Westvleteren 12 has been making some news in Canada over the past few days. This ultra-rare Trappist ale (actually made by Trappist monks in a monastery in Vleteren Belgium), is hardly available outside Belgium.
Based on ratings on various beer sites, it is one of the best beers in the world. When the occasional case makes it to Canada, bottles often go for more than $40/330ml at bars. So when the news broke that the abbey would be exporting a large volume to pay for much-needed maintenance to the monastery, beer people went a little crazy.
The gift pack containing six 330ml bottles and two branded glasses costs $76.85 in Ontario. Even still, one of our biggest LCBOs sold it's entire 112 units in four minutes Wednesday morning. There was over 40 people waiting in line when the store opened. Westvleteren 12 is a great beer, world class, no doubt. I've had it a few times, and have always been impressed. It's a beer that every beer lover should try. But I'm not writing about that.
I often get asked, "What's the best beer you've ever had?" This is an interesting question, as it's not "what's your favourite beer?", a much easier question to answer . I also don't hear this question as being "what's the best-made beer you've ever had?" in which case Westvleteren would easily be high on the list. It's not strictly about the brewer's craft.
How does one rate a beer, in terms that then can identify it as "best"? There are numerous judging standards, like the BJCP Guidelines, which are a great start. Ratebeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com are user-rated beer databases, which rely entirely on (ideally) objective quantitative measures. For example is the colour right? What about the aroma? They are generally number-based, and fairly easy to use, if, say, judging a homebrew contest.
But to me, this is missing a huge part of what beer is. It is not simply a fermented beverage that provides you with some nutritional value and also intoxicates you. Beer is a social and cultural experience. It can be political. It can be an emotional response. Drinking a beer often includes other people. None of these things really equate in the numbers game. "I rate this bottle of Chimay Blue 6/8 in culture. I really feel like I'm participating in history." See what I mean?
I have had technically exceptional beers in the wrong setting, and while I was able to appreciate the excellence of the beer, the overall experience wasn't outstanding. I have also had mediocre beers in excellent settings that are among my top memories of beer drinking.
So, how about that question of the "best beer"? Here's my top three, in no particular order, and, as I'm something of a beer-geek, you might be surprised:
After not having seen my best friend, Andrew, for two years, the first pint of Guinness with him in The Crown Liquor Saloon in his hometown of Belfast, accompanied by a dozen Irish oysters was nothing short of sublime. Why? Guinness is good beer, but not necessarily an outstanding stout. But with the right people, in the right setting, with the right food, it was beyond incredible.
A few months ago, after finally picking up the used car we bought (after heaps of false starts, hiccups, and general nonsense), my wife and I settled down on the couch with a bottle of DeuS by Bosteels, a chunk of Monforte Dairy sheep's milk cheese, and some fruit and crackers. Again, perfect company, perfect food, and a perfect beer, all in reward for a lot of hard effort. A perfect evening.
My son was born after a pretty long, difficult labour/delivery. My wife was a rockstar and further cemented her right to the title of "awesomest woman I know." After being up all night for the labour, we both slept a bit during the day (her more than me, obviously), but I was just beat when I kissed her and Ben goodnight and headed home after dinner.
I got home, checked some emails, and settled down with a cigar and a beer, specifically, a bottle of Mill Street Barleywine. The 2003 vintage that I had cellared for five years. In this case I was alone, but the decadence of the incredibly complex-aged beer, and the sense that my world had just changed in the best possible way, lined up so that I will probably remember drinking that beer, long after I've forgotten my first pet's name or what street I live on.
The best beer doesn't have to be ultra-rare or expensive, it doesn't have to even be "cool" or "craft." It's bestness (yes, it's a word now) has as much to do with where you are at, physically, emotionally, etc, as it does with what it actually is.
So let me ask you: What's the best beer you've ever had?
Chris Schryer regularly writes on beer and beer stuff at http://www.TorontoBeerBlog.com