Differentiating Between The Holy Grail Beers

Eno Sarris, September 16, 2013

By the grace of a well-traveled friend of BeerGraphs, I was lucky enough to sample a Westvleteren 8 this past Sunday. Though not necessarily a fan of the style, the trappist dubbel was well-balanced, with hints of cherry, wood and smoke pairing with the alcohol (8%) to make a beer worth savoring.

Since I was also in New York catching up with old friends and telling them of new ventures, BeerGraphs was on the tip of my tasting tongue anyway. After a lucky year for a gullet that has seen The Alchemist's Heady Topper, Russian River's Pliny the Younger, and now the monks of Westvleteren's dubbel, I wondered about this group of Holy Grail beers in particular.

What stats separate the most-hyped, rarest beers from each other?

The small distribution area must work to increase the ratings. As unbiased as I attempted to be when I traveled north to Santa Rosa on a Tuesday morning, the three hours of travel and two hours of wait time, plus all the general awe surrounding Pliny the Younger -- these things *must* have helped push me to a five-star rating. Drinking a beer that only travels in suitcases to America has a delicious feeling to it, too. Does any of this show up in the numbers?

The first thought that occurred to me was that there must be a lot of five-star ratings in this trio. Maybe the percentage of five-star ratings would tell us something.

  wOBAR BAR Ave Rating, No Zeroes % 5-Star % Zeroes
Trappist Westvleteren 8 0.897 7.52 4.44 50.5 9.2
Trappist Westvleteren 12 0.838 11.31 4.66 59.0 10.6
Pliny the Younger 0.980 14.12 4.76 83.2 10.5
Heady Topper 1.045 16.53 4.83 83.1 6.6

Well it looks like the monks can't hang. Not on this level at least. Their more sought-after quadruple, the Westvleteren 12, does better. (Worth mentioning that it's about three percent stronger, too.) But there's little that puts the Belgian in among the Double IPAs that make up this group of sought-after beers, and looking at the percentage of five-star ratings, or the number of zeroes in the group, doesn't change much.

But while I was in the numbers, I did notice something about the Westvelteren 12 -- there are many different Westvleteren 12s. There are 18 separate entries for the beer in Untappd. Mostly different vintages. And there's good enough reason for that when you want to compare vintages. But as you can tell from the BAR ratings for the trappist beers, they suffer from lower check-in counts. That might have something to do with the fact that Americans -- the large majority of Untappd users are American -- don't all have phones that work in Europe.

It might also have something to do with all the different headings for the beer. So I combined them all for the purposes of this excerise. And they only accounted for 241 extra ratings, upping the number of zeroes (to 10.8%) and reducing the number of fives (57.6%). (And, predictably, dropping the non-zero average score to 4.65.)

In this case, the number of vintages did not hide any underlying truths. It may be hard to get a Westvelteren 12, and it's rated by most as an excellent beer, but it still doesn't quite measure up to America's most-sought after, at least in the eyes of American craft beer drinkers. This might be an argument against the hype factor -- what's harder to get and more hyped than a beer made by monks and sold almost exclusively in a monastery in Europe? Or it might just be about American craft beer drinkers' lust for Imperial Pale Ales.

As for the wide reach of check-ins on these beers with tiny distribution areas, you may just have to wait for more heat map analysis on that front.