St. Bernardus abt. 12: Perfection in a bottle
After sampling a sea of bog standard beers over the course of the last several months, looking for some apparently unattainable ideal of an ale, I have once again been rescued by the Belgians. Beer after beer, all promising to be slightly sweet up front and finishing dry, all managed to get it wrong somehow. Oh, most of them were some acceptable version of that, but they ended up tasting contrived, and didn’t come close to reaching the level I was hoping for. Maybe nothing could? Just as I was about to give up the quest and lower the standards, I stumbled on the magic elixir -- and duly stumbled all the way home, afterwards.
St. Bernardus abt. 12 is the best beer I’ve ever had.
It’s a quadruple ale, which is just a strong and flavorful Belgian ale. Brewed in a corner of Flanders called Watou using a French monk recipe, it can’t technically be called a ’trappist’ beer anymore because it’s no longer brewed behind the walls of a monastery. But, the quality remains. They pump water from 150 meters which, supposedly, would make it the rain that fell in the time of Joan of Arc. If this beer is any guide, the rain in those days was delicious.
The first time I tried this ale, I had already knocked back a few lesser beers -- the quest is not for the faint of heart -- but it was still spectacular. As soon as the first sip, I knew I had found something very special, but I thought it best to come back another time with a clearer head and give it a proper go. It didn’t really matter. St. Bernardus towers above any other beer, and that is obvious -- clear headed or not.
It’s bottled unfiltered and undergoes a second fermentation then. So, it pours slightly hazy and dark. The color is sort of a purplish brown, and a fine, thick, long-lasting head tops it off well. The aroma is not overpowering, but is slightly sweet and fruity with a touch of spice.
The taste is as close to perfect as I have ever found in a beer. Various dark fruits like grapes and plums give it a sweet start that rises with the temperature. If you like it sweeter, let it warm in the glass. There is also a soft tartness that prevents the beer from being too cloying. Then just a hint of cloves and maybe a couple other spices come out from underneath and add to the mix. The finish is dry with a good bite, but was smooth all the way.
Be warned this ale is strong. At 10.5% there aren’t many stronger. The alcohol is well hidden in that swirl of flavor, but you’ll notice it. There’s a surprisingly large amount of carbonation that brings out the tingle of all that alcohol. But, it is dangerously drinkable with a velvety mouthfeel and a medium body. This is no beer to sloppily pound all night anyway, but watch the pace with this one.
I wouldn’t attempt to pair this ale up with any kind of food. It’s probably best as a finish after a fine meal rather than an accompaniment to one. If you must eat something while drinking it, maybe just some decent cheese would go well.
I’ll keep looking for a better beer out there somewhere, but I doubt I’ll find one. St. Bernardus is perfect. The complexity, the balance, the flavor, everything about this ale works unbelievably well. It’s probably not going to be an everyday beer until I die and go to heaven, but this is the beer of beers to me.