Belgian Sublimity in St. Bernardus Abt 12
One doesn’t usually hear the word “beer” and instantly think of ancient monks wandering about abbeys in the 19th century Belgian countryside.
Unless you’re a beer drinker that is…
in which case, the words beer, trappist, monk, and Belgium go together like cake and ice cream.
Better yet – like hops, malts, yeast and barley.
I’ve been a beer drinker for quite some time now, yet I too had to educate myself on the historical context of what I will tentatively proclaim (through pursed lips and gritted teeth) is probably my all-time favorite beer. for. life.
It goes by the name of St. Bernardus Abt 12.
The interesting thing about this classic Quadrupel stunner is that it didn’t always go by this name. While the moniker and production have a bit of a murky past, the yeast strain used to brew the beer (along with the delicate recipe) is the same one used in brewing since as early as 1946.
1946?! So how cool is this…
There is a branch of the Order of Cistercians (a Roman Catholic religious order) made up of communities of monks living in monasteries (originally in France). These monastic practitioners are commonly referred to as “Trappist monks“. Apparently the monks weren’t solely concerned with a life of prayer – they were also really good at making cheese and brewing beer.
(these are a few of my favorite things).
In 1904 a particular Trappist community in France crossed the border to neighboring Belgium and set up a “refuge” abbey in Watou, Belgium. They subsequently began making cheese “to pay the bills” (for an articulate, beautifully written and extensive article on St. Bernardus’ history, please see goodbeerhunting.com‘s take here). A businessman bought the Abbey in 1934 (at this time, aptly named “Sint Bernardus”) and continued to grow the business. He was also an avid card-player, often finding himself seated at the same card table as none other than the Abbot of nearby (also Trappist) Abbey, Sint Sixtus, Westvleteren.
Ok now I get that I’m a total beer nerd.
But here’s where it gets good.
After World War II, The Abbey of Sint Sixtus, Westvleteren needed money for repairs and thought they would commercialize and sell their beers for profit. So that the monks could continue to devote their lives to prayer, they approached Sint Bernardus with a business proposal; Sint Sixtus would supply the recipes, the yeast and the know-how, Sint Bernardus would market and brew the beer.
Monks will be monks.
They sent over all of the necessary supplies (including Polish brewmaster Mathieu Zafranski) and for the next 46 years Sint Bernardus brewed the beers of Sint Sixtus, Westvleteren. In 1992 when the license to brew expired (it was not renewed due to the fact that by this time the Trappist communities of Belgium had started their own association that would exclusively include only Trappist abbey brewed beers) Westvleteren set out to establish their own brewery within its abbey and Sint Bernardus (now St. Bernardus amidst the licensing shift) was left to fend for itself.
It was a dark time for beer.
In 1998 invenstor Hans Depypere took a chance on the rundown brewery and took steps to revive it’s once famed brand. He changed the monk’s image on its label, cut the “Trappist” from its description and together with right hand man and marketer Marco Passarella, the two began rebuilding the dynasty that is St. Bernardus Belgian beer.
One of my favorite things about Abt 12 is the consistency. No matter the bottle, beer shop or year, it delivers the same distinct roasty, malty, bready, dried-fruit sweet-but-not-too-sweet flavor that slays me. Boozy on the back with just the right amount of bitter. The perfect ratio of caramel and toffee sweetness. While I would attribute much of this to the trademark Westvleteren yeast and the special antiquated recipe, I think that the current team’s dedication and resolve have uplifted the ever-popular brew to new heights. They employ hops from their own hop field just adjacent to the brewery and maintain good working relationships with the Trappist Brewers at Westvleteren; they want to remain close to their roots and uphold the tradition that was bestowed upon them so many years ago as they expand and share St. Bernardus with a growing global beer community.
I totally get that 2 months of cold conditioning and 2-3 weeks of warm room re-fermentation at an estimated 10% Abv sounds intimidating. Especially for those who are new to beer. But this is actually one of my favorite beers to introduce to non-beer enthusiasts and non-dark beer drinkers alike. It’s just that good.
Even my mom likes it. So there’s that.
Pick yourself up a bottle and get a taste of the monk’s mastery. It’s spiritual. And make sure you take a good look at the label – for every one thousand brews bottled with a smiling counsellor, they label one bottle with a “winking” counsellor –
just to keep you on your toes.
Looks like along with good beer and cheese, the monks also have a good sense of humor.