Sunday, 17 March 2013

Blind-Quad Tasting: The Results

Part of my rationale for engagement in the Great Ontario Westvleteren Shit-Show of 12/12/12 was to procure some Westy for a blind tasting of Trappist and Abbey Quadrupels and Strong Dark Ales and, despite the delay in blogging about it, I am happy to say the event occurred and was a marvellous success!

Having had Westvleteren beforehand, I wanted to compare it without the inadvertent effect of name recognition determining my thoughts.  What resulted was an experience that taught me a great deal as well as offering lessons for others and for the future.  Those lessons will be elaborated shortly.

Who tasted what?

Five beer-geeks were able to participate and our nine-beer list included the following, comprised of 4 trappist offerings, 2 Belgian Abbey offerings, 2 Quebec offerings, and 1 American take on the style:

Westvleteren XII
Trappistes Rochefort 10
Koningshoeven/La Trappe Quadrupel
Chimay Grand Reserve (Blue)
St. Bernardus Abt 12
Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw
Unibroue 17 Grand Reserve
Ommegang Three Philosophers
Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus

The most lamented absent-beer (as there were a few absent friends) was Achel Extra Buin, but alas we went ahead without it, it being nearly as difficult to procure as the Westy, though if and when I do again procure Achel, I will taste it, the Rochefort, and a remaining Westy alongside it.

How?  The Methodology

We each had some of all nine beers on the table at once by the end, with cups filled originally to about 4 ounces set atop numbered card-stock place-mats I created for the occasion so that people could return back and forth to directly compare each side by side.  Though I had devised a double-blind method of allowing everyone to participate without knowing which beer was which, a present non-participant poured and served for us allowing us all to imbibe without worry!

Several limitations can be noted: first, that these aren't always identical styles (with some considering the Quad a variation of the strong dark style) and the difference with the Van de Keizer was obvious as will be noted below.  Moreover, the U17 was over a year and a half cellar-aged and the Westvleteren was 10 months old according to the bottling date from the cap, while the others were much fresher.  However, as I often hear Rochefort to be better fresh and Westy to be better aged, I was curious and I believed I preferred Rochefort to the fabled Westvleteren.

Additionally, many of these beers can allegedly vary greatly by bottle and, for these reasons and others, I wouldn't presume these results to be definitive, though they do show a clear pattern that I think we can take fairly seriously.

The Group Results

My first lesson is how much blindness messes with what you previously thought - or, in other words, how much supposition plays a role at other times!  Yes, additional factors come into play - the order presented/first tasted, palate exhaustion, and many other factors affecting taste and smell on the day in question, but there are some telling trends the astute observer will quickly discover!

Though some us rated by personal Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) assessment out of 50, others simply ranked, so we will go with ordinal ranking here - without consideration of precise distance between places.

And the results by average ranking (and # of people picking that beer in each position):

1st:   Rochefort 10 (Two 1sts, one 2nd, two 4ths: Avg 2.4)
2nd:   Westvleteren 12 (One 1st, One 2nd, Two 3rds, One 5th: Avg 2.8)
3rd:   Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw (One 1st, Two 3rd, Two 4th: Avg 3)
4th:   Chimay Grand Reserve (One 1st, One 2nd, One 4th, One 5th, One 6th: Avg 3.6)
5th:   Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus (Two 2nd, One 5th, One 6th, One 7th: Avg 4.4)
6th:   St. Bernardus Abt 12 (One 5th, Two 6th, One 7th, One 8th: Avg 6.4)
7th:   Three Philosophers (One 3rd, One 5th, One 7th, Two 9th: Avg 6.6)
8th:   Unibroue 17 Grand Reserve (Two 5th, Three 8th: Avg 6.8)
9th:   La Trappe Quadrupel (One 3rd, One 8th, Three 9th: Avg 7.6)

My Own Results

These are followed by the BJCP rating out of 50 each received from me:

1st:   Chimay Grand Reserve (46)
2nd:   Rochefort 10 (44.5)
3rd Tie:   Westvleteren 12 (42)
3rd Tie:   Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw (42)
5th:   Unibroue 17 (40.5)
6th:   St. Bernardus Abt 12 (39.5)
7th:   Dominus Vobiscum Hibernus (39)
8th:   La Trappe Quadrupel (37.5)
9th:   Ommegang Three Philosophers (37)

Drawing Conclusions

On the blind aspect:
Blindly, a few things stand out.  First, the ONE I certainly identified without doubt was the Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer Blauw (Grand Cru of the Emperor) whose telling super-sweetness was a giveaway.  In the future, I think I'd leave such anomalies out of any such blind-event.  I still enjoyed it, but it spoiled the blindness for me on that level and though I tied it with (the one I didn't know was) Westvleteren, I knew I was choosing between unlike things and chose to leave them tied in ranking rather than choosing a preference.

