As almost all of you have heard by now, 12.12.12 was the date that the monks at the St. Sixtus Abbey who brew the famed Westvleteren 12 allowed some of their beer to be sold in the United States. This was all over the news even outside of craft beer circles. As this beer is often mentioned in discussions about "The Best Beer in the World," it was highly sought after and was sold out almost instantly at any location that was given an allotment of the six packs, despite its $84.99 price tag. Needless to say, I was not able to buy any, but have a bottle of Dark Lord ready and waiting (plus a mystery Bonus Bottle) for anyone that is willing to trade.
Because I'm a little full of sour grapes right now, today's review will be for 21st Amendment's "Monk's Blood." It's a Belgian-style dark ale that is made with cinnamon, vanilla, oak chips, and dried figs. The new ingredients intrigue me and at 8.3% ABV it also sounds like it packs quite a punch. Oh, and for those not willing to read the old-timey text written on the can, it reads as such,
"Legend has it that in the evening, the monks would retire to their chambers & settle in with a few passages from the Good Book. But Brothers Nicolas and O'Sullivan had other plans. Working in the brewhouse all day, they were forced to repeat the same old recipes the elder monks had invented years before. They needed a little diversion, And found it in the cellar of the monastery with a fresh twist they put on the beer and the way they enjoyed it. Brother Nicolas (or 'Nico' to his close friends) brought some hand-rolled cigars. O'Sullivan, the outspoken one, broke the vow of silence by spinning a remix of some Gregorian chants. Together, they'd thrown down a could nice hands of Texas Hold 'Em and savor the handcrafted brew they crafted in secrecy. Everything was good. Or so it seemed. But deep in his heart Nico knew they were drifting into the 'dark side' of beer. Next thing you know, they'd be skipping Lent. Then one night they'd face the Judgement for their actions with a hard knock at the door. Outside, the Abbot and elders would be holding stones in the air. A threat the brothers were sure would lead to the spilling of "Monk's Blood"
Maybe they should just stick to brewing, but as always they feature a kick-ass can design. This particular brew was canned on March 5th, 2012. Let's pour!
All the things that make the strong Belgian style great come rushing out of the glass. Lots of cloves are quickly overwhelmed by even more of the yeast's banana notes. Raw sugar (or likely Belgian candi sugar) and vanilla intertwine, while the figs and warmth sit back at first. Eventually the figs come on strong and mingle with the banana delightfully, even if the figs edge out the banana ever so slightly. Warmth grows stronger as well, but never becomes intrusive.
I'm afraid this isn't a very attractive beer at all. Have you had or seen prune juice before? Yeah, it's that color. Even when held to light it's that same milky brown hue. The head was modest in size, beige in color, and crackled and popped its way down to a ring on the surface's edge. There is also a lot of sediment in this brew, so pour gently.
The first sensations of this drink are much brighter than anticipated, given the prominence of the dark fruit in the aroma. It begins with a delicate, playful vanilla and some citrus-like tones. However, it rapidly grows dark like a bank of storm clouds being pushed across the sky. Very quickly there are the dark figs, the cinnamon, and the earthiness of spice all present and dominating the flavor profile. Thankfully, the cinnamon avoids my worst fears and refrains from overwhelming all other flavors. These dark flavors are intense and feel even larger with the strong alcohol warmth. In the finish, things remain dark but also become bitter thanks to the earthiness from the cinnamon and the newly detectable oak. It's a combination of dark fruits, bitter, and some boozy vanilla to wrap it all up. A word of caution to those of you who enjoy slurping to enhance certain flavors! In this brew, all you'll find is a brash alcohol.
This beer is appropriately carbonated, which in a strong Belgian means there's a bunch of it. Good news though, it seems to be taking the same advice as the cinnamon and is not a distraction by being overly prickly on the tongue. There is some of that sensation, but it's mostly due to the cinnamon and not the bubbles. Warmth plays a large roll in this brew and is not shy about it. I dug it. It makes for a strong beer, yet didn't suffer the same failure as many of the new "bourbon barrel-aged" beers by tasting like "two fingers, neat." A full body carries all these flavors perfectly.
Overall Impression 8/10
This is a very well put together beer: the gentle flavors come out and the big flavors are not permitted to destroy a lá General William T. Sherman. The lighter, sweeter flavors are quite nice and I wish they played a larger role by perhaps utilizing a less quick and dramatic shift to the dark, strong flavors. However, this is a Belgian strong and it is supposed to be both dark and strong so the beer can't be faulted for that. I enjoy the interpolations that 21A has introduced here as a change of pace, even if my personal taste would prefer something lighter.
Let me just say that I am comparing beer from a can to some of the best Belgian beers that I have ever had. To those that for some crazy reason still doubt that amazing beer can be canned, this beer stands in direct opposition to your argument. It is a great Belgian dark with its own twists and I always love trying new takes on old styles. This particular beer is still well worth your time, especially if you normally find some Belgian varieties too sweet. The earthiness and dark flavors help tone those down a great deal. I didn't get much of the oak throughout the beer, but that's OK. There were more than enough other flavors to compensate for it. Also, I'd like to mention that this beer left my glass far too quickly. I was fighting to ration it the entire time so that I'd have enough beer for later parts of the review. So while my tiny, tiny gripe is that I wish the up-front sweetness lasted long or had a larger role, the proof was in the pudding as I drank this beer faster than I could write about it. If you have some, great! If not, you may want to find a kind trading partner as 21A has made it official that Monk's Blood will be taking an "indefinite hiatus." Which begs the question, if they're shelving a tasty beer like this, then what do they have in the works?