OK, so a true consensus on the world’s best beer is about as unlikely to happen as world peace, but some very particular Belgian monks present a very persuasive (read: tasty) case. The Saint Sixtus Abbey at Westvleteren produces only three beers: the Westvleteren blonde, 8, and 12, and it’s the “12″ that is widely referred to as the best. The folks at Beeradvocate seem to enjoy it. RateBeer? Yep. Ordinary Joes with blogs? You betcha. Now, it’s true that there are naysayers (especially following the brewery’s limited release of a few thousand extra cases in North America to pay for a new roof on their Abbey), but anyone who has had a single swig of this well-balanced quadrupel will tell you that this is a world-class beer, and is definitely worth a try. But therein lies the problem: how do you get a hold of this stuff?
To be honest, at least some of this beer’s cachet stems from the aura of exclusivity that its Trappist brewers are very careful to maintain. You see, there are only two places in the entire world where this beer may be legally bought: the Abbey itself and a small café across the street from the Abbey. The monks swear an oath not to sell the beer for profit other than to help cover living expenses and to give a bit to charity, and thus have not increased production to accommodate a larger demand. To make matters worse, this abbey is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, nestled between farms in Flanders Fields, on a street hardly wide enough to be a North American driveway. The monks don’t allow visitors to the actual brewery, and for many people, driving there is the only way of picking up the beer. On top of there being very limited stock, no distribution, and an extremely inconveniently-located center of operation, the monks have strict rules about who can buy their beer. You can read them yourself on their website, but essentially, they are as follows:
- You may not purchase more than two cases of six bottles at a time.
- Only certain beers are available on certain days, so it’s best to check the schedule (linked above).
- When you call to reserve your beer, your phone number will be recorded, and you may not reserve beer with this phone number again for two months. Think you’ve found a loophole? They don’t answer the phone if it’s a private number. You may also have to be persistent – it’s a small operation, and the phone line can be busy all day. Call early.
- You must arrive on time for your scheduled appointment to pick up the beer, otherwise you risk losing it to someone else.
- You must agree not to sell the beer to anyone else.
- Your licence plate will be recorded and the same car cannot be used to pick up beer for two months.
Fortunately, there is a slightly easier way to get a hold of the beer. The aforementioned café, called In De Vrede, has all three Westvleteren beers on tap (though you certainly shouldn’t drive after a glass of 10.2% beer – bring a designated driver) and also has a small shop. It is not possible to reserve beer at In De Vrede, but if you call ahead (they do speak some English) and ask when the shop opens on a given day, arrive early, and simply get a bit lucky, you’ll be able to purchase some beer and glasses, and you get to skip having your phone number and licence plate recorded.
OK, but how to I get there?
The main mode of transport is simply to have a car. You can rent one in Bruges for a reasonable rate, but make sure to get one with GPS or bring a smartphone and charger. It’s easy to drive past some of the turns, and road construction/repair can throw a wrench into a printed set of instructions. Also, as this region has a very particular Flemish dialect, language is likely to be an obstacle if you’re asking for local help. The drive should take just over an hour, and doesn’t require travelling through any heavy traffic. Really, the Belgian countryside is worth seeing all on its own, and since Belgium is such a small country, it isn’t difficult to visit other breweries or attractions that are situated outside of major centers while you’ve got wheels. Go for a tour of the Dupont family brewery if you get the chance, or visit one of Belgium’s many World War cemeteries, such as Essex Farm Cemetary, where John McCrae penned the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. Having said all that, it IS possible to get to Westvleteren by a train/bus combo. The Abbey’s nearest neighboring town is Poperinge, and from there, it is now possible to book a bus if you call ahead that will take you right to the doorstep of the Abbey.
Is this beer really worth all the trouble?
At some point, getting a glass of Westvleteren 12 becomes more about the journey than the end goal. A single sip will be enough to convince you that this is among the finest beers in the world, and it only tastes sweeter after you’ve gone through the trouble of getting there yourself. As you hoist your first holy chalice, you’ll understand that this is a bragging right, a pilgrimage, an experience. It’s something tasty you’ll remember all your life. This isn’t just beer, it’s travel.
Photos courtesy of J.P. Nikota; slider photo courtesy of Flickr, Awfulknitter