Bordering France and situated near the North Sea somewhat near Belgium’s northwest border can be found the town of Vleteren, inside of which situates the abbey St. Sixtus, earning recent fame for a surge of tourism based on certain appreciation of what the monks have to show for their labors. Cast into the lot of self-sufficient work, the monks of the monastery spend quality time producing a uniquely superior drink that has been casting ripples lately in head circles of micro-brew enthusiasts.
Would you go on a scavenger hunt for good beer?
Some say that the brewery of St. Sixtus produces the “best beer in the world.” And so goes the delicate online opinion of BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, considered but not disputed by various writers who saw in the fame an adventurous challenge and tried it served at the abbey’s pub. Jim Deschepper of BeerTourism says specifically, “They are great beers, there is no doubt about that and they do belong in the international beer hall of fame.”
Likewise, Boston’s Steve Greenlee refers to Westvleteren as the “legendary greatest beer on earth” and goes on to say that “It’s perfect in every way.”
The fanfare can be enough to convince even unbelievers who have fallen away from faith in alcohol that the flavor of the brew possesses uncommon wonder. Who to believe?!
Being Belgium, famous for its biking lanes in busy areas, a bike path notably leads to and past the abbey. Tourists also visit Flanders Fields, a battlefield of significant World War I history famous for its poppy fields, while both types of visitors would be admitted to In de Vrede, the pub outlet that lists the product the monks brew on the menu, to try the world famous Westvleteren 12.
Local businesses in the rooming and food service sector get much of the boost from tourism, as do some of the region’s other breweries.
A brief glimpse at the taste
After taking in the greater share of what critics have to say, the chief attributes of the winning Westvleteren 12 (a.k.a. “Flemish Burgundy”) specify as sweet, fruity, and spiced. In the words of the pub’s own online splash page, the brew offers a “generous, creamy aroma and powerful caramelized and malted taste.”
With production limited to 130,000 barrels per year, demand runs at a steady pace.
Outside the abbey, