From the Cellar: Westvleteren 12
A vertical tasting of the once-top-rated beer in the world.

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Once, not too many years ago, there was pretty strong consensus among beer geeks that the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren brewed the best beer in the world. A glance through the top-rated beers on ranking websites—Untappd, Ratebeer, Beeradvocate and the like—would find the monks’ darkest and strongest ale, the simply named 12, right at the top.

The torture in this is that actually getting the beer was a pain in the ass. The religious tenets of Trappist monks allow them to brew, consume and sell beer, but they also require that the monastery only sell enough to support itself, meaning just a few cases of Westvleteren beer made it into the hands of drinkers each month, and the process of actually buying bottles was trying—involving, among other aggravating steps, travel to Belgium.

Times have changed. While the beer, sometimes known as Westy 12, is still holding strong at #2 on Ratebeer’s best-of list, it’s been bumped all the way down to #18 on BeerAdvocate’s by the likes of Tree House, The Alchemist and Toppling Goliath.

What caused this drop? Have the tastes of beer drinkers or the ability of American brewers changed so dramatically in such a short time? Did the 15,000 six-packs of the beer the Abbey sent to the U.S. in 2012 remove the rarity factor from drinkers’ ratings? Or are folks just drinking Westvleteren 12 wrong by not giving it enough time to mellow?

We wanted to find out, so we tasted four versions of this renowned Trappist quad: one seven years old and stored at room temperature, one seven years old and kept refrigerated, one five-year-old bottle from the batch shipped to the U.S. in 2012, and one bottle purchased directly from the brewery a few months ago. You can skip down to the bottom of the post for the full tasting notes, but let’s lead with what we learned: