Alright. Let’s say that you got up at O Dark Thirty on December 12th and you went out and stood in the line at the LCBO with a bunch of other poor bewildered sods who hadn’t ingested enough coffee to qualify as anything other than “shambling horde.” You stood in line in temperatures that would normally make you get a second pair of woolen socks and you managed to get a ticket for the Westvleteren XII at the liquor store only to find that you were probably going to have to wait another hour before the heavens parted and the manager saw fit to open the store so that you can get your monastic zymurgy on.
Good for you. You just purchased an excellent beer! Well done on remembering to bring your mittens.
If you were one of the happy go lucky folks balancing your eighty dollar purchase in one hand on the way to the car, I’m betting that you’re probably not suffering from any kind of apprehension about what to do with those beers now that you’ve got them. Maybe you were in line for someone who had to go in to work. Maybe you had a really expensive night in front of the TV. The point is that these are your beers and you can do whatever you want with them. Once you’ve actually purchased the thing, you can do the world’s most expensive beer bong for all I care.
For some of the beer nerds over in the Bartowel.com thread, there was actual panic involved in the situation. They didn’t know how they were possibly going to get their hands on the thing. There was a sense, I think, of unfairness that people who had been waiting for this beer to come to the LCBO since July might not be able to get any of it, being that the release really didn’t provide enough information to guarantee that you could show up at the right time at the right place. Sure, an afternoon of phone calls and pooled resources would help with that, but once that information is posted on a public board, you’re really no better off than any schmuck with a search engine.
I think that for some people who actually managed to get their hands on the Westvleteren XII, there will be a certain amount of agonizing over how best to enjoy it. You know: whether a situation is special enough to break out some of the secret stash. For some, just the fact that it is Tuesday will suffice. For others, the Leafs actually winning the Stanley Cup might not.
Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, the fact remains that opening a thirteen dollar bottle of a beer that you will probably never be able to buy legitimately at retail again constitutes AN EVENT. For that reason, I’m going to go so far as to suggest that you should probably have it with friends. And that you should probably have it with food. For that reason, I’ve come up with what I think is a pretty good pairing for Westvleteren XII, and having now tested it during one of Brock Shepherd’s last nights at Burger Bar (to a diminutive but captive audience), I’m ready to share it with you.
One of the really great things about the XII at the moment is the fact that it’s pretty aggressively carbonated because it’s still young. This means that it has the ability to scour fat right off the palate. It’s a little bit rustic at the moment since the flavours haven’t come together yet. You get dried fruit that changes with every sip. It’s raisin, it’s cherry, it’s date or fig depending on how that sip attacks you. Mostly it’s raisin, but there’s some variability in there. There’s also a certain amount of toffee and a significant Belgian yeast character.
For that reason, I decided to try it out with a fairly rustic raisin pastry originally from Lancashire called Eccles Cake. You might think it odd to pair an teatime specialty with a Trappist beer, but I think it makes sense, not merely because of the filling, but because of the butter and sugar content in the pastry. Michael Jackson suggested that the XII was all pale malt with the majority of the other flavour coming from candi sugars. This way, you match not only the dried fruit character with the raisins, but it matches the sweetness of the non fermentable stuff from the candi sugar. The carbonation is aggressive enough to lift the fat from the butter.
Of course, that’s not all that interesting by itself. It merely compliments the factors already in play. If you serve the Eccles cake with a small amount of Stilton, you end up with an additional element that provides two important things: salt content, which contrasts the sweetness in both the beer and the cake, and a small amount of that blue mold character. Now, the yeast in the Westvleteren XII isn’t cheesy or butyric, but the mold in the stilton serves to heighten very slightly the yeast character in the beer. It’s not something that you would necessarily think that you want, but it works very nicely.
My feeling, as per usual, is that if you’re going to borrow a recipe in order to do beer and food pairing, you may as well steal from the best. In this case, I’ve lifted the recipe from Heston Blumenthal in the attached link. He suggests a potted stilton, and I think that might be a better idea if you are saving the beer for a little while. Once it ages slightly and the rougher edges come off it, you might not want the full flavour of stilton by itself.
At any rate, this is the kind of thing that will help to make a couple of the bottles of your stash of Westvleteren XII special, if only because the recipe provides so many Eccles cakes that you’ll need to share.