The Cellaring Experiment: Westvleteren 12


Q: What would the wine industry look like, if wine were a more perishable product?

Although primary fermentation of beer and wine takes a comparable amount of time to complete, secondary fermentation of wine usually takes much longer. Once wine has been bottled, it is usually given months or years to mature, due to chemical maturation, rather than any refermentation in the bottle. This allows wines to be cellared, collected and traded. The status accorded to some vintners (and price-tags of some rare/vintage bottles) would be unthinkable if wine had a shorter shelf-life.

Beer, in the other hand, is best consumed fresh >99% of the time. Some higher gravity beers that are bottled with yeast will continue to develop (“bottle conditioning”), achieving complex flavours that are difficult to achieve in a typical brewing cycle. Sometimes, the brewer retains the bottles until ready. Bottles of Duvel are matured in the brewery for over two months: kept at 24˚C for two weeks/carbonation, before being cold conditioned for six weeks. Other times, the consumer needs to decide. There can be no doubt that some strong Belgian ales and imperial stouts reach their peak several months after they have left the brewery.

However, as with wine, only a small minority of beers actually benefit from cellaring – and if so, then it is a case of months, rather than years. The drive to produce rarity and exclusivity has encouraged many beer-lovers to cellar already rare beers. The aim of this experiment was to take the classic Westvleteren 12 from St. Sixtus Abbey and compare a young bottle (2014) and an old bottle (2012) side by side.

2 bottles of Westvleteren 12: young and old

As bottles from St. Sixtus Abbey have no labels, all the information is on the caps. Here you can see the recommended ‘Best Before’ dates: January 2017 and January 2015




The Experiment

Two bottles of Westvleteren 12 (10.2% ABV), one cellared for 28 months (“old”) and one cellared for four months (“young”) were compared side-by-side in order to evaluate the effect of cellaring on appearance, carbonation, aroma and flavour. (The beers were refrigerated at 6˚C for a further 3 months prior to the experiment).

This beer was selected because:

  1. Both bottles were purchased directly at the brewery (two years apart) and were cellared since purchase. No distributor was involved.
  2. Westveleteren 12, due to its unfortunate status, is often cellared for extended periods of time in the belief that it will improve.
  3. The beer itself is a rich, dark, complex, high-gravity style that is bottle conditioned – ideal for contrasting a young and old bottle

The beer was served cool (10˚C) and allowed to warm (to 15˚C), with notes being taken of both beers side-by-side.


Westvleteren 12 - young and old

Westvleteren 12 – young (2014) and old (2012)



2014 – four month cellared bottle (“Young”) 2012 – 28 month cellared bottle (“Old”)
Appearance: Chestnut brown in colour, with a big fluffy, foamy head. Appearance: Chestnut brown in colour, just a little darker than the younger bottle. Much less foam and poor head retention.
Aroma: Dates, prunes, black currants, with hints of coriander, dark molasses and dark bread. Aroma: Dates, marmalade, prunes, stewed apple, definite sweet vanilla (absent in the young bottle). Of the two bottles, this wins on the aroma alone.
Taste: Big body, gloops onto tongue. Plums, caramel. Hints of nutmeg. Warming alcohol presence. As it warms, the malty flavours develop and become more pronounced. This is a tremendously complex beer, but wonderfully balanced. Taste: Slightly lighter body, perhaps due to higher attenuation and/or less carbonation. Plums and sour cherries dominate. Less malty/bready. Hints of balsamic vinegar with a tart, acidic finish. As it warms, the aroma turns very sherry like, indicating the degree of oxidation. The acidic finish becomes more and more unpleasant.



Although the aroma of the older bottle was promising at first, the harsh acidic tones and hints of balsamic vinegar in the flavour, particularly as the beer warmed, meant that this beer was past its prime. The strength and complexity of this beer demands that it be allowed to warm and while the young bottle developed as it warmed, the aged bottle became undrinkable.

Those fortunate enough to get their hands on a bottle of Westvleteren 12 are encouraged to enjoy it (share it!) within the few months after purchase. Cellaring this beer for years will risk spoiling the beer through oxidation.



Set Theory, Existentialism and the Purity Law


The announcement by Stone Brewing Company to construct their new brewery in Berlin has resulted in a renewed look at Germany’s beer culture, including a recent article in The Economist, that I contributed to. In the discussion that followed a German Huffington Post article this week, several commentators joined in defence of the Reinheitsgebot: “Four ingredients force the brewer to show off his/her skill”, “Let’s explore all the possibilities of changing mash temperatures, using different yeasts etc.”  (These are all valid statements, but they do miss the point: a brewer can always chose themselves just to use these four ingredients if they so wish and if it is suitable for the beer they wish to brew – in fact most already do!)

