Wednesday, December 30, 2015

AN INTERVIEW WITH HEADLANDS BREWING's PHIL CUTTI

Nearly two years ago I took a flyer on a new local Double IPA called "Hill 88" from the hitherto-unknown HEADLANDS BREWING and was hitherto blown away. Every hophead needs his or her #1 go-to ale, the one they reach for on a quiet Tuesday night when flavor is called for but xtreme beer dorkery is not. Some people, it's Pliny The Elder. Others, West Coast IPA or Sculpin or Heady Topper. From that first day for me, it was "Hill 88", and my garage beer fridge has rarely been without a ready & waiting 4-pack of said beer ever since. HEADLANDS' other two core beers - the Belgian RyePA "Groupe G" and the "Point Bonita" pilsner - are also spot-on and delicious. 

They've been contract-brewing their way into the hearts of many Californians and are planning some big moves in 2016. Before the year ended, I was able to lob a few questions over to co-founder and president Phil Cutti, who owns & operates the joint with co-founder and CEO Patrick Horn. Both men have deep tentacles reaching back over the last decade or two of San Francisco Bay Area craft beer history, and are actively plowing new inroads in the never-ending quest to pound new innovation and flavor out of beer's core ingredients.

This interview w/ Mr. Cutti was conducted over email in December 2015.

BEER SAMIZDAT: To start with, what's the brewing philosophy behind Headlands? Is it to simply make beers you like, beers that reflect your locale, beers that might actually sell, hoppy and/or refreshing beers....? Or is that philosophy developing at its own pace?

Phil Cutti: Headlands is about building a community. We feel that beer is a cultural and social drink that fuels adventures, conversations and ideas. Our beers reflect the area in which we live and the lifestyle we enjoy - being outdoors and living in the moment.


BEER SAMIZDAT: I know you guys have both traveled a pretty active road from your homebrewer roots to your current gigs at Headlands, and you, Phil, even run a collective for homebrewers looking to make the jump to commercial brewing. When - and how - did you guys know your creations were ready to make the jump?

Phil Cutti: I was lucky enough to learn how to brew from the guys who started Speakeasy when they operated SF Brewcraft in 1995. I tinkered and brewed and tweaked and entered competitions and tweaked and tweaked for 18 years. There are probably 15-20 solid recipes that we could roll out. But to really answer your question, I didn’t know any of our beers would sell until they did and then there were reorders.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Your three core "tall boys" - Hill 88, Point Bonita and Groupe G Belgian RyePA - have been a pretty stable lineup now full well over a year, with no new introductions that I know of. Are you just happy keeping things as-is for now with those three, or are there active plans for more?

Phil Cutti: Yes, on the retail side we have focused on these three offerings. We feel that it is best to deliver consistent products rather than continually brewing new batches that rotate quickly. With that said, we do offer a few one-off/seasonals in draught-only formats. This year we did Hawk Hill Hefeweizen for summer and  Pt. Diablo Dunkelweiss for fall. Winter will bring Pan Toll Porter and Bay Trip to the tap. And we will of course release the next version of Lightship Sour Solera for SF Beer Week. Other than that we focus on the core beers. It’s possible that the seasonals transition to retail as well, but not likely for 2016.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Hill 88 in particular stands out so amazingly in a West Coast world crowded with phenomenal hopped-up Double IPAs. At the risk of immodesty, why do you think that is?

Phil Cutti: Thanks! We get a lot of great feedback on that beer.  My thoughts on why Hill 88 has a burgeoning cult following are based on a few factors. In no particular order: it is balanced; has an amazing West Coast hop aroma; even though it is higher octane, it’s approachable.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You did a one-off project with the Mill Valley Market that I was fortune enough to try, a barrel-aged version of Hill 88. How did that come about, why was it with that particular market - and do you see anything similar coming out in the near future?

