The Holy Trinity
Oh, the infamy of Westvleteren. Although the general public outside of Belgium have never even heard of this West Flemish brew, let alone tasted it, beer connoisseurs worldwide covet it. Several years ago, the internet helped elevate the beer to further international acclaim – much to the chagrin of its brewers.
Do you have several hours, a car and barrelful of patience? Then you can get a hold of the best beer in the world
Westvleteren is a beer made by the Trappist monks of the Saint Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren, a subdivision of the village of Vleteren, near Ypres. In 2005, the Westvleren 12 beer was deemed the "best in the world" by ratebeer.com, a popular website for beer fans. A barrage of articles around the globe followed, leading to a huge spike in demand for the beer.
You would think this type of attention would be a dream for the brewer. But the monks of Westvleteren are not amused. The Saint Sixtus monks have been producing the same amount of beer - 4,800 hectolitres - every year since 1945. Despite the heavy increase in demand, they refuse to up production.
Monks have a long tradition of brewing to support themselves, but they aren't in it for the profit. Says Marc Bode of Saint Sixtus: "We brew to live, but we don't live to brew." In order to receive the label "Trappist", a beer has to meet specific criteria, including earnings from sales going back into the business or to charity - no profits allowed. There are only seven Trappist beers in the world, and six of them are in Belgium. (The seventh is in the Netherlands.)
Saint Sixtus does not sell its beer to cafes, restaurants, supermarkets or any retail outlets. You can buy Westvleteren at the abbey, but only by appointment. And appointments are difficult to come by.
To get an appointment, you must call the "beer phone number"; but the line is nearly always busy. I gave the calling assignment to my beer partner-in-crime. He got through to the line after two hours of compulsive dialling, from two cell phones at once.
You then have to drive to the abbey to pick up your beer. You are entitled to one case (24 bottles) per car per month (they record your license plate number).
To their credit, the monks keep the beer affordable. Westvleteren costs about the same as any good Belgian beer; one case of Westvleteren 12 (the strongest) costs €38 - crate and bottle deposits are extra. The beer comes in a wooden crate and is unlabeled. The only thing that distinguishes the beer as Westvleteren is the cap.
Is it worth the effort?
The brewery at Saint Sixtus produces three different types of beer, named for their alcohol levels (6, 8 or 12 degrees). All of the beers have rave reviews on the prestigious sites ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com.
The Westvleteren 12 continues to be number one on ratebeer.com's Top 50, and the 8 (a dubbel) comes in at 18. The 12 accounts for half of the beer produced at Saint Sixtus. It is an Abt, or abbot, beer, otherwise known as a "quadruple" (rather than the more common "dubbel" or "tripel"). Quadrupels are strong, dark beers with approximately four times the "normal" amount of malt, giving them some sweetness.
Westvleteren 12 has a stunning level of complexity and richness that you just can't get from a dubbel or a tripel. And since it's a strong beer, it ages well, much like a fine wine. I've tasted both young and old bottles of the 12 and was amazed at how much the aging process enhances the flavour and character of this beer.
Is it the best beer in the world? This idea is obviously arguable, particularly as this heavy, rich, sweet style of beer does not appeal to everyone. But anyone who has experience with beer tasting knows that it is an extraordinary beer.
Danny Van Tricht, Flemish author of the informative beer blog TrappistBier Beleven offers some insight. "What makes Westvleteren - and other Trappist beers - so special is they don't brew in a hurry," he says. "The production process is not forced at all. I'm sure large breweries force it for commercial reasons."
How an abbey became a brewery
In 1815, Jan-Baptist Victoor decided to leave Poperinge, buy a parcel of land in the Saint Sixtus woods and live as a hermit. He spent 15 years alone before four monks from France came to join him. They formed a new Cistercian monastery that would eventually become the Trappist Abbey at Saint Sixtus.
The beginning of the beer brewing coincided with the abbey's construction, in 1870. Initially, the monks brewed a beer of low alcohol (2°) for the workers. Twenty years later, the monks of Saint Sixtus got advice from the Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Westmalle to start commercial beer production. Westvleteren beer as we know it today owes its origins to the expertise of the Westmalle brewers; it began with their yeast, too.
The Saint Sixtus monks now brew 75 times per year. Though the abbey and brewery aren't open to the public, those who are interested in learning more about the lives of the Saint Sixtus monks can visit the Claustrum, a permanent exhibition located in the meeting centre of the In De Vrede café next door. www.sintsixtus.be
The Flemish Trappists
Don't be fooled by imitators - there are only seven Trappist beers in the world
Despite the fact that many Belgian beers have "religious" themes, most of them are not connected to an abbey. And even if they are, "abbey" does not mean "Trappist". If it's called an "abbey beer", it is either affiliated with a real abbey that allows its name to be used or simply made in the style of a Trappist - generally with a "dubbel" and a "tripel" beer. Dubbels are brown and brewed with double the malt of most beer, and tripels are lighter (in colour if not in alcohol content) and brewed with three times the malt.
Of the approximately 170 Trappist monasteries in the world, seven brew beer. Six of them are in Belgium. For the beer to be blessed with a Trappist designation, the brewery must obey stringent guidelines. Monks must be involved in the brewing process, for example, and profits from sales have to go back into the abbey or to charity. The International Trappist Association, headquartered in Vleteren, works to guarantee the quality and authenticity of Trappist products and protect the economic interests of the Trappist monasteries. There are two other beer-brewing abbeys in Flanders that have been bestowed the "Trappist" distinction.
Westmalle The Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Westmalle, Antwerp province, offers two types of beer: a dubbel and a tripel. Their beers are sold widely in stores and on menus. Like the other two Trappist brewers, they do not offer public tours, but if you happen to be in the neighbourhood, you can buy Trappist cheese directly from the monks. Café Trappisten is conveniently located across the street from the abbey, where you can get both the tripel and dubbel from the cask. www.trappistwestmalle.be
Achel The Saint Benedictus abbey in Achel, Limburg province, began brewing again in 1998 after an 84-year hiatus. They brew an 8, an Extra-Brown 8 and both a brown and a golden 5. The 8s are available commercially, while the 5s are only available at the on-site café. www.achelsekluis.org
Drinking Westvleteren - without an appointment
If you don't see yourself getting an appointment with the Saint Sixtus abbey to buy a case of Westvleteren, you can still partake in the fruits of the monks' labour. In de Vrede café is right across the street from the abbey. You find all three of the beers on tap, as well as a store where you can buy abbey pâté, cheese and other regional products. If you are lucky, the gift shop might even have some beer in stock. Though it comes at a price, in special gift packs, complete with Westvleteren beer glasses.
The monks discourage third-party resale, but once in a while you can find a cafe or retail outlet that has gone through the dogged process of acquiring Westvleteren and are offering it up to customers. Just be prepared to pay for it. Last year, I bought my first bottle of Westvleteren 12 in Brussels' Beer Planet for €8. More recently, my visiting American friends paid €17 to drink a bottle at a café outside of Ghent. While that's a ridiculous price, a bottle of Westvleteren 12 on eBay will set you back twice that amount. www.indevrede.be