13 August 2009

Blind, or STFU

It started innocently enough nearly two years ago when I returned from Belgium full of the joys of Rochefort. I promised myself that at some point I'd sit down with the dubbel I believe to be my favourite -- Westmalle -- and the top two Rocheforts, and figure out which I liked best. Since then, largely due to Dave's infectious sense of sciencey fun, I've become massively enamoured of blind tasting as the only way one can really find out one's own opinion of a beer. So the taste-off, when it happened, would be done blind.

Then a little bit of project
drift crept in: so much is written about Westvleteren 12 being supposedly the world's best beer, and I can't help thinking that its rarity value and resultant high price might have more to do with this than how it actually tastes. It would make sense that any blind tasting of strong dark Belgian ales should have one of these thrown in to see if its supposed brilliance shines through. And then I read that St Bernardus Abt 12 is made from basically the same recipe as Westvleteren 12, so obviously that should be included too. It's perhaps merciful that my own homemade dubbel was less than a week in the bottle or there would have been another.

As it was, last Saturday evening, Mrs Beer Nut and I lined up five bottles and five tasting glasses. With such complex beers I'm sure it's very difficult (and no fun) to do this properly scientifically, with all beers being the sam
e age and kept in the same conditions for the same length of time. But these were of roughly similar vintages and had mostly been kept together over the 8-10 months they've been in the house. All were chilled in the same fridge to 10°C before serving.

While I was fetching the bottles, I reached over to tweet:

Preparing a blind tasting of Belgian ales: Rochefort 8, Rochefort 10, Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12 and Westmalle Dubbel. Which is best?
which garnered quite a bit of a response:
robsterowski@thebeernut Westvleteren is the best beer in the galaxy, everyone knows that. I've never had it but I know it is. ;)
StanHieronymus@thebeernut Curious to read differences perceived between R8 and R10. W12 could be the best on the table . . . or the worst.
Garthicus@thebeernut had my first Westy 12 a few weeks back & loved it.
maeib@thebeernut Rochefort 10 for me, although Berny 12 is very very close. The results of the tasting will make interesting reading
larsga@thebeernut Cool idea! I hope you'll blog the results? (Dumb question, I suppose. :)
thebeergeek@thebeernut r8

taleofale@thebeernut all good beers so the best is less relevent than the fun tasting.
And of course, Reuben is quite right: the fun bit is the most important.

The aim was to pick a favourite, but while I was at it, I decided I may as well have a go at trying to guess which was which. And I did get Westmalle Dubbel right, though I also had it ranked as my third favourite after what I had guessed were Rocheforts 10 and 8. Wrong!

The beer I picked as my favourite, the one with the most beautiful fluffy head, the one I wrote copious notes about, extolling its figgy nutty fruit flavours, on a big boozy base perfectly balanced by the spices, turned out to be Westvleteren 12. I will add, however, that it's still not worth upwards of €7 a bottle when you can go to the shop next door and buy any of the others for under a euro. Buy it to try it, but hunting after it and paying over the odds is just stupid.

In second place was a beer that tasted quite different -- with more of a gentle plummy roundness and nowhere near as much booze power, though quite dry and gassy with lots of stirred up sediment. Anyone familiar with Ron's anti-fizz stick should have no problem recognising the Abt 12. Definitely not a close relative of the Westvleteren.

As I said, I identified the third-place Westmalle correctly. I have it marked as sweet and quite strong-tasting which doesn't sound at all like Westmalle to me, and especially since, at 7% ABV it's quite a bit weaker than the others.

Finally, I couldn't pick between the last two so awarded them both joint fourth place. Both had quite a nasty cough-mixture heat to them that I found overpowering. I should really have known from the colour (third from the left) which one was Rochefort 8: it's supposed to be lighter than the others. Darker Rochefort 10 was no worse on the cough mixture front but lacked any extra complexities either.
(L to R: Westmalle Dubbel, Abt 12, Rochefort 8, Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10.)

Or at least that's what I thought. Mrs Beer Nut found a caramel flavour in it which made Rochefort 10 her favourite. She actually put Abt 12 ahead of Westvleteren 12 in second and third place, finding the latter rather worty. The Westmalle she deemed rather light, and finally the Rochefort 8 got the wooden spoon from her for being too sweet.

I guess Abt 12 is our compromise beer, though I'm pleased to have a definitive answer that Westmalle Dubbel is still my general everyday drinking dubbel.

Lars Marius tweeted an interesting point on the poorly performing Rocheforts:
Were the Rocheforts new or old? They tend to have sharp higher alcohols when younger than 6-8 months. Much better when older.
Though I wouldn't describe what I found in the Rocheforts as "sharp", there's probably something to be said for leaving the remaining ones in the house to mature a while. To be continued...

And with the bottles recapped to keep the flies out, it was curry time. I went for Munsterbräu, a stubby-bottled lager that's been on super-special offer (10 for €5) in Superquinn for a while now. It's made in St Omer, France's beer capital, and somewhere with some cracking brews under its belt. And a lot of budget dreck.

Being in green glass, Munsterbräu is of course skunked, and the whiff hits the nostrils as soon as the cap comes off. The pour produces a fizzy lager on the pale side of pale. And yet... it's not awful. It's not in the least bit thin or watery, for instance, and there's no nasty sugariness, even when it warms. There's a slight thinness at the end, but it doesn't detract from it. Rather, it makes it less demanding and quite wonderfully refreshing when washing away vindaloo sauce: the main demand I place on my cooking lagers.

With the curry polished off it was back to the remains of the Belgians. One of the better ways to spend Saturday night in, I reckon.


  1. Did WV8 v. R8 recently.


    BTW the word check thingy for this post is "GEAKEDS" which seems somehow appropriate.

  2. Yer, I've got to have another go at Westvleteren 8: the last one I had was off.

    I also feel extra ripped off that my bottle of 12 didn't have a Westvleteren collar. I mean, what's the point?

  3. Really interesting post, and thanks for the big up.

  4. No worries. I even avoided calling you "the Johnny Ball of Beer".


  5. Jeff's Post Just so the search engines get to it.

  6. Gotta love blind tasting, especially when it challenges your preconceptions. I have yet to try the Abt. 12, looks like I'll have to add it to the shopping list. I gotta get back to Brussels!

    Johnny Ball, cool :D

  7. Interesting stuff... I've been planning the same for a while now and have all the bottles boxed away waiting for the right time so it'll be good to see how my results vary.

    I'm not sure if I'll be happy or sad is Westvleteren 12 comes top... half of me wants it to but the other doesn't!

    I need to do more blind tastings, they are fun.

  8. Fascinating stuff -- I love blind tastings!

    We had a got at Abt 12 vs Westvletern 12 ages ago, when we were young and innocent. At the time, I think we marginally prefered Abt 12, but the bottles we've had lately have been a bit disappointing and worryingly like Coca Cola.

  9. Very interesting. I share your skepticism about Westy 12 and why people like it, which makes it all the more intriguing that it came out first. :)

    I need to try this myself. It requires a trip to Belgium, but so much the better.

  10. Well, while it came out first, it is *not* four or five times the beer that the others are. So my skepticism remains in place.

    I've gathered most of the materials for doing tripels some time in the next few weeks.