When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, in the late ’90s, I frequented a small bottle shop that always stocked new and exciting beers. On one visit, the shop owner encouraged me to buy one of the bottles of Westvleteren 12 that he had recently brought back from Belgium. I had never heard of the beer before, and it didn’t have a label to offer more information about its contents, but the shop owner convinced me nonetheless.
The first few sips confused and challenged my palate. The beer had a depth and breadth of flavors that I had never experienced before. Toast, tobacco, brown sugar, nuts, dark fruits, vanilla, wood, yeast esters — you name it, it was there.
By the time I finished that bottle, I only craved more. Two days later, I went back to that bottle shop, but it was already sold out.
I wouldn’t get another taste of that mysterious beer until 2013, when I discovered some bottles in Brussels, Belgium.
THE POWER OF RATEBEER.COM
In 2005, Ratebeer.com (i.e., countless online reviewers) named Westvleteren 12 the “Best Beer in the World,” and news of this No. 1 ranking spread across all sorts of media outlets, including CNN. Needless to say, Saint Sixtus Abbey, the small monastery in rural Belgium that brews Westvleteren beers, wasn’t prepared for the hoards that subsequently descended upon it.
Since then, “Westy 12,” as it’s affectionately known, has appeared on countless top-beers-of-the-world lists. The fact that it’s an extremely elusive beer only adds to its allure.
SAINT SIXTUS ABBEY OF WESTVLETEREN
Just like the other Trappist breweries, the monks of St. Sixtus sell their beer to raise funds to support their lifestyle, and to maintain their buildings and grounds. Any extra funds are put toward charities or other social services. They’re not interested in increasing production to meet demand (although they did that a few years back to help fund some construction and repair work on the monastery). They do their best to be as fair as possible to consumers.
The St. Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren was founded in 1831 and began brewing in 1838. No tourists are allowed at the monastery, but there is a café across the street called In de Vrede that serves Westvleteren beers. The shop inside also sells a limited amount of bottles to go, when it’s in stock. (On my visit November of 2014, they allowed each person to buy up to two 6-packs.)
St. Sixtus asks that you do not resell their beer. Of course, it happens a lot. I saw bottles of Westvleteren for sale in many bottle shops in Amsterdam and Brussels. They were heavily marked up, though, costing anywhere from $15 to $25 (US) per bottle.
Crates of Westy for sale at a bottle shop in Amsterdam.
MISSION: PROCURE WESTY 12
Before my second visit to Belgium, in November of 2014, one of the objectives of my visit was to obtain a bunch of bottles of Westy 12 to bring home in my suitcases. I read all about how to buy two crates (i.e., cases) from the monastery, but it’s a logistical nightmare. Basically, between certain hours on certain days, you make an international call to St. Sixtus; you tell the person on the phone what you want to buy, and you provide your vehicle’s license number (each license is only allowed to purchase beer once per 60 days); then you arrange for a date and time to pick up your beer – among their list of limited days and times.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t even get past the first step.
I called multiple times on multiple days, but I only got a busy signal. The one time I did get through, it was a recorded message, and then I realized I was outside of the block of time that they accept calls.
“The number of telephone calls is much greater than the number of available reservations,” it says on the St. Sixtus website. “That means it’s a matter of having a lot of patience as well as a lot of luck.”
Apparently, “luck” is about a 1-in-500 chance of getting through. Seriously. And even if I had gotten through, I didn’t have rental car information to provide, and I didn’t know if one of the days I had open on my visit would even jive with their schedule.
Luckless, my wife and I decided to visit In de Vrede, instead. After doing some online research, we found a bicycle rental shop in Poperinge, the nearest town to Westvleteren. Our plan was to take a train to Poperinge, then rent a bike and ride it to In de Vrede.
We made sure that In de Vrede was open. We procured our train tickets. I Googled our biking route. All went according to plan until we walked from the Poperinge train station to the address of the bike rental place, which was less than a mile. We were sure we had the correct address, but there was no sign and the shades were drawn. The place appeared to be abandoned, at least for the season. Then it started to rain.
A little disheartened but undeterred, we decided to make the journey on foot. After all, we had come this far, so why give up with just a few miles to go?
Poperinge, by the way, is a small, charming town in the heart of Belgium’s hop country. There’s even a hop museum in town, though it wasn’t open during our visit.
The rain was kind of a bummer, but at least the walk from the Poperinge train station to In de Vrede (and St. Sixtus) was a flat and easy 4 miles (8 miles there and back). The city had good sidewalks. The rural roads were narrow, but they weren’t very busy. I think we had to cross one byway (Noordlaan), but it didn’t have much traffic.
Most of the route passed by hop fields with ghostly trellises (harvest was months earlier) and idyllic farms, making for a pleasant walk. Every 5 or 10 minutes, a car would pass by us.
Hop trellises in the off season.
Roadside Brussels sprouts.
Once at In de Vrede, which means “In Peace,” we ate grilled sandwiches and sipped on beers, and I watched a steady stream of visitors buy beer in the shop (inside In de Vrede).
In de Vrede cafe across the street from the St. Sixtus Abbey of Westvleteren.
When in stock, the shop sells 6-packs of Blond, 8 and 12. On my visit, they had plenty of Westy 12, and they allowed each person to buy up to two 6-packs.
