The World's Finest Beers

August, 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) -- Trappist ales, produced by monks in Belgium and the Netherlands, are favored by connoisseurs.

Every month, Belgian-beer fanatics check the website of Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren to see whether reservations are open for its legendary 12 ale. They phone the abbey’s hot line, which is often busy for hours, on the specified day; make an appointment to pick up one 24-bottle crate; provide the license plate number for a Belgian-registered car; and, on the given date, wait in line at the abbey, which is about an hour and a half west of Brussels. The receipt warns against reselling, though bottles trade regularly on EBay and elsewhere for stiff prices.

Westy 12, as insiders call it, is one of the strong, fruity ales brewed and sold by Trappist monks to sustain their lives of silence and contemplation. The products of all seven official Trappist breweries -- Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren in Belgium and Koningshoeven in the Netherlands -- are prized by beer connoisseurs, but it’s Westy 12 that’s considered by many aficionados to be the best beer in the world.

After discovering that every Trappist ale except Westvleteren’s three brews is on the beer list at Manhattan’s Belgian-inspired Resto restaurant, I head over for a tutorial.

“There are two broad categories,” says James Mallios, Resto’s general manager. “Triples are the lightest in color but higher in alcohol; doubles are darker, richer.”

Every abbey except Orval produces two or more commercial bottlings; some ales are given numbers, such as Rochefort’s 6 (the least potent), 8 and 10, to indicate strength.

Mallios, 36, tilts a glass and pours a golden Orval so the amounts of foamy head and liquid are equal, to best enhance the aroma and texture. These beers are bottle-conditioned, meaning they re-ferment in the bottle, leaving a thin layer of yeast sediment. I sample 13 of them with crispy frites, mussels and a burger and find most as complex and subtle as fine wine.

In advance of the tasting, I’d asked Christian Pappanicholas, Resto’s owner, how Westy 12 compared with other Trappist brews, and he’d promised to bring one from his private stash. The small brown bottle has no label; the brewery’s name and the number 12 appear on the golden cap.

“A friend in Belgium shipped me a case of bottles last summer,” Pappanicholas, 35, says as he pours. The brew smells like buckwheat pancakes. The bubbles are soft, and the flavors are multilayered. It’s the best beer I’ve ever tasted.

How much? “I can’t charge you for it,” Pappanicholas says. “The monks wouldn’t like that.”

Elin McCoy is in New York at elinmccoy@gmail.com

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