Phil Cutti:
Mill Valley Market was our very first retail partner. There’s nothing like walking to your local market and seeing your beer prominently displayed. I’m proud of that and owe many thanks to MVM for their support. We have had a great relationship with them and Chuck Brinkley in particular. The market has a partnership with Four Roses Bourbon for private label bottles. Part of that relationship opens up an opportunity to get a barrel every once in awhile and we jumped at the chance to collaborate with MVM on a beer. Chuck and the MVM team wanted the Hill 88 aged in the barrel to offer to their beer club and then the public. Feedback was fantastic and we look forward to doing more projects like this in the future.

BEER SAMIZDAT: Where does Headlands brew these days, and are there plans for a permanent location?
 

Phil Cutti: Our contract brewing partners are top-notch. They know we aspire to have our own place and have helped us with our beers as if they were their own. We brew Pt. Bonita at Sudwerk in Davis and the Groupe G, Hill 88 and seasonals at Devil’s Canyon in San Carlos. With the rapid growth finally taking hold in the Bay Area we are looking to secure our own brewhouse and taproom in 2016. With a name like Headlands, it would bode well to be in Southern Marin. The Headlands are an incredible playground and dramatic backdrop that we hope will be in our backyard soon!

BEER SAMIZDAT: Your cans were in Whole Foods Markets in the SF Bay Area really quickly, particularly for a new, small brewer. What do you chalk that up to, outside of the obvious quality of the product? What's it like to distribute with them?


Phil Cutti: Yeah, our relationship with Whole Foods started early. To be honest, I think the relationship works because they identified us as aligning with their company’s ethos - local, quality and entrepreneurial. Their consistent support has definitely allowed us to appear bigger than we actually are. We are in every NorCal Whole Foods. That’s pretty cool! Our retailer relationships are what we owe our growth to. They really get behind our product and are advocates for small, local businesses. Distribution in general is all about managing logistics. If that is one thing we have learned, it’s managing logistics!

BEER SAMIZDAT: What's the current distribution scene like, by the way? Are the fights for shelf space much worse than they used to be or are there simply more shelves than ever before? What are some of the pros and cons for beer distribution in December 2015?

Phil Cutti: We could have a whole interview just on this topic. Headlands self-distributes. There are pros and cons to this. An obvious pro is that we get to connect with our customers and accounts on a daily basis and establish relationships that help build both the account and Headlands. Yes, the growth in the beer industry has increased the demand and competition for attention and beer space on the shelf. Self distributing has allowed us to be present at a key level as our industry grows. On the other hand, self-distributing has its limitations. We are a small company and can only service so many accounts in a day and in a certain geographical region. We have done the Santa Cruz to Livermore to San Rafael to SF delivery route and it’s challenging to say the least. Moving into 2016 we are evaluating signing on with a few distributors that can expand our footprint in the Bay Area as we increase production.

BEER SAMIZDAT: You're undoubtedly both beer aficionados and have tasted some pretty mighty ales & lagers of late. Who's making beer that blows you away right now, and in particular, which beers?

Phil Cutti: Locally I enjoy the beers from New Bohemian down in Santa Cruz. The various lagers Dan is creating in that brewhouse is amazing. The smoked schwartz beer is amazing. The Smell from Social Kitchen is one of Kim’s best beers. It never disappoints. Smog City down in Torrance always has something to quench my thirst. I particularly like the Amarillo Gorilla and Sabre-Toothed Squirrel. Falling Sky in Eugene just keeps pumping out beers that you want to savor over a good meal. And further north in Tillamook, De Garde’s wild fermented ales are outstanding. Black Project/Former Future out of Denver is the a place to seek out and keep an eye on. James and his team are at the forefront of the beer scene in Denver. I could go on for days, so I better end there. Cheers!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

CALICRAFT's ULTRAMEGA "RUM BARREL OAKTOWN BROWN SOUR"

My regard for Walnut Creek, CA's CALICRAFT BREWING increases exponentially with each new beer of theirs I try. I looked at my reviews of each of their beers, and not one's been under an 8/10. Already a bold, badass 8.7% brown ale, they went and barreled their "OAKTOWN BROWN" in an effort to soup it up even more. The result is this super-limited bottle I found at Whole Foods (!) called "RUM BARREL OAKTOWN BROWN SOUR", which didn't even get its own new label, and instead merely was graced with stickers plopped over the main bottle to signal its differences from the main product.

