Much is rightfully made of the iconic Westvleteren 12, and its scarcity and quality and intensity routinely put it at or near the top of lists of best beers in the world. However, it’s the Westvleteren 6 – a Trappist Single Ale – that ranks as the best beer I’ve ever had. I remember it most because it was almost something of an afterthought. We had procured a couple of bottles each of the 6, 8, and 12, and were all anxious to get to the 12, in a kind of craft beer rite-of-passage kind of way. The Single, though, was the beer that ended up really blowing me away, with it’s lightness, bright flavors, and gorgeous fermentation character. Big beers often garner a lot of attention, but don’t let that keep you from appreciating (or brewing) the smaller beers!
This is an unusual style. First, let’s not confuse it with the Belgian Pale Ale or the Belgian Blond, both of which differ from it significantly, if not dramatically. For starters, this is a very light and pale beer, especially by comparison to the Belgian “Pale” and the “Blond,” which aren’t especially pale or blond. It’s also relatively low in alcohol for a Belgian, coming in at about 5-6% ABV in most cases. It is also, strangely for most Belgian styles, distinctly hop-forward, with moderate hops in both the aroma and flavor, with the hops playing at least as important a role as the more-characteristics esters and phenols that we expect (and still want) from the fermentation of Belgian yeasts. As the BJCP Guidelines note, this is a beer that’s much closer to a German Pilsner than a Belgian Blond, and is a kind of “session” hoppy Tripel – which makes sense, given its origins as a second-runnings beer of the monastic brewhouses. As a practical matter, you should probably brew this beer as a stand-alone for the sake of consistency, but if you want to start experimenting with doing a first-run Tripel followed by a second-run Single, then by all means, have some fun!
Like most Belgian styles, this is actually a pretty simple recipe that lets the ingredients do the talking. We start with nine pounds of floor-malted Pilsner malt (a little more expensive, but the flavor makes it worth it, especially when the color of the beer leaves limited options for additional character malts!). To that we add half a pound of Biscuit malt and half a pound of cane sugar, to help dry out the beer and add a characteristic lightness in the body. That should get us to about 1.056, and a color of 5 SRM, still pleasantly light-gold. With this grist we add some nice light malt complexity, but preserve the dry, delicate flavor.
Hops are central to this beer, and as a result we are wise to choose carefully. Normally I’m in the “bitter with anything” camp, since flavor contributions will be negligible in a 60-minute addition, but I wasn’t going to take any chances with my emulating-my-favorite-beer-ever recipe! I’ve always stuck with Hallertau in bittering (19 IBUs’ worth), an ounce of Hallertau at 15 minutes, and an ounce of Styrian Goldings at five minutes. I’ve tried blending the two and adding throughout, but believe it or not I noticed a distinct difference – it could have been an age effect, but the competition scores bore out the preference, too, and so I keep them as distinct additions. That should yield about 32 IBUs.
Finally, for yeast, most recommend the Trappist High Gravity yeasts from White Labs or Wyeast, and I confess to a certain bias here: I’ve often had (and noticed in others) some kind of fleeting, solventy off-flavor in that yeast, and it’s consistent enough that I moved on. Instead, I like the Wyeast 1388 (Belgian Strong Ale) yeast, which yields about the same fermentation profile (maybe a little heavier on the “spice” phenols, but that works well here) with a high rate of attenuation and low flocculation. I find it to be an ideal yeast for this style, where I want more fermentation character than my go-to Belgian Ardennes yeast can provide. Some people spice this beer. You can if you want. I don’t, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Mash a little on the cooler side here (about 149F), and hold for a solid 75 minutes to promote a more-fermentable wort. As you’re lautering, go ahead and add the sugar to the kettle, and it should be dissolved by the time we get to heating to a boil (give it one good stir just before going full-bore on the heat, just to be sure – we don’t want scorched sugars!). Boil and chill as usual, and pitch your yeast.
Fermentation can be relatively warm, here, but don’t just let them free-rise at will the way you might with a French Saison yeast. Steady at 68F is a good go-to here, with a slight rise at the end to help ensure a complete attenuation. It probably won’t take long, either – when I’ve tracked it, this beer wraps up in just under three days from the onset of visible fermentation signs. Three days later, you should be done! Cold crash and package, giving it a nice 2.5-2.75 volumes of CO2 to fill the mouth and enhance the aromatics.
I can’t promise you’ll make the best beer you’ve ever had, but I can promise that you’ll make something you love to drink. I’m semi-notorious for being cool towards Belgian styles in general, but this is a big, glaring exception. It’s a fantastic beer style that hits a lot of great flavor notes while being drinkable, light, bitter, and elegant. What more could we ask for, short of a seat at the pub across the road from a certain abbey in Westvleteren?
Podcast Episode 21: New Belgium's Wood Cellar Director & Blender Lauren Limbach
Jamie is joined by American sour beer pioneer Lauren Limbach of New Belgium Brewing, and they talk about the evolution of New Belgium’s sour beer program, from the earliest days two decades ago to the advances in analytics and technical process today.