There’s a little bar in the Beaches of Toronto called Castro’s Lounge. Far East on Queen, it hosts live music and/or DJs every night, serves a small menu of quality vegetarian food, and most importantly, stocks some of the best beer in the city. This is where I found the best beer in the world.
Just walking into the bar can overload the senses. Every free square foot of the wall is filled with a framed portrait of some class pop culture icon. It would be kitsch if it wasn’t so well curated, and if the light wasn’t so low and intimate in the bar. You could stare at the portraits for hours, but they don’t scream at you like they might in a lesser place.
I was with my brother Jeff, who lives across the street. He’s a friend of the publican, so we sat at the bar to get his recommendations. After a couple of seasonal pints, he said “Wait here, I’ve got something to show you,” and went into the back. A minute or so later he returned, carrying a bottle of Westvleteren 12.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“Yes,” said the publican.
It was the best beer in the world. Westvleteren 12 is brewed in a Trappist monastery in Belgium to 10.2% ABV and sits at the top of damn near every beer list. You’ve got to get on a waiting list just to be allowed to drive up to the monastery and buy a case.
“There’s a reason this isn’t in the fridge,” said the owner. “I wouldn’t show it to just anybody.”
We split the bottle. I poured us each a six-ounce glass and we let it slosh around the edges like wine. A thin white head formed and held strong. To my surprise, it smelled exactly like Welch’s grape juice
It was almost surreal. Here I was across the street from my brother’s house with a glass of Westvleteren 12 in front of me. I had recently spent three weeks in Belgium and I couldn’t even get a hold of it there. What was I supposed to expect? The “best beer in the world” couldn’t really be that different than Rochefort or Chimay or any of the other Trappist beers, could it? The reality of the situation was that my brother and I were both expecting to be disappointed. We clinked our glasses and took a sip.
I was expecting something good, but I wasn’t expecting a new definition of what “good” was, which is exactly what I got. This beer was extraordinary. It was fruity – a lot of dried fruit, but the sweetness was balanced by a crispness which immediately followed it. I didn’t think such a huge amount of flavour could taste so balanced. The finish was like brandy, leaving a hint of warmth from the high alcohol, and it was so thick and silky on the tongue that I wanted to lick the glass when I was done.
By my next (and last) beer of the night I was drunk enough that I couldn’t even taste it anymore – which is all fine and good because there’s not much you can drink after Westvleteren 12 which wouldn’t be an anticlimax
I later learned that I had discovered a treasure not a moment too soon, because shortly after I tasted it a limited supply was released to the LCBO at $76 for a six-pack. People were lined up around the block outside of the stores at the opening hour. It sold out in four minutes (no joke). I hear even the empty bottles are fetching a good price online. I’ve still got mine.
But I feel that some of the magic was lost when it hit the stores. I’m glad to have found it the way I did, the old-fashioned way – by knowing the right people and being at the right place at the right time. It was the best beer I’ve ever had, but not just because of the quality. The rarity, the magic of the experience, is as much of a part of what made it the best beer it the world.
By: Derek Harrison