The reminds me of another "good", albeit relatively normal beer that was made into something otherworldly via the aging process - Devil's Canyon's bourbon barrel-aged version of their "Full Boar" scotch ale. We reviewed that one here. For Calicraft's, the rum barrel wrings a great sweetness out of this brown ale, and makes it quite creamy, with dominant tastes of wheat, molasses, vanilla and a real earthy sourness. The roasted backbone is there, but no discernible bitterness. Approachably sour - not tart, not puckering, just phenomenal. 9/10.


Oh - and Beer Samizdat's on social media, in case you're interested in following our blatherings. Facebook and Twitter

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

DRINK ALPINE NELSON (AND) GO TO BED

It wasn't that long ago that ALPINE BEER COMPANY IPAs were total fetish objects, and deservedly so. You'd beg your San Diego contacts to send you some (my poor sister, for example, or Nat the Beer Rover), or you'd get lucky every now & again if you didn't live down there and some would show up in your town thanks to some miracle of divine providence. The big ones? "Pure Hoppiness", "Exponential Hoppiness", "Duet" and "Nelson". All supreme examples of the hopped-up form. I had my first and only "Nelson" back in 2010 and totally loved it, of course.

They've subsequently been looped and circled by all sorts of magisterial IPAs, and, as I understand it, Alpine has needed to get in bed with Green Flash in order to keep their production humming. (There may be a zillion good reasons to have done this; I don't know and don't care; I find "the business of beer" to be first among the world's most boring subjects). Perhaps thanks to this, ALPINE BEER COMPANY ales have started showing up on San Francisco Bay Area shelves, like, in the last couple of months! Including the hallowed "Nelson"! So.....whaddya think it tastes like? I'll tell you.

This "golden rye IPA" is produced with Nelson Sauvin hops - hence the name - and is, as you can, see, a light-looking yellow that packs a much heartier punch than you'd reckon. Grapefruity, but more juicy and less sour/pungent than that might imply. It's quite biting in the hops department as well. I still don't taste any rye, but that's okay - I honestly have yet to find the sheer joy in rye ales, as opposed to, say, merely tolerating it as an ingredient. I drank my "Nelson" and went straight to bed, neglecting to literally follow the bottle's instructions to "Drink Alpine or Go To Bed". Why can't I do both?

It's clear that as great as it is, "Nelson" has been passed up many times in the last half-decade and is now one of the many great IPAs on the shelves, vs. something that you consider selling a testicle in order to try. That said, I'm glad it's so readily available where I reside - next I'll see where "Duet" and the others stand relative to the great pack of killer IPAs circling our throats in 2015/2016. 8/10.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

AN OVERDUE RETURN TO MIKKELLER

Don't count me as one of the MIKKELLER bad-mouthers. I don't care how ubiquitous the guy and his beers are; how he's a "gypsy" brewer and recipe-mailer; nor how certain FedEx ballers feel about the beer itself. 7 times out of 10, a Mikkeller beer is a very, very good beer, and 1 time out of 10 it's an out-and-out stunner. Here in San Francisco we have the good fortune to have the MIKKELLER BAR located in our town, and it just so happens to be a five-block walk from my current place of employ. I know there are plenty bars like this nationwide now, but this is truly a high-end beer dork's bar - with nothing but "rare" and "hot" beers on draft and in bottles, from today's up-n-comers from the SF Bay Area and around the world. Not merely Mikkeller beers, though that would be OK too.

