As many of you know, one of the inspirations for starting this blog is the fact that I have spent a good portion of the past twenty summers leading bike trips in Europe. Two weeks ago I indicated in an article here that one of my favorite trips goes across Belgium, starting in Bruges (perhaps my favorite European city after the one with that large steel tower).
There are countless reasons to love Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, but undoubtedly near the top has to be the way that the country and city embrace beer. I know, I know, I have rarely hesitated in this space to bash brewed beverages, but Belgian Beer is a different animal and when I am in Belgium, I try to embrace that aspect of the culture fully.
In Bruges, there are dozens of spots to “get your beer on” but I am particularly fond of three. The first, named simply “Le Trappiste” is the newest of the three (it opened just a few years ago), is conveniently located less than a minute walk from our “usual” hotel. Just a few steps down below the street, the bar occupies part of an old mill with vaulted brick ceilings, classic ’80s rock blaring, fifteen beers on tap, and 100 more in bottle.
It was the bar where I first tried Westvleteren 12. There is more than a bit of mystique that surrounds this beer, part of which can be explained rather simply–it is often touted as being the “best beer in the world” by those who are far more experienced than am I. However, I would say that the fascination with this beer is rooted more in the fact that it is very difficult to acquire. The abbey only produces the beer a few times a year, and can only be purchased at the abbey. On the given day of the sale, the line of cars looking to pick up the maximum of ten cases can stretch for miles.
Luckily, the owner/bartender at Le Trappiste, Regnier De Muynck, has a few connections and gets more than his fair share of Westvleteren 12. On my first visit to Le Trappiste with a few clients, Regnier proposed a challenge that was right up my alley–while he acknowledged the premier position that Westvleteren 12 occupies in the beer universe, he claimed that there were two other beers that were quite similar.
He suggested a blind tasting of the three beers: St. Bernardus Abt 12, Rochefort 10, and Westvleteren 12.
Now, I am not sure if anyone else saw this as a competition, but I sure did. After all, I have written countless wine tasting notes, been involved in several blind tastings, and I am more than a tiny bit competitive (if you have not picked up on that already).
I so had this.
Regnier set up the tasting thusly: he would bring each beer out one at a time, letting us know which one it was, and we were to taste it, taking notes (either mental or otherwise—I used my iPhone). After the “introductory” period, he would then return with a small glass of the beers, again, one at a time, but this time “blind” (the beer’s identity was kept hidden), and we were to guess the beer based on our notes.
Piece of cake—it was in the bag.
Here were my tasting notes from the first round:
Rochefort 10: Cost 5€ ($6.50). Reddish Brown color, viscous with a bit of a fruity nose (banana?) and a hint of mocha on the backend.
Westvleteren 12: Cost 12€ ($16). Perhaps a bit creamier with less fruit, and a more caramel or toffee finish.
St. Bernadus Abt 12: Cost 4€50 ($6) A bit darker in color perhaps (?), with a similar nose to the Westvleteren, but maybe a slightly more nutty flavor on the finish.
I did not take the most detailed notes as it was my first time performing such a task with beer (or perhaps more to the point, we were in a bar after a long day), but I was pretty sure that I had enough to go on.
Yeah, I was going to crush it.
Well, as you have no doubt surmised by this point, it did not go all that well in the end. The beers, despite my notes, were very hard to distinguish when tasting one by one. I like to think it would have gone down better if we were able to taste them side by side—perhaps exactly why Regnier set it up this way.
In the end, I got one of the beers right (the Rochefort) and although defeated, I still felt marginally good about getting at least one right.
Then I did the math:
Probability of randomly getting all three right: 1/6 (16.7%).
Probability of randomly getting all three wrong: 1/3 (33%).
Probability of randomly getting one right: 1/2 (50%).
So my “success” boiled down to a coin flip.
So what did I learn from the exercise? First, certainly, all the beers were fantastic, Outstanding, even. Second, I realized that while Westvleteren gets all the mystique, you can have a fairly similar experience for less than half the price with either of the other two. Third, when trying to massage your ego, never do the math.
Never do the math.