There are many rumors that St Bernardus Abt 12 is actually just the same beer as Westvleteren 12, but then in a different bottle. And blind tastings have proven that it is actually quite hard to distinguish one from the other. So, is it just a myth or is there some truth in it?
In order to discover this we need to go back in history. The abbey of Saint-Sixtus in Westvleteren was founded in 1831. Very quickly a brewery was built in the monastery, and in 1838 the monks started selling beer. The brewery was very successful, and the monks continued selling beer for over 100 years until 1945. It was then that the abbot decided that the brewing activities distracted the monks too much from their religious tasks, and he outsourced the brewing to an external brewery.
And that brewery was … Saint-Bernardus brewery in Watou, a small village only 13 km away from the abbey of Westvleteren. The Saint-Bernardus brewery received the license to brew and commercialize the Westvleteren trappist beers. They did so very successfully for over 40 years, until 1992. In that year some new regulations came into place to protect the brand ‘trappist beer’ and one of the conditions to be considered a real trappist beer was that the beer needed to be brewed inside the walls of a trappist abbey. So, the trappist beer of Westvleteren returned back to the abbey.
All very interesting, but what does that say about the difference between the St Bernardus Abt 12 and the Westvleteren? Well, the monks had gotten back to brewing the good old Westvleteren beers, but now the brewery of Saint-Bernardus also had the recipe. They decided to continue brewing the successful Westvleteren 12 under their own name, and St Bernardus Abt 12 was born!
Aha, so they really are the same then ?! Well, not totally, the Westvleteren 12 that we currently know has been brewed inside the monastery walls, and is not exactly the same as the one that was brewed in Watou more than 20 years ago. There are some factors that distinguish both beers. First and for all there is the water. Water is a key ingredient in the brewing process and the water the monks use is not the same as what is used for the St Bernardus. A second factor is the yeast, both breweries use a different type of yeast, which also leads to a slightly different taste of the beer. And thirdly, there is also the human factor. If you give 2 chefs the same recipe, you will still end up with two different dishes, and the same goes for beer.
So the conclusion is : both are wonderful beers, they share some history, they even share the same recipe, but they are not the same.
Another interesting anecdote about the brewery of Westvleteren: when the monks founded the monastery in 1831, the law said that they had to give their masons each two beers per day. In order to save some money, the monks decided to brew that beer themselves, rather than go out and buy it. The beer that they brew then had a very low alcohol content (about 2%) and was nothing like today’s trappist beers, but it was the very start of one of the most famous breweries in the world.