Last night's horrific loss by the lack of fightin' Phils in game 6 of the National League Championship Series was mitigated by the secondary activity I was participating in, a comparison of 3 belgian style golden ales during the course of a surf and turf dinner cooked for my wife's birthday. We started with a Merry Monks from Weyerbacher Brewing in the Allentown area, then went to Russian River Damnation, and finished with Duvel (prounouned doo-vell or doovil, depending if you are of French or Flemish persuasion). I am not going to rank them, just comment on their similarities and what I liked/disliked about them.
Merry Monks, Weyerbacher Brewing Co. (Easton, PA)
$6 750 ML corked and caged bottle
Merry Monks pours a rich, thick, gold, a half decent head and nice carbonation. A lot of fruity aromas, some reviews I looked at compare it to the aromas of a hefeweizen (banana and clove). It is high ABV (around 9 percent) and has a real rich mouthfeel. My wife feels it is too sweet; I usually don't like things too sweet but if it is on the sweet side I didn't seem to mind. I love this beer. In the taste, a lot of fruit from the yeast, a bit of breadiness. Technically this is a Belgian style triple, though the label says golden ale. It's all in the same ballpark with similar ingredients and techniques.
Damnation, Russian River Brewing Co. (Sonoma County, CA)
$10 375 ML corked and caged bottle
Russian River is one of the rock stars of the craft beer world. I feel like all of their beers have huge buzz, one even being named "best beer in the world" by various sources. I've only had Damnation and Consecration. Maybe it just can't live up to the hype, or maybe it's the fact that it was the most expensive of the three beers here. But I've had Damnation a few times and I won't rush to get it again. That's not to say it isn't great stuff, because it is. It has almost all of the characteristics of the Duvel and maybe even more complexity with some nice cedar notes and an interesting dryness. More sour than sweet (as the Merry Monks was). A little less thick and rich than the Merry Monks, with a fast, dry finish. My wife still thought this one was sweet compared to Duvel, but I didn't think so.
Duvel (Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat, Belgium)
$9 750 ML corked and caged bottle
This is the original. Maybe it's just because we had this one last in conjuction with a caramel hazelnut cupcake that destroyed my palate but this tasted exactly the same as the Damnation to me. The Damnation had a woodiness that wasn't in the Duvel, but otherwise it was a fascimile of this Belgian modern classic. Of course Duvel is famous for it's curvy chalice glass and thick white head. Duvel basically takes the crispness and mass appeal of the pilsner style--using pilsner malts and Bohemian hops--and then throws us a curveball in the form of Belgian yeast. Still easy drinking but a lot more complex and flavorful than your favorite pilsner. This is a great beer. If you haven't had it, this should be high on your list. If you ever see it on draft (Duvel Green) you should know it's not the same stuff, as the bottle conditioning does a beautiful number on this beer and the tap version is not nearly as good.
Maybe if I lived in northern Cali and didn't have to pay a huge upcharge for Russian River I might like their beers more. The Merry Monks wine size corked bottle was only six bucks, that's less than half the price of the Damnation. I won't say it's qualitatively better than Damnation, but I honestly think I like it better. As for Duvel, it's a classic. Maybe the Damnation offers a bit more complexity, but for twice the price.