This is a question that has come up a lot over the last 6 months surrounding the excitement of the 12/12/12 worldwide, one-time release of Westvleteren 12. And keeping with the spirit on my series about the Trappist breweries: “The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Order and Monastic Brewing,” “The Brewing Monks: The Eight Trappist Breweries (Part 1),” and “The Brewing Monks: The Eight Trappist Breweries (Part 2),” I thought this would be a great time to address this question in my Q & Ale segment. So, “Are Westvleteren 12 and St. Bernardus 12 the same beers?”
The short answer is “no.”
After WWII, Westvleteren decided to contract their brewing operations. They just wanted to produce enough beer inside the monastery to meet their own needs. They decided to license their name to the nearby Deconink Brewery (Now called St. Bernardus). At this point in time, the beers used the same recipes, ingredients, and yeast. The beers were initially the same. It’s not clearly documented when, but Westvleteren switched yeast from their old strain to Westmalle’s yeast. However, it IS well documented that Westvleteren gets fresh yeast whenever they need it from a fresh crop at Westmalle.
Westvleteren ended the contract with St. Bernardus in 1989 as the Trappist Monasteries were preparing to launch the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo which required the beer to be brewed within the walls of the monastery. This was when St. Bernardus beers were born.
St. Bernardus is still using an older scion of the Westvleteren yeast. While this means the beers aren’t the same anymore, it does allow you to try an older version of Westvleteren (and some of the older recipes that don’t exist anymore like the 6). While you may not be able to get your hands on a Westvleteren, St. Bernardus beers are pretty readily available. This allows you to at least try a beer that’s close to the Westvleteren. And as they say, “A beer in the hand is worth two in the abbey.”
brew like a monk by Stan Hieronymus, (Brewers Publications, 2005)