I'm pretending like this was one single, long-overdue visit, but these short reviews actually encompass a couple trips, and I think I was there a few times last year as well. At least I sorta remember going. My pours this time/these times were all over the map, as you shall see presently:

MIKKELLER - "MASTODON MOTHER PUNCHER" - That's the somewhat fuzzy picture you're looking at here. It's a really, really tasty farmhouse IPA brewed with passion fruit. A little brett-y, with lots of yeast and something that really leans heavy on that passion fruit (which is not a taste you'd easily mistake for something else). A fruit-forward pale ale, and one that's not particularly hoppy. I'm into it. 8/10.

MIKKELLER - "BEER GEEK BREAKFAST BRUNCH BIG BLEND" - ....and I'm not into this. It's an oatmeal coffee stout at 8% ABV, and tastes even stronger and much more harsh than I'd like. Not good. Acidic and way too coffee-dependent. Creamy on the tongue, totally a chore in the mouth. 5/10.

MIKKELLER - "RED/WHITE CHRISTMAS" - Hats off to Mikkel. He's now brewed the single best thing from him I've ever had - and I don't think this is a new beer at all, in fact I'm sure I've seen it on the shelves. "Red/White Christmas" is a gorgeous orange/caramel/fruit ale, with lots of Belgian yeast and a big malt profile. An absolutely perfect mix of flavors and one I couldn't stop marveling at as I was drinking it. Will be looking for big bottles of this to store away for the next several Xmases. 10/10!

So you're looking at my beer list and thinking, "Jay, I thought you said there were other brands competing for share of wallet at Mikkeller Bar". Oh yass. I just happened to only try one of 'em this time, and it was

CELLARMAKER - "MO' NELSON" - I'm such a heel, it's been two years and I still haven't set foot inside San Francisco's Cellarmaker Brewing, despite enjoying everything of theirs I've tried on draft at various establishments (which, granted, is probably three beers total). This one's an IPA spotlight on the interplay between mosaic and nelson hops. It's a highly-carbonated, tingly ale - really juicy, but still more piney than citrus - and is so delicious. Total stud IPA. Getting my growler clean & ready as I type. 9/10.

So not bad - one dud and three stunners. Book your own trip there today.

Monday, December 21, 2015

SANTA CLARA VALLEY BREWING's "HEART'S DELIGHT"

Not sure ultimately of the wisdom of drinking a summer seasonal in the dead of winter, but you know how ya get really excited when you see something interesting on the shelves, buy it - and then it sits in the beer fridge for five months, consistently usurped by other comers and bangers. So it was with SANTA CLARA VALLEY BREWING CO.'s "HEART'S DELIGHT 2014", which I knew was a "summer seasonal" per se, but when they said it was "aged in wine barrels with cherries" - well, I reckoned it could sit a couple more months, right? I mean, I guess it'd already been sitting since it was concocted in 2014.

I've enjoyed the three varied bottles of SCVB wares I've had so far - an IPA, a Double IPA and an imperial red - so right now the plan of action w/ them is to buy any & all new bottles they put out, and count my change later. Distribution for their stuff seems to be pretty much an SF Bay Area thing, with beers popping up every now and again at various Whole Foods and a few specialty places - but I can't say it's ubiquitous stuff that you can pass up if you're interested in it (perhaps due to my erudite reviews). That "Valley Surprise" Double IPA, fr'instance - I saw it once, bought it, and never saw it again.

 So "HEART'S DELIGHT" is not quite in the exalted ballpark of its forebears, but it was overall very good. You see how there was no foam nor lacing at all in the pic I snapped here? Seriously - visually dead as a doornail, though thankfully not taste-wise. It's not only redolent of fruit (sour apricots to me - not cherries), but with the much-loved brettanomyces, with gives it a nice lactic sourness. It's a definite wild ale with some wine-like aftertaste, as should be expected - bordering on a kriek or something very Belgian. A summer ballgame beer it ain't, which is another reason I dig these guys so much. 7/10.