However, one defence of the Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) was made that I find particularly revealing: “… with the four basic ingredients you can brew beer that is at least as good as beer brewed without a Purity Law.”

I focus my attention on this argument today, because I have heard it repeated many times, in different forms in the past. What appeared to me at first to be just an illogical, nonsense statement actually reveals a lot about attitudes to brewing ingredients and brewing methods in Germany.

Note: Because the Vorläufiges Biersteuergesetz from 1993 does allow more flexibility for top-fermented beers than bottom-fermented beers, I will use unmalted cereals (oats, roasted barley) in my examples for simplicity, as this applies to both.


Reinheitsgebot & Set Theory

Set Theory applied to beer ingredients (for lager beers) versus the essential nature of a beer

Set Theory, Existentialism and the Purity Law

To most non-German brewers, who have never been restricted by what they can put into their mash tun or brew-kettle, the Purity Law captures an historical snapshot of natural ingredients that were once used. Expressed in Set Theory, the Set of beers brewed with ingredients limited to water, malted barley, hops and yeast is a Subset of any beer brewed with all natural ingredients. The use of roasted barley to give a dry, roasted character to a stout, or the use of unmalted oats to give a silky body to an oatmeal stout are obvious examples of using natural ingredients in novel ways to give a beer style a particular characteristic, not possible with malted barley alone. These are not modern gimmicks, but historical adjuncts discovered in different beer cultures, long after a snapshot of one particular beer culture, in one part of the world in 1516. We can call this framing of beer ingredients the existentialist point of view – if you are open to creating a beer with natural ingredients only, the arbitrary description of what you can call a “Bier” is only a historical relic, a snapshot in time. By relaxing these shackles, the brewer has more options to create a wider range of beers. This is a result that logicians call “necessarily true”.

However, if you look at the brewing of beer from the essentialist point of view, “Bier” has been given a strict definition tied to history. The ingredients themselves and the construction of a recipe are no longer up for debate. Beers brewed according to the Purity Law, strictly limited to these four ingredients are not a Subset of beers brewed with natural ingredients, but a seperate Disjoint Set that does not intersect with it and has no common elements. The essence of this Set called “Bier” has been decided centuries ago and brewers have stuck to it. If you brew a stout with oats, you may have an interesting result, but goes beyond the essence of “Bier” and therefore belongs to another Set entirely: the Set of Beermix-Creations (“Biermisch-Kreationen”), as posited in the Huffington Post article.



As long as the four ingredients (water, malted barley, hops and yeast) define the essentialist Set called “Bier”, the debate about what ingredients could improve the character of any beer style is not a meaningful one. The existentialist will debate against the essentialist at length and neither will get anywhere, as each is using different Sets to define what is important in the brewing process.

I don’t expect to have convinced any proponents of the Purity Law with this article, but I hope I may save some time and frustration on both sides of the debate, by framing the discussion in this way.


Pure, cheap and a bit dull – my rebuttal to commentary on The Economist article


The current edition of The Economist (Thursday, 24 July), features an article about the German beer industry entitled “Pure, cheap and a bit dull. The article addresses the declining beer sales in Germany over recent years, the reputation of German beer and the interest from US craft breweries, such as Stone, in coming to Germany to brew non-traditional styles. I was asked to contribute to the article as a beer specialist and have been following the discussion that this triggered on The Economist website and on Facebook.


Five Rebuttals

It is remarkable how quickly some commentators have been to jump to the defence of the current state of Germany’s beer industry - in its entirety! – without even pausing to consider the key points that are being made.

As I work on a daily basis with brewers, beer enthusiasts and the wider beer consuming public in Germany, there are five key rebuttals to arguments that I believe are worth closer examination:

