Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 3.
We have one thing to say to beer lovers who haven't yet been to Belgium: go.
If you just shouted back at the screen "Yeah? You pay for it, pal," we have an alternative for you.
We took a long trip to Belgium earlier this year and remain astounded by what we saw in that cradle of beer culture. As opposed to the taprooms filled with U.S. craft beer in Amsterdam -- which we flew into -- Belgium's beer culture remains fairly insular and locally focused.
Brewing there dates back to as early as the 12th Century. Monks at its oldest Trappist brewing monastery, Brasserie De Rochefort, have been at it since the late 1500s. It has nearly 200 breweries in a country roughly the size of Maryland, and they're everywhere. In Brussels, Brasserie Cantillon is tucked among narrow streets and vacant city lots. In Bruges, you can follow your nose from the canal until you reach the scent of boiling wort wafting from the De Halve Maan brewery and beer museum.
However, as we discovered in our attempts to pick up certain Trappist beers that were either too far away or that released their beers at logistically difficult times, sometimes you have to game the system -- even in Belgium. Along the streets of Brussels just outside of the Grand Place, bottle shops sell aged vintages of limited-release and seasonal beers alongside rare Trappist offerings. The monks don't approve of reselling their beer, primarily because it funds their monastery and uses their labor to make a profit they'll never see. However, when going to the abbey itself isn't an option, sometimes you go against the monks' wishes (sorry, brothers).
However, while those kind of purchases will only get you disapproving glares, second-hand sales by private parties here are just outright illegal. We've already this, but doesn't stop sellers from getting high resale prices on the black market. We cruised the offerings of online beer resale chop My Beer Cellar and found just 10 examples of the fine Belgian offerings fetching big bucks in the secondary market:
In 1997, De Cam opened in Gooik, Belgium, as a lambic blendery at a time when no such business had opened in roughly four decades. Basically, it takes other brewers' lambics -- beer cooled in open air to collect wild yeast that inspires the beer's spontaneous fermentation in barrels -- and turns them into a variety of different beers.
A blendery will typically produce geuze (or gueuze, a blend of young and aged lambic), faro (brown sugar lambic), kriek (cherry lambic) and framboise (raspberry lambic) -- among others. Cam uses lambic from Flemmish brewers Boon, Girardin and Lindemans when creating beers like the ones in this lot. The 2012 Framboise Lambiek, 2011 Oude Kriek, two bottles of 2011 Kriek Lambiek and two bottles of 2009 Oude Geuze come out to $100 apiece in this deal, but these vintages work much like wine -- there's only less of it as time progresses.
Price: $100 + $20 shipping
The Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Vleteren, Belgium, has existed since 1836 and brews to fund both its monastery and its charitable works. Typically, if you want this beer, you have to call the abbey to see when they're brewing, reserve a case of it, trek to the monastery and bring a case of this dark, 10.2% alcohol-by-volume beauty with you.
Occasionally, folks here in the U.S. will get lucky. Back in 2012, the Shelton Brothers distribution firm in the U.S. sold nearly 8,000 gift packs of six Westvleteren 12 bottles and two glasses for $85 apiece. You're getting the fruits of that sale here, though at a steep premium. Consider, for example, that even a bottle from a Brussels shop that's reselling this beer will go for less than $20.
Price: $80 + $15 shipping
There's a bit of a tangled history behind Watou's St. Bernardus, so try to keep up.
The Trappist monks of Mont des Cats in France came to Watou in the 19th Century after being shoved out of their home country. They turned their new farm home into a cheese factory and began producing cheese to support their Abbey. In 1934, when the French were more open to the monks' presence, they moved back and left the cheese factory to one Evarist Deconinick.
After World War II, the monks at Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren (the same ones behind Westvleteren 12) decided they wanted someone with a connection to the Trappists to take over the commercial brewing of their beer. They chose Deconinick, who brewed and sold their beer until 1992, when the monks decided that their beer should only be made available at their abbey and a handful of local pubs. That year Saint Bernardus came into its own, but lost the Trappist distinction. Yet the roots of this dark, rich 10% ABV Belgian quad are undeniable. It's still the same recipe from their days of contract brewing for the monks of Saint Sixtus, and it's one of the not-so-dirty secrets of the Belgian beer world that St. Bernardus Abt. 12 is a not-so-distant relative of Westvleteren 12. Sure, the latter is much tougher to get, but the former is a much less costly sample of the sty
Since 1900, the Brussels-based brewer has been using open-air cooling to gather wild yeast and spontaneous barrel fermentation to give its lambic styles their sour character. Considering it's just blocks from Brussels's central train station, there's no reason to miss it even if you're just passing through town.
It's worth your time for no other reason than that they're very expensive here. The small 375-milliliter bottles that typically sell here for $13 or more come in three-packs that sell for $12. Even older vintages don't typically fetch more than $20 in the taproom, which makes the $45-per-bottle cost here seem pretty steep. That said, you're getting three bottles each of Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio, Kriek 100% Lambic Bio, Rose de Gambrinus and Cuvee Saint-Gilloise from 2014 and 2015 for less than the cost of airfare. You're welcome.
This is a lot more than just lambic aged on blueberries.
Brewed with the help of Evil Twin brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø especially for Jeppe's Ølbutikken bottle shop in Copenhagen, Blåbaer is produced in 200-bottle batches. That's all the world gets for a year, which makes this six-year vertical of it something remarkable.
But even this may be a bit over the edge. Boston-based auction house Skinner has sold eight bottles of Blåbaer since 2013. With vintages ranging from 2009 to 2015, the cheapest bottles went for $214, while the second most-expensive sold for $400.
Dating back to 1883 and taking its name from the three hand pumps used to serve the lambic, faro and kriek, Drie Fonteinen is one of the pillars of Belgium's community of lambic brewers. However, until 1999, Drie Fonteinen didn't really brew labics so much as it blended other brewers' lambics. Using lambic from Belgian lambic brewers Girardin, Lindemans, and Frank Boon, Drie Fontinen made its Oude Geuze and attempted to breathe life into the languishing lambic styles.
Drie Fonteinen eventually put its automated brewing system in place in 1999, but this particular range of seasonal versions of the brewery's Oude Geuze created by Drie Fontienen's Armand Debelder appeared in 2011 -- just before a thermostat malfunction in 2009 wiped out much of Drie Fontienen's lambic. Is it $300-per-bottle special? Given how little of it is left, yes.
An infant by Belgian beer standards, De Struise first emerged in Oostvleteren as homebrew for a Flemish ostrich farm's traveling guests. It became a commercial brewery in 2003 and gained notoriety for doing what few other Belgian brewers venture to -- collaborate with U.S. brewers.
Their Black Albert Russian Imperial Stout was made in partnership with Ebenezer's Pub in Lovell, Maine, and is akin to U.S. takes on the style including 3 Floyds's Dark Lord and Cigar City's Hunahpu's Imperial. In fact, it was so in keeping with that theme that New Hampshire's Portsmouth Brewing agreed to blend it with Portsmouth's own Russian Imperial -- Kate the Great -- in 2011. We're going to go ahead and say that's where most of this lot's value is derived, considering that Kate the Great brewer Tod Mott left Portsmouth in 2012 and took the recipe with him.
The Cuvee Delphine -- Black Albert aged for one year in 4 Roses bourbon barrels -- is fine, but KABERT is a piece of beer history.
The Schaerbeek sour cherry is the jewel of Belgium Pajottenland and the foundation for any great kriek. There aren't a whole lot of the trees around, thanks to Brussels's booming population and fickle tastes over the years, but it's worth taking notice when a brewer calls it out explicitly.
We already gave you Drie Fontienen's history, so it shouldn't surprise you that a beer created around the time that the brewery just about killed all of its beer costs this much for just one bottle. However, the combination of the Schaerbeek cherry flavor and the beer's rarity does a lot to drive up the price.
There are many peculiarities about Brasserie Fantôme that have helped build its legend.
The ghost on the bottle connected to a dead countess in a nearby town is one of them. The fact that it's in Wallonia when many of Belgium's more high-profile breweries are in Flanders or the Brussels capital district is another. There's also the fact that it was cobbled together in 1988 out of the old brewhouse of now-Duvel-owned Brasserie d'Achouffe.
But anything peculiar about this brewery making a holiday beer out of a style that's more commonly associated with summer and field labor disappears with a sip of Nöel. This brewery makes Saison -- once a low-alcohol beer used to get farmhands through the work day -- into a laudable holiday beer by doubling down on its most under-loved element: spice. Where a Saison might have a little bit of coriander kick to it, Nöel has hints of pie spices and biscuit (though that's helped along by the malt). That mixes with a citrus flavor akin to a clementine to give this beer Saison character, but with a seasonal flourish. At 10% ABV, some of the harsher element of this admittedly unorthodox Saison should have worn off by now.
Price: $70 + $15 shipping
Delirium Tremens, Saint Bernardus and other Belgian brewers make some great holiday beer, but De Dolle in Esen went an extra step for its 2010 installment.
Founded in 1980, this Esen brewery uses an hours-long boil (most brewing consists of boils measured in minutes) of pale malt and Belgian white candi sugar to produce viscous strong ale whose sweetness easily overpowers the Nugget bittering hops. That confectionery sweetness and 12% ABV make it a fine candidate for aging, but this particular vintage spent 25 months in Bordeaux barrels before going into the bottle. Some of that residual alcohol heat should have aged off by now, leaving a sweet yet still warming holiday treat.