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.
Click here to see In de Vrede’s Route Planner.
And here is In de Vrede’s guide to buying beer.
HOW TO BUY WESTY BEER
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.