Second, with the exception of the uber-sweet Van de Keizer, these are all so similar that - in a different setting - their BJCP scores alone would probably be closer together, but I felt compelled to differentiate substantially in order to leave space for others coming in-between.  The gap between these probably isn't - in most  cases - as huge as it might seem, since they are all solid beers!  The closeness of these products makes it very difficult to precisely differentiate, thus I may have exaggerated differences.

On the quality:
The above caveats aside, I think there is a clear division in quality here - even if it is slight.  My top four - Chimay, Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Cuvee Van de Keizer - were also the common consensus top four and I think that reflects that these three Trappist beers (and the Cuvee anomaly) rank atop the others and are the standard the beer-world aspires to for a legitimate reason.

Beneath them, I personally feel we see two more groups: that with U17, DV Hibernus, and St. Bernardus as solid, but not on the same playing field as the top Trappists themselves; and my personal low-end of Ommegang and Koningshoeven's offerings (which were my lowest rated quads beforehand, the blindness here lending credence to my initial assessments of them!)

On my own preconceptions:
I guessed the identities of the La Trappe and Rochefort successfully (as well as the Cuvee Van de Keizer) and found a few things I previously thought confirmed and one key shocking result.

  • St. Bernardus really isn't all that alike a Westy (at least a 9-month old one) which I had thought before though I had never tasted them side-by-side (blind or otherwise) - and every participant confirmed this.  Those of us with a taste remaining even came to the same conclusion after the results were revealed!
  • Rochefort really is a gem and at $4.60 a bottle in Quebec and with a pending affordable Ontario/LCBO release means it should be most people's go-to quad.
  • Westy really is good beyond the name, and so is worthy of praise, but the hype factor does play a role (as I predicted here).
  • La Trappe really is of a lower standard in this style than the other trappists and the group as a whole seemed to confirm this.
  • Personally, my first uncertainty about Three Philosophers (which found it not to be that remarkable) was confirmed here.
  • I liked Chimay the most!?  I know Chimay makes solid beers, and never doubted it, but had no idea it would top these others for me in a blind assessment and figured it would be middle of the pack for me!
  • I guess (at least after a cellared year) I couldn't truly discern the Unibroue yeast as I'd expected.  It had either mellowed or my own preconceptions led me to believe I dislike the yeast strain (and that it isn't as pronounced in this product as presumed).

Primarily, however...
and with some reptition, I'd emphasize that despite some inconsistencies, some methodological issues, the lack of replicability (and unlikelihood of it), etc - it seems fairly reliable to say that:

  1. the Trappists deserve their recognition for these products - especially Chimay, Westvleteren, and Rochefort
  2. Westvleteren is great but benefits from scarcity-induced hype (*says the blogger as if this is an earth-shattering revelation*)
  3. Rochfort 10 is a gem and its ready availability and low price at the SAQ (and soon to be at the LCBO) mean no one need feel bad about missing out on Westvleteren, if they did
  4. St. Bernardus Abt 12 is not the same beer as Westy 12.
  5. Blind tastings are fun and telling, if not definitive, and tougher when 9 samples are considered.
More soon... I promise!

Somehow the Cuvee Van de Keizer got left out of the cruddy phone-photo!


  1. I'm thinking we should do this with another style sometime in the future.

  2. Yes: imperial stouts... I currently have massive stock of them (since I am drinking things that will go bad first) but I can't guarantee which will last, but it doesn't matter really. If we don't have Dark Lord anyway, there will be no 'Westy' in the group! Let's just drink 5 good ones (St Ambroise, Yeti?, Peche?, Tempest, Stone?, Founders? Trip to the US would be in order but warranted!) Maybe a DIPA one too (90 Minute, Burton Baton, Nogne O #100, Heady Topper [if we can get it], Twice as Mad Tom, Witchshark?)

  3. St. Bernardus USED to be the same beer as Westie. But Westie changed yeast strains a while ago. It now uses Westmalle's yeast. The St. Bernardus uses and older scion of the Westvleteren strain.