Which is why it’s thrilling for me to be able to recommend a beer that is very nearly the equal of Trappist Westvleteren 12 but which is now readily available in Alabama: St. Bernardus Abt 12. Like the Westvleteren, it is a Belgian quadrupel. The style is actually a subset of the much broader Belgian strong dark (BSD) ale category. Just about any beer that is dark in color, high in alcohol (anything over 7%), and fermented with Belgian yeast qualifies as a BSD. Quads have a more narrow alcohol range (9% - 13%), never use spices, are low on hop bitterness, and are exceedingly malty.
And St. Bernardus produces as fine an example of this majestic style as you will ever put to your lips. It pours up with a gorgeous brown hue and a thick head. The flavor is brimming with rich maltiness and notes of rum and raisin. It has a bread pudding character which is nutty and highlighted with allspice and a hint of dark cherry. You will certainly detect a little burn from the 10.5% alcohol.
In fact, while I heartily endorse enjoying this brew fresh, I have to say it would be even better aged a few years. When fresh, at some points the alcohol heat takes over. After a few years in the cellar that would smooth out and this beer would be among the most complex beverages on earth, surpassing just about any wine you care to pit against it. This is as good as it gets.
Now I don’t have secret information about the specifics of the recipe for Abt 12, but I do know that historically, one of the secret ingredients for dark Belgian beers has been dark candi syrup. This unusual syrup is made from boiled and concentrated pure beet sugar. The boiling process creates a very dark colored syrup which is widely credited with imparting much of the caramel, raisin, and plum flavors found in beers like Abt 12.
Though I am an outspoken proponent of pairing great beer with great food, I find myself reluctant to recommend a pairing for this beer. It is so complex, with so many subtleties, I am inclined to savor this one by itself. If you twisted my arm, I’d say do no more than put it with a creamy Brie. Definitely keep the food simple and let the beer shine.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com