  1. The Reinheitsgebot no longer restricts brewers: Some commentators have argued that the Reinheitsgebot is no longer binding and that brewers do not have to adhere to it. This is deliberately misleading, as German brewers are still restricted: in legal regulation, it is the Vorläufiges Biergesetz from 1993 that applies to beer brewed in Germany – this does still limit what brewers in Germany can put in their brew-pot, especially for bottom-fermented beers. As an expression, the “Reinheitsgebot” itself has only been used since 1919, so is itself only one of many arbitrary titles given to these restrictions over the centuries and still used in common language in Germany today to refer to the Vorläufiges Biergesetz that does restrict German brewers.
  2. A wide range of beers styles and/or quality beers can be brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot: This is entirely true. The article has not made any argument against this. In fact, most beer styles (traditional and modern) being brewed by so-called “craft” beer breweries today can be brewed with only water, malted barley, hops and yeast. It is also true that very good beers can be brewed under the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot. However, the Reinheitsgebot itself is no mark of quality. It is this substitution that still persists in the minds of many beer drinkers in Germany.
  3. Germany is home to many regional specialities: This is entirely true and is a point specifically made in the article. Unfortunately, for anyone who believes that these beer styles are readily available across all parts of Germany, you will be sorely disappointed when you visit. Ask any German on the street where you can get a Düsseldorfer Altbier, a Leipziger Gose, a Berliner Weisse or even a Rauchbier. For many of these regional specialities, large quantities are exported to the U.S., where beer enthusiasts are thirsty for genuine German speciality beer styles. Sadly, most Germans are not even aware of their existence. Isn’t it time that Germans started to take an interest in their own beer heritage?
  4. German brewers have always made Lager/Pils and have no interest in brewing ales:  This is untrue. Pilsner was invented in 1842 in the town of Plzeň, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic). The first reported Pilsner brewed on German soil was made 30 years later in Dresden in 1872. Both Pilsner and later Helles (Bavarian blond lager), are relatively modern inventions. Even for darker beer styles, brewers had been making significantly more top-fermenting beer (ales) by volume until the mid 19th century, when refrigeration techniques allowed lager styles to take over. (Note: As some commentators correctly pointed out, The Economist article does make two inaccurate references to “ale” as substitutions for the more inclusive term “beer”, that should have been used in this context.)
  5. Pils is Germany’s drink of choice. Germany’s brewers make the best pils in the world: Pils can be a wonderful beer. However – according to several German brewers that I have spoken to – the quality of pils made by most large German breweries has declined considerably in the last 30 years. Large breweries have been making a dumbed down version (lower gravity, lower bitterness, much lower hop aroma) and competing on price. The sacred pils has been sacrificed at the altar of big business and only very few microbrewers are brewing anything resembling the German pils of a century ago.



It is time to acknowledge that the German beer industry has largely been run into the ground. The only way that it can recover is if German beer drinkers rediscover the many wonderful, authentic traditions that this great beer nation once had; traditions that are only represented by a minority of brewers here today. This requires an honest appraisal of how beer production has changed over the course of the past century. The blind defence of a modernised industry that has commodified beer, leaving the traditions in ruins – by any metric that you chose to apply – only compounds the damage and ultimately makes it more difficult to dig out Germany’s authentic beer traditions from underneath the rubble.



GACBB Global Craft Beer Festival wrapped up

The first GACBB Global Craft Beer Festival has come to an end. The brewers have taken down their stands and are making their way back home, to all corners of the globe. Concerns about the location (Marzahn, east of Berlin) turned out to be unfounded. The large crowd of beer enthusiasts that arrived in the sweltering afternoon and remained until well after midnight, show that Berlin is now thirsty for beer from small independent breweries, many of them selling their beer in Germany for the first time.

I hope that the Global Association of Craft Beer Brewers builds on this success and that the brewers use the connections that they have made this weekend to share knowledge, improve their craft and find new markets for their beer. Several brewers who spent the weekend in Berlin have already agreed to start collaboration beers together. I look forward to trying the first fruits of these collaborations.

Congratulations to all the medal winners in their respective categories in the first Global Craft Beer Awards. I will publish a full list of all winners when it becomes available in the coming days.


It would be an impossible task to try and spell out the amount of hard work that goes into an event like this, so I will just congratulate the entire GACBB and Helios Media crew for the successful planning and execution. A very special mention is deserved by Kiera Senst (Secretary General) and Michelle Meredith (Award Organizer) for their tireless efforts and long hours in preparing the Conference, Festival and Award.

See you all next year, wherever this event takes place…!




The list of Award Winners for the Global Craft Beer Award can be found here:






Saturday, 26th July: Get thee to Marzahn for the GACBB Festival



Today, Saturday, 26th July, sees the first annual GACBB Craft Beer Festival take place at the Alte Börse in Marzahn, in the east of Berlin. This is the location of two new Berlin breweries (Bierfabrik and Marzahner) and will be hosting craft brewers from around the globe, who will be serving their beers from 14:00 today. Entry is Free.

See you there…

Brewery Stands from:

Full list of breweries here:



Food Market with stands from:

  • Hotzenplotz
  • Die Dollen Knollen
  • Hello Good Pie
  • Ital. Eis.

How to get there:

S-Bahn to Berlin Friedrichsfelde Ost and follow the signs:


GACBB Festival Website: