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A Westvleteren XII pack not bought

Westvleteren XII in Spain

The point is not whether six bottles of Westvleteren XII and a couple of glasses is worth $85. That’s $5 more than it costs for a National Parks annual pass.1 Pretty easy to tell which of those is a better buy.

The point is not whether it is the World’s Best Beer.2

It’s not that a story on NPR (if you are shaking your head at this point, wondering what I’m rambling on about, that’s a good place to start) has drawn more than 100 comments.

Of course, I can’t perfectly describe the point. If there is one, I do think context is involved. When you get the right bottle, it’s an amazing beer. At that moment, particularly if you are seated in the In de Verde cafe beside the monastery, it is hard to imagine a beer being better.

It’s that good in West Flanders because of the context. It can be elsewhere as well. Although Patrick Emerson provides perspective of value from the point of view of an economist, he also puts it in very human terms: “So is Westvleteren 12 worth $85 for six? Well that is for you to decide, for some it will not be and for others it will. This will be a function of how much enjoyment you’ll get from drinking it, how much you cherish the opportunity to try it and your ability to pay for it (among other things).”

And when you are in Toledo, Spain, there may be no context. That’s where the picture at the top was taken in August (I think I posted it on Twitter). The package was €50 (about $63 at the time).

It might still be sitting there.

*****

1 Unless you are 62 years old. Then it costs $10 for a pass that lasts as long as you do.

2 There is no such thing.

There is no ‘I’ in sugar

Excuse this crabby little rant, but I’ve started reading The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer and the author’s repeat a misstatement I’ve come across several times in just the past week, writing Belgian brewers often use “candi sugar.”

No the don’t. They mostly use what we call plain old sugar.

Yes, there are historical references to “candi sugar” and a few brewers use a product called by various names that include “candy” but they are not at all like the rocklike hunks sold as “candi sugar” in the United States.

Nope, when you taste a brooding beer like Nostradamus from Caracole that’s barley malt and about 15 percent sucrose. I’ve been to the brewery. I’ve seen the big sacks of sugar. They look a lot like the bags of plain white sugar at Westvleteren (which also uses a dark syrup). The whole sugar/syrup thing can get a little dense, so since rather than clutter this space I’ve posted a sugar primer at Brew Like a Monk.

So back to my rant. This matters because:

– What makes Trappist ales and beers they inspired special is not a secret or special ingredient.
– The brewers add sugar for a practical reason — not because of any flavor the sugar might contribute — to boost the level of alcohol yet deliver a beer that isn’t sweet or cloying. Put in positive terms the beer should be “digestible.”
– It’s an adjunct. And that’s not bad.

Phil Markowski, author of Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition an brewmaster at Southampton Publick House, puts it better than I:

“I believe that there is still a fairly prevalent anti-adjunct bias among many American brewers, both amateur and professional, that makes them hold back from using enough sugar to achieve the same level of dryness that the classic Belgian examples exhibit. It seems that many of these brewers tend to think of adjuncts as ‘dishonest’ ingredients.”

They’re not, so let’s call them what they are.

In praise of simply made beers

Here is a wonderful paragraph posted this weekend by Ron Pattinson at Shut up about Barclay Perkins:

Honest beer is what I want. Beer that can look me straight in the eye and not flinch. Beer with heart. Beer that’s like an old friend. Beer you can sit and drink by the pint in a pub with your mates.

Brilliant.

Pattinson writes about an epiphany he experienced while beer touring in Franconia: “The beers that I liked the best were the simplest.”

Makes perfect sense to me. The connection between the simple lives Trappist monks lead and simplicity of their beer recipes was apparent when I did the research for Brew Like a Monk.

Their beers – noted for their complexity – are Exhibit A that “Less is more.”

Simple is good. Simple is often the best choice. But, for the record, it isn’t the only choice.

European brewers are sometimes appalled when they look at the grain (and hop) bills of new wave American beers or – yikes! – efforts to duplicate continental classics. I’ve had interesting discussions about this with both commercial and home brewers (here’s one with Jamil Zainasheff) about this and even those who favor simple sometimes find something with more moving parts turns out better.

I’m don’t contend that complicated automatically results in complex, but I disagree with Pattinson when he writes: “A lot of microbrewed beer now seems frivolous to me. Like pretentious nouvelle cuisine. Too complicated for its own good.” And his conclusion: “Take a look at the beer in your glass. What is it? Honest, or a wee bit pretentious?”

Complicated is not a synonym for pretentious any more than simple is, well, simple.

Can you ‘nail’ a Belgian style?

Dan CareyIn all fairness to Todd Haefer – who writes a Beer Man column that appears in many newspapers part of the Gannett chain and already catches enough grief for some of his comments – he didn’t write the headline and the term didn’t appears in his copy, but here it is:

Beer Man: New Glarus nails the Belgian style

The headline made me giggle. Haefer is writing about New Glarus Belgian Quadruple, part of brewer Dan Carey’s “Unplugged” series. Quadruple is simply a word you don’t hear Belgian brewers use. It became a term of convenience – meaning dark and very strong, ala Westvleteren 12 or Rochefort 10 – after Koningshoeven began shipping LaTrapppe Quad to the United States in the mid-1990s. That Trappist monastery is located in The Netherlands.

So not only does the headline insinuate that any style is something so specific that it can be “nailed” but that a Belgian brewer or consumer would cotton to the idea.

Speaking of styles serves many good purposes, but testifying for the other side here is Carl Kins, a Belgian beer enthusiast who has judged several times for the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup. “We Belgians do not like categorization that much. Whether it is strong blonde ale or abbey style is not very relevant, as long as the beer tastes good,” he said in the chapter called Matters of Style in Brew Like a Monk.

Last week Stephen Beaumont wrote about this beer and Enigma, another in the “Unplugged” series. Spend a little time with his descriptions and it becomes apparent that Carey is more focused on “nailing” a great beer than capturing, or recreating, a style.

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