Year after year, Westvleteren 12, a Belgian quadrupel beer brewed by Trappist monks in a rural Flanders abbey has been named the “Best Beer in the World” by the major beer rating sites. While I’m the first to say that claiming any food or drink to be the “best” of its kind is always going to be a subjective exercise, “Westy 12″ is undoubtedly an outstanding beer. It’s also really hard to come by. I’ve read that only five monks brew the beer and another five help when it comes time to bottle. I’m not sure how accurate those numbers are, but I am sure that the Westvleteren Abbey is a small beer-making operation with no signs that it cares to be anything larger. The monks’ primary focus is on being monks, not brewers. The reputation and mystique around Westvleteren 12 has led to a mad and highly competitive scramble to buy this elusive beer.
A Little Background on Trappist Beers
Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monasteries. As of today, only 11 monasteries produce beer officially recognized by the International Trappist Association: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy, the United States (New Jersey). Many of these are very old breweries with recipes going back to medieval times, but one in the Netherlands and those in Austria, Italy and the U.S. are recent entries, only being recognized in the years since 2012. Some are tiny, like Westvleteren (producing only 4050 US bbl/year), while others are substantial producers, the largest by volume being La Trappe in the Netherlands which produces 124,000 US bbl/year. To be able to designate their beer as Authorized Trappist Product and display a special logo, these beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, the brewing should be secondary to and in keeping with the monastic way of life, and the brewery should not be a profit-making enterprise, but rather to support the monastery and the monastic lifestyle.
Westvleteren 12 and Our Beer Journey
I first heard of Westvleteren 12 in reading about Belgian beers prior to the first housesit David and I did in Antwerp. When we discovered our favorite local beerpub, Gollem, and attached ourselves to our favorite bartender/beer sensei there, Sam, I asked about this then-unpronounceable beer. Sam informed us they had it–at a very steep price since, except at the abbey, it’s a gray-market product. We balked then, but soon went for it at our second favorite Antwerp beerpub, the legendary Kulminator. We were total beer newbies at the time with no real way to evaluate except to say, “Hey, this beer is really good!” Sigh. We’ve come a long way.
Since then, David and I have done an awful lot of beer tasting, reading and even brewed our first batch of homebrew. David became so obsessed with The Beer Bible, a Christmas gift from my elder son, that he read it every night for over a year and lugged the tome with us around the world. (Thankfully, we’ve got it on Kindle version now, so can read up on iPad or cellphone…even sitting in a pub.) You can get your own addictive copy of The Beer Bible on Amazon.
Buying Our First 6-Packs of Westies at the Abbey Café
So, of course, as part of our beer odyssey, we wanted to try Westvleteren again at the abbey. When my younger son, Dillon, arrived to spend a week with us in Antwerp in August 2015, we used the opportunity to drive the hour and 40 minutes into rural Flanders where the St. Sixtus Abbey sits amid fields of crops and sheep.
A modern and spacious abbey-owned café called “In De Vrede” (“In Peace”) lies across the road from the main abbey building.
The three Trappist beers brewed at the abbey are always available to drink on-site at the café. These are Westvleteren 12, Westvleteren 8 (a tripel) and the Westvleteren Blonde. At random times 6-packs of whatever beer the abbey happens to provide are sold at the café shop. On that first trip, we were thrilled to learn that 8’s and blondes would be available in the café shop after 2pm, but disappointed that none of the top-of-the-top 12’s were available for take-away. Oh well, we consoled ourselves with breakfast Westy 12’s before showing Dillon some of our favorite World War I museums and sites until it was time to return for the afternoon beer sale. Back at In De Vrede, we happily joined a long line and bought the maximum two 6-packs/person of the unlabeled brown bottles. [The sum total of packaging information on a Westy bottle comes on the cap and in the simple molded glass collar on the bottle that reads “TRAPPISTENBIER.”]
Buying Cases of Westvleteren: The “Beer Hotline”
The only way to get more than those random 6-packs at the abbey is to make an appointment to pick up cases of beer. To do this, you have to consult the abbey’s website and click through until you get to their beer page. There you’ll find a page displaying a 2-week schedule: On the left is the current week with times blocked off when the “beer hotline” will be open for the abbey to receive calls from those wanting to place an order for beer. (Only calls from identifiable numbers, land or mobile, will be accepted.) On the right is a schedule for the following week showing the dates and times when the maximum 2 cases/car is available to pick up and which beer (12, 8 or blonde) will be available. David and I have done this twice now. The first time, it took us over 400 calls, using three phones to get through to a monk. Usually, you are required to give a license plate number, but the monk very kindly agreed to take our name instead since we planned to rent a car to pick up the beer.