St. Sixtus brews three beers for sale to the public: Blond (5.8%), a golden ale with a surprisingly snappy bitterness and a bright bouquet of hop aromas; Extra 8 (8%), a Belgian strong ale (along the lines of a dubbel) with notes of chocolate, toast, toffee and raisins; and 12 (10.2%), an abt / quadrupel with an incredible complexity of dark fruits, yeast esters, fresh bread, banana, tobacco, etc.
The bottles have no labels, but etched into the glass is the word, “Trappistenbier.” The only clue as to what’s inside are the names and colors on the caps – yellow for 12, blue for 8 and green for Blond.
With a train to catch, we stuffed our 6-packs into our backpacks and retraced our route back. Walking briskly, we made it back to the train station in just over an hour.
While I don’t believe Westy 12 is the best beer ever, it is a mighty fine brew, and I’m glad to have some bottles of it back in my life.
DECODING THE NUMERICAL NAMES
Until the late 20th century, Belgian brewers measured gravity in Belgian degrees. A beer with 1.060 Original Gravity (OG), for example, would be 6 degrees. Nowadays, they measure in degrees Plato like most breweries, but Westvleteren’s numerical beer names probably refer to the former standard of measurement. Supposedly, when Westvleteren 12 was first brewed in the 1930s, its OG was 12 (28 degrees Plato) and it finished with about 12 percent ABV (it is now 10.2%). Westvleteren currently makes an 8 and a 12 (as well as an unnumbered “Blond”). From what I can tell, it no longer makes its 4 (brewed for the monks) or 6. Similarly, Rochefort makes a 6, 8 and 10.
DECODING THE DATE STAMP
On the Westy 12 bottle caps, the stamped numbers designate: DAY/MONTH/3 YEARS AFTER BOTTLING. Apparently, this is the window of time they recommend for aging and drinking Westy 12, though it tastes delicious fresh off the bottling line, and it can certainly be aged much longer.
“Give the beer time and it will continue to ripen,” the monks say.
I can vouch for this. Similar to other cellar-worthy beers, time allows the ingredients to mature and meld. I recently tasted an aged bottle, and it had developed some rather interesting flavors of molasses, sherry, candied nuts, and dark fruits such as raisins and prunes.
1 OF 11
Currently, St. Sixtus of Westvleteren is one of 11 Trappist breweries in the world. There are six in Belgium (Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Orval, and Achel), two in the Netherlands, aka Holland (La Trappe/Koningshoeven and De Kievit/Maria Toevlucht of Zundert), one in Austria (Gregorius by Stift Engelszell), one in the United States (St. Joseph’s of Spencer) and one in Italy (Tre Fontane).
The train ride from Brussels to Poperinge is about 2 hours and it costs about $20 (US) each way, per person. Supposedly, there are a couple bicycle rental places in Poperinge, but neither were open when we visited in the off-season month of November.
Assuming you don’t mind doing some walking, you can get to many great beer places in Belgium by train. From Brussels, we have successfully taken many day trips to breweries and beer bars in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Beersel. Plus, within just hours of Brussels, you can be in London, Amsterdam, Paris, etc.
Of course, if you plan to visit some off-the-beaten-path breweries, monasteries, etc., then a car may be your only option.
TRANSPORTATION FROM POPERINGE TO IN DE VREDE
Public transit is severely limited in this region. There’s a “Belbus” that runs in the area, but its schedule is difficult to figure out, and it seems to operate more like a taxi than a bus.
The walk / bike ride from the Poperinge train station to In de Vrede is relatively easy. The terrain is flat, there’s not much traffic, and it’s only 4 miles each way.
CAR RENTAL (aka CAR HIRE)
Renting a car is one option, although they can be expensive (~$125 US per day), navigating can be difficult, and Belgium’s DUI laws are extremely strict (the legal BAC level is only 0.05%), which hampers beer-drinking excursions – the whole point of my trip. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a DD, and I planned to drink more than just one 10-percent-ABV beer at In de Vrede, so we decided against renting a car. Not to mention, we really only needed it for that one day, so it would have been more hassle than it was worth.
Basically, there are four ways to buy the elusive Westvleteren 12 beer. (1.) You can buy it online and pay a fortune. With shipping factored in, I have seen prices range from $40 to $80 per bottle. (2.) You can find it in many bottle shops in Belgium (and some surrounding countries), but you will probably pay between $15 and $25 (US) per bottle. Compare that to the abbey’s price, which is only about $2 per bottle; or In de Vrede, which charges about $3 to $4 per bottle, if my memory serves me. (3.) You can go through the major hassle of reserving and picking up two crates (24 330-ml bottles per crate) at St. Sixtus Abbey, assuming you get lucky and can actually make the reservation in the first place. (4.) Or you can visit In de Vrede and hope their shop has it in stock. On my November 2014 visit, they had plenty of Westy 12, and they allowed each person to buy up to two 6-packs.
Line of cars at St. Sixtus picking up beer at their allotted time.
EURO NUMERALS & CITY NAMES
If you plan to travel to Belgium (and/or some other European countries), which I highly recommend, here are some other helpful things to keep in mind: European numerals can be a bit wonky. They write the number one like a seven, and they flip-flop the usage of decimal points and commas. Also, dates are written DAY/MONTH/YEAR, unlike the U.S., which is MONTH/DAY/YEAR.
City names also can be confusing, as they appear differently (i.e., in Dutch, French or “English”) on signs, maps, etc., and they vary depending on where you are in the country.
I hope all this info helps you. Good luck, happy Westy hunting, and be sure to share your international tap trails with us!