beer, but not one I would reach for first given a choice. Well, it depends on the choices available I guess!
The Westvleteren 8 gushed on me when opened, really lifting chunks of yeast from the sediment into suspension. Not to worry. Yeast doesn't bother me, but it did kind of soak a table runner. The aroma is port-like with doses of chocolate, figs and dark fruitcake. On first taste, the flavour is remarkable chocolate-like, with a vinous, port-like character bringing up the rear. Across the middle of the tongue a fruitiness lingers, again suggestive of figs, raisins and fruitcake. A slightly roasted, woody note adds to the mix, but it's deep down. At 8%, this goes down pretty easily, probably aided by the low levels of carbonation, although much may have been lost in the initial gush. With a warming character, this was very nice indeed.
And so on to the Westvleteren 12. This bottle had almost 2cm of sediment, and I was dreading opening it in case it gushed like the 8. As it happens, it opened gently and I was able to decant a clear, rich, dark brown ale off the yeast. The head did not last long, unlike the blonde which now strikes me as being one of the most persistent heads I have ever seen. I have to say, I found the aroma wasn't as in your face as the 8, but it did share some similarities in having a fruity figginess, but less of the port-like qualities. What it does have is more carmelised sugar, and this also comes out in the flavour, partnered with oakey, vanilla-like notes and a warming alcohol that makes it a slow-sipping, chill-out beer. Very smooth, with a fruity warmth from the 10.2% that is very comforting. I like this.
Overall, I have to say that although I liked these beers, they weren't the revelation of taste that the hype would lead one to believe. The likes of Cosmos Porter are the ones, that for me at least, really make you stop and go "Wow!". It's the unexpected and the accidents in life that really count, but I'm glad I got to try these. If asked, I'd happily have the 8 and 12 again for the lovely, fruity complexity.