The second time (this past week) it took us over 1100 calls to get through, again using three phones. Since the hotline opened at 8am that day, we started dialing in bed, getting busy signal after busy signal. Three times, we thought we’d gotten through only to have a Dutch-language recording of a female voice (apparently from the phone company) give way to yet another busy signal. Hungry and discouraged, we went downstairs to make breakfast, but kept doggedly dialing in the process. Finally, the recording gave way to an actual dialing and finally, a monk. This time we had a license plate to give (thanks to the friends for whom we housesit), chose one of the available dates the following week, and were done. Victory!
Part of the reason the monks ask for a license plate or identification is that the same vehicle or person cannot buy cases of beer from them again for 60 days. You must also agree not to resell their beer. This is a widely ignored prohibition and an active gray market exists in Belgium and elsewhere for the beer. We, on the other hand, buy for our own consumption, to cellar and to give away. Besides, there’s just something about lying to nice monks that just wouldn’t sit right!
Both times we’ve bought cases of Westvleteren beer, we’ve had a 1pm pick-up time. We drive over from Antwerp, arriving in time for lunch at In De Vrede (which I’ll review later) before picking up our cases. The iconic wooden crates are available at a small drive-through loop adjacent to the abbey.
A lone monk mans the stacks of cases and will help load if need be, although he’s fine with you loading yourself.
Once we have our beer, we pull forward to pay by credit card. (The monks don’t accept cash.) Although a single bottle of Westy 12 can run €13-20 on the gray market, at the abbey a case of Westvleteren 12 costs €42, a case of 8 is €37, and a case of Blonde costs €32. In addition, there’s a €12/case deposit that you can get back if you return the case and empty bottles to the abbey.
So What Does it Taste Like?
Now that we’re a little past “Hey, this is really good beer!”, how would we describe the taste of Westvleteren 12? Well, first, for the appearance: It’s a medium dark beer with a warm red-brown color and a dense tan head. It pours clear, but there’s often lots of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The nose is rich, molasses-y, fig-sweet with that wonderful Belgian “barny” yeast smell that conjures for me images of horses and the green pastures of Flanders. The taste is fig, prune, toffee/molasses, yeasty “barniness” and warm spices. (So, now we had to go open a bottle to double check our perceptions and report them in real-time. It’s a tough job, but we’re willing to go that extra mile!) Westvleteren 12 is well-carbonated, effervescent with tiny bubbles that foam in the mouth. At 10.2% alcohol, it’s a substantial beer, but the alcohol is not too forward. It’s wonderfully easy to drink.
I also really like the Westvleteren 8 and love the Blonde, which is harder to come by and needs to be drunk fairly quickly, not being amenable to cellaring like the 12 and 8.
And finally, how to get it home?
We’ve discovered that a wooden case of Westvleteren beer fits perfectly into the reinforced “medium-extra strong” cardboard moving box sold by Shurgard in Belgium (a branch of which in Antwerp is particularly handy to us) for €3.50. We wrap each bottle in bubble wrap to wedge it securely into the case. Then, we line the bottom of the box with foam pads and/or styrofoam peanuts, set the whole case inside, pour in more peanuts and tape like crazy, being sure to reinforce the corners. Packed like this, each case becomes our 2nd piece of luggage on our international flight home. It’s within airline size and weight limits, so there’s no charge. On our last flight home, our beer arrived perfectly, with no breakage or leaking. This time, we brought a light-weight duffel bag full of the recycled peanuts and bubble wrap to repeat the process. We’ll just fold up the duffel and stash it in a suitcase for the return.
Follow up to our latest transport of Westy 12’s back to the States, 5/2017: Our latest two cases (plus a few extras) made it home on British Airways in perfect condition; no leaks, no breakage. The handles on the cardboard boxes had started to tear despite our reinforcement, though, and we’re considering having the boxes plastic wrapped at the airport next time. (It would be best if the handle holes weren’t used at all.) There was also a small hole in the bottom of one of the boxes, but it was a non-issue given the protection afforded by the wooden crate and the layer of styrofoam on the bottom. We saved the styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap in the duffel and stored it away for repeat duty on our next trip to Belgium in the fall.
The St. Sixtus Abbey website is: http://sintsixtus.be/ It’s in Dutch for the most part, but hover over “Gasten en bezoekers” at the top then click on “Bierverkoop” to get to the information about buying beer. There you’ll have an option to choose “English” (or French or German) which will pull up a screen with the beer hotline number as well as the method and rules for buying their beer. Once read, close that window then click on the big green button that says “Bierverkoop, Ventes de Bières, Beer Sales, Bierabsatz”. This will take you to the screen with the 2-week schedule for calls and pick-up times described above.