Friday, December 18, 2015

OH DEAR. WATERBOARDED BY BALLAST POINT's "HABANERO SCULPIN"

Everyone's looking for some new kind of kick. Something they ain't had. Some new kind of buzz. They wanna go hog mad. So yeah, I can certainly understand the temptation for a brewer to make new ales with everything and anything under the sun - rose thistle, pressed sea buckhorn, yard trimmings and yes, habanero peppers. I mean, I'm the knucklehead who bought this BALLAST POINT "HABANERO SCULPIN", after all. I am not looking for the umpteenth undifferentiated saison nor plain jane IPA or even another soul-sucking sour most of the time - I want to go hog mad, in a good way.

Sometimes, however, it's in a bad way. Such was the case when I, in a classic case of transference, extrapolated the good juju I got from "GRAPEFRUIT SCULPIN" onto this hot pepper IPA, and hoped for something similar. Not in the least. This is a total hot sauce jolt, a real slapper of spicy throat damage and not anything one might find "appealing" in a beer. It's a dare, a boast, a brag - not something you bust out with yr hard-partyin' bros (or in my case, with my wife & son on a Thursday night). Sort of like using "Dave's Insanity Sauce" on your tacos in 1995 was. Is this still an IPA? Who knows - I can't taste anything any longer. Imagine hot sauce scorch and IPA tongue deadening in one little 12-ounce bottle. Now doesn't that sound better than that other beer you were considering? An exceptionally unenjoyable ordeal. 3.5/10.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

THREE BEERS FROM MODERN TIMES, & ONE OF 'EMs REAL GOOD

All of a sudden you can't throw a can of silly string without hitting a second can of MODERN TIMES beer, who've infiltrated not only the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, from their home base of San Diego - but also Singapore -  a town in which I spent a little quality time a couple of months ago. Singapore doesn't have many American craft brands making the rounds, but of those that do, Modern Times was front and center at the establishments I checked out, like Tap Craft Beer Bar. I found myself seated next to three different ales of theirs lately, in three different locations - not counting "ONEIDA", which I yakked about here, and which is my favorite of theirs to date - and this is what I uncovered:

"AURORA" - This is the red rye IPA that you see pictured here. There is a lot going on here, and I like it very much. Grassy, with loads of rye. A little chalky, balanced nicely with loads of malt - which makes it this lovely red color. Quite light on the tongue, and it settles and warms nicely, making it even better after about 10-15 minutes post-fridge. Picture an IPA, imperial red and stand-alone rye pale ale meeting up in a tank somewhere, and that's Aurora. 8/10.

"FORTUNATE ISLANDS" - Says it's a "hoppy tropical wheat" right there on the can. Seriously, I don't need to say much more than that. It's what it is. Decent, but no big deal. 6.5/10.

"FORTUNATE ISLANDS GRAPEFRUIT ZEST" - This one I had on draft at the aforementioned bar in Singapore. Better than the normal Fortunate Islands, with grapefruit taste that's far less intense than, say, Grapefruit Sculpin. Like Aurora, it's a little chalky, and the "tropical" aspect to this is replaced by other flavors and some sweetness, but overall I enjoyed this one & would drink it again, especially if my work is kind enough to jet me out to Singapore a second time. 7/10.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING's "RECOLTE DU BOIS - APRICOT SAISON"

TAHOE MOUNTAIN BREWING didn't begin life the way brewers did back in the olden days of 2008. You know, brew a pale ale, a porter, an IPA and maybe a honey wheat; see if the kids dug it; and then and only then start kicking into the harder stuff. I can't actually say for sure the exact order of how they did things, because I wasn't there, but first time I became aware of them was not even a year ago, and they were already barrelin' and smokin' things like crazy. It appears that barreling, in fact, is what they do. Barrel things. Ferment them in oak, and some such. It's about time we tried another one of their creations.

