Contrary to what you might think – because of the name, and the fact that all their labels have an image of a jolly, red-cheeked monk smiling out from them – Brouwerij Sint Bernardus is in fact a secular brewery. It does have connections with the monastic order. It was granted a license by the monks at Westvleteren to brew beer in 1946 under the name St. Sixtus. However, other breweries soon sought to claim links (often very spurious) with the Trappist order and because of the confusion, the license was revoked. In fact this is what ultimately led to the Trappist appellation being set up.
Sint Bernardus continued on their own and now make a range of Abbey beers from their base in the West Flanders town of Watou and the one I’m reviewing today is a dubbel called Prior 8.
Prior pours a very dark brown, almost purple colour which is opaque, but not cloudy. There’s a good level of carbonation which forms a pretty impressive, off-white head of foam that reaches for the sky and lasts all the way to the very end, only diminishing a little. Needless to say, masses of lacy sheets cling to the glass.
The aroma has that solvent-like smell of raw alcohol, but it’s not unpleasant. Bags of malt aroma – with raisins, plums and goodness knows what other kinds of dark fruit float around. Combined with this is a healthy dose of chocolate and caramel. It’s a little earthy, oaky even, and it has a massive yeast presence giving it hints of bread and cheese. Subtle it’s not!
It’s medium-bodied with a lush, smooth mouthfeel. The taste is all about malt – juicy plums and thick molasses, bitter chocolate and sweet vine fruit – rich and dark, it slips down a treat. There are flavours of banana bread and fruit loaf with a hint of nuts somewhere at the back, but I’ll be foxed if I can taste much evidence of hops in there (strange, as Watou is at the heart of Belgium’s hop-growing country). Nevertheless it’s perfectly balanced with enough roasted malt to counteract the overall sweetness. There’s a slight bitter tang towards the finish, but the aftertaste is sweet, with a warm, alcohol glow.
At 8% ABV, this is a beautiful beer. If you appreciate beers that lean towards the maltier side, then you’ll love this. It’s rich and sweet, deeply satisfying, and an absolute joy to drink. I can’t really find any fault with it…if I’m grasping at straws, I’d say the high alcohol content to drinkability ratio is way out of whack. It’s so easy to drink that it’s more like a session ale but I wouldn’t advise spending an evening knocking back a few bottles of this. Of course, you can if you want – makes no nevermind to me.
I’ve drank this just as a sipping ale and it was excellent. I’ve also drank it in the Grand Place of the local town, Poperinge, with a steaming bowl of Moules-et-frites and it was excellent then too. It goes great with bread and cheese or with nothing at all – a great all-rounder.
Would I drink it again? – It’s a Prior 8 eh.