This is the first in a series of posts in defence of drinking. There’s a lot to be said on the subject, so I’ll start by recounting a specific beer experience of mine that, I feel, embodies my relationship with beer.
On the last Thursday in November, I drank the best beer in the world. A friend of my brother’s runs a beer bar in Toronto, which carries an impressive rotating selection, and as is our wont, we made sure to make it there before the 2:00am last call. After a night of playing music and mingling in Toronto, it’s nice to get away from the raucous downtown atmosphere and have a chance to catch up with my brother over a fine beer.
Over a seasonal winter ale, he wanted to ask for recommendations from the bar owner and myself. He had been invited to a beer tasting and wanted to make sure to bring something which would give him some credibility among the more knowledgeable beer folk, and which maybe they hadn’t tried before. We threw out some ideas, but the only things I would have really been able to offer were some regional beers I had, which were back home in Montreal.
The evening took a turn when the bar owner said “Wait here, I’ve got something to show you,” and went into the back. A minute or so later he came back and handed a bottle of something to us – Westvleteren 12.
“Is that what I think it is?” I said.
“Yeah,” said the owner.
It was the best beer in the world. Westvleteren 12 sits at the top of damn near every beer list. It’s a trappist, brewed in a monastery in Belgium to 10.2% ABV. You’ve got to get on a waiting list just to be allowed to drive up to the monastery and buy a case.
“There’s a reason this isn’t in the fridge,” said the owner. “I wouldn’t show it to just anybody.”
I turned to my brother, “I think we should buy it.”
“I don’t see how we could not.” I love him for saying that.
The bar owner sold it to us for $30, adding it by hand to our receipt, since, while it wasn’t exactly illegal to resell it, it was certainly in a grey area. We split the bottle. My brother let me pour it knowing that, as much as he loves beer, it is a bit close to my heart than his. I poured us each a six ounce glass and we let it slosh around the edges like wine. A thin white head formed and held strong. I took a whiff – it smelled exactly like Welch’s grape juice.
As a comparison – I was in Brussels one afternoon, less than two months earlier, and I found myself at Moeder Lambic. BrewDog 5am Saint was written on the chalkboard out front. That was a big moment for me. BrewDog is not exactly rare in Canada, but neither is it commonplace, and I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to try any og their beers. Even after nearly a month in Belgium, the self-professed nation of good beer, 5am Saint was something special. It seemed to transform over the course of the glass from a tangy IPA to a biscuity amber ale.
Back to Toronto – here I was across the street from my brother’s house with a glass of Westvleteren 12 in front of me. I had just come back from Belgium and I couldn’t even get a hold of it there. What was I supposed to expect? The “best beer in the world” couldn’t really be that different than Rochefort or Chimay or any of the other trappist beers – a style that I’ve never been crazy about – could it? The reality of the situation was that my brother and I were both expecting to be disappointed. We clinked our glasses and took a sip.
I was expecting something good, but I wasn’t expecting a new definition of what “good” was, which is exactly what I got. This beer was extraordinary. It was fruity – a lot of dried fruit, but the sweetness was balanced by a crispness which immediately followed it. I didn’t think such a huge amount of flavour could taste so balanced. The finish was like brandy, leaving a hint of warmth from the alcohol, and it was so thick and silky on the tongue that I wanted to lick the glass when I was done.
I finished that beer not a second too late. By my next (and last) beer of the night I was drunk enough that I couldn’t even taste it anymore – which is all fine and good because there’s not much you can drink after Westvleteren 12 which wouldn’t be an anticlimax. So, well after we should have been kicked out by all rights, my brother and I left the bar of our own free will and were asleep before our heads hit the couches.
It turns out that I got lucky. I found the beer the old-fashioned way – by knowing the right people who had it tucked away behind the bar, away from prying eyes. I had really found it. I had discovered a treasure.
Shortly after I tasted it, it started appearing in liquor stores across Canada. The monastery in Belgium had sold off some extra beer in order to finance some renovations, and suddenly it was not quite so rare, not quite so magical. Still, it was hard to get. At the LCBO it was $74 for a six-pack and people were lined up around the block outside of the store at opening time. If you showed up after it opened, you were out of luck. It sold out across the province almost immediately. I hear even the empty bottles are fetching a good price on Ebay. I’ve still got mine.