"RECOLTE DU BOIS - APRICOT SAISON" is, that's right, an oak-fermented "apricot saison". Boy howdy, it sure is. In fact, there's a whole "Recolte Du Bois" series, and this is just one of the beers placed within it. Lots of brett infected into the mix, and yet at the same time it's not so overpowering to make this unapproachable by mortals. In fact, even the apricot itself is subtle - present, but subtle. The beer has a real chewy mouthfeel, which I can't say I was expecting, and is highly carbonated, which I kind of liked in this one. Not your typical "still" barrel-aged saison; there's a good deal going on but it's not like a riotous party in your mouth or anything. Best thing they've done since Viejo Rojo. 7.5/10.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I TOTALLY DUG THIS SANTE ADAIRIUS / TRIPLE ROCK COLLABORATION

The (very) old standby meets the young Capitola upstart, and hey, the results are pretty not half bad and then some! TRIPLE ROCK is a place I used to regularly go to Berkeley, CA before the first 1990s craft beer (or "microbrew") revolution. When I first drank Red Hook, Sierra Nevada, Boont Amber etc., there weren't many places to go experience great beer on draft, but there was always Triple Rock, Cal-Berkeley frat boys be damned. I'd get on BART, go record shopping on Telegraph Avenue with my ne'er-do-well pals, then walk over to the 'Rock to cap off many a successful day of vinyl-scouring. 

Sometimes I forget they're still around, but I remember having something very sour and very delicious of theirs at "Sour Sunday" a few years ago, or maybe it was somewhere else, so we know that there are some wild experiments going on over there even now in 2015.

The real hero of our story, of course, is SANTE ADAIRIUS RUSTIC ALES. It is they who sold me this bottle of the SARA/Triple Rock collaboration saison "CELLARMAN" at their location in Capitola, CA, as well as the glass that I drank it in. They are, in my opinion, the best Northern California beermaker to come along since Russian River Brewing Company back in the late Bill Clinton era. But you already knew that. 

Together they've made this tart saison, this "Cellarman", which is fermented in oak. I wasn't planning to drink it just yet, but when I opened my beer fridge I inadvertently knocked it over and it started gently fizzing out of the top. "Oh well, guess I have to drink this giant beer by myself", right? It's a super-cloudy orange/yellow, with tons of lacing sticking to the glass. Big, big grapefruit taste - not like an IPA, but I mean like a grapefruit, or even unripe grapes. Not much going on here in the way of oakiness, but that's okay with me. It's a 6.5%-ABV beer that also bring a peppery tinge to the tartness. Reminds me of the last Hill Farmstead saison I was fortunate to have, with a bit more complexity and believe me, it's well in that league. 8/10.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

LAYING IT DOWN & BRINGING IT OUT FOR CHANUKAH

DRAFT magazine has this photo feature every month called "Lay This Down/Bring This Out", which purports with near-scientific accuracy to tell readers when to cellar a beer, and for how long, and then when to actually bring other beers out of hibernation, so they're at the perfect, optimal drinking time. Since I've never deliberately "aged" a beer outside of once keeping a bottle of THE ABYSS in storage for one year to the day, just to see if I noticed anything special about it once it had "laid down" (nope), I've sort of scoffed at this notion. (I love the pictures, though). 

But what about having a beer around in your beer fridge for a few years that you just simply never got to? I guess I kinda laid down this 2011 bottle of SHMALTZ "JEWBELATION 15" for four years. It's always been there waiting, sitting back there, and I've always said that this week, this is the week that I'll bring out this 15% alcohol, 15 malt, 15 hop monster. Well, turns out that this was the week. It's Hanukkah, folks! For the second night of the holiday - i.e. last night - I busted open the "Jewbelation 15" and got down to business. 

You know, SHMALTZ may only get partial and begrudging props from the discerning modern craft beer enthusiast, probably because of their marketing gimmicks, the fact that they've been around so long (and are therefore "old") and because their best-known beers are the Coney Island lagers. But people sure loved this one. I'm pretty fond of it myself. I certainly don't have a 2011 tasting to compare it to, but after four years I can see how perhaps the high-ABV edges of this thing could have been rounded off a bit. It's black as night, still a little boozy (more in the smell, and honestly, not that much), and big and sweet with loads of malt. Chocolate-covered cherries come to mind, and that's a good thing. Dark and fruity, and really not a whole lot of hoppiness. That too may have been a casualty of the last four years. I guess we'll never know, will we? 7.5/10.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

HEY, CARTON BREWING

Last time I drank a beer from New Jersey was....was.....wait, I've never had a beer manufactured in the state of New Jersey? I searched my two historical beer blogs for evidence of Jersey beers and came up with nada. I know I've seen ads for something called "Flying Fish" in a few places, but until this DIPA love bomb from the previously-unheard-of-by-me CARTON BREWING, I probably couldn't name another brewer from the Garden State if you'd waterboarded me several times over. 

Now I've got one I'm a big fan of, and all it took was a pint-sized can of "077XX", their "east coast double IPA". It's great! It's everything I've been wanting in my next DIPA, and proves again that the genre is still capable of surprises. The surprise here is that it's a creamy, ultra-smooth beer, almost like something out of a cask instead of a can. "Great malt profile", as they say, and it's a real cloudy, hazy ale with that creamy taste and a butterscotch/hops mix of flavors. 7.8% ABV, and didn't set me back much at all in the sobriety department - so clearly, if I'd had another around the house, it'd have been gone in sixty seconds. Carton Brewing. The pride of Atlantic Highlands, NJ. Get some in your house at once. 9/10.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

SPENDING TIME WITH TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8

One of the casualties of last month's quiet period was that I missed the chance to "live blog" my one and possible only encounter with TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8. I had it on a Tuesday for no good reason, "just 'cuz". Time was I'd have gathered the family around, said a blessing, taken 100 photos and then tweeted like an imbecile for an hour, but honestly, this isn't quite the head-slappin' rarity I thought it was. I spent a weekend in Brussels two months ago, and as I scoured the city in search of beer to bring home in my suitcase, I stumbled across multiple shops with all three Westvleteren beers for sale - even a couple of tacky tourist shops that didn't solely specialize in beer. Weren't Westys supposed to be impossible to find unless you bribed a monk, or went to the monastery and pretended to pray or something?

Sure, the Westys I found were a little more pricey than other ales, but that's what happens when you're in hot pursuit of "the best beer(s) in the world". I drank a Trappist Westvleteren 12 with glee while I was in Brussels, and chose to buy a Westvleteren 8 and take it home. This picture you see here - I didn't take it - and no, I've still not had that blonde, though I could have easily grabbed a couple of those as well, and maybe now I'm a little bummed that I didn't. Now Brussels is under lockdown thanks to the murderous goons from ISIS, and the Molenbeek neighborhood where I went to see the RWS Bruxelles soccer team play is now shorthand for seething, teeming hotbed of international jihad.

TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN 8 is what you'd likely call their "abbey dubbel", and it has all the hallmarks of one of the greats: the rich brown maltiness, the flaky yeast sediment, the dark fruit and toffee tastes, spicyness - the whole nine yards. It's just better. These guys yield sweetness like a weapon - as with the 12, you get the feeling you're drinking something first-class and nearly dessert-like, and you know that a case of these would be a real pound-packer. There are those that even prefer this to the 12, just as I think that Trappist Rochefort 8 is superior to its higher-ABV brother Rochefort 10. I'm not going to take sides on that one, and even so, I doubt I'll get enough experience with either to really become a connoisseur. Yet if you get the chance, whether you grab this at the monastery or at a Brussels flea market, I highly encourage you to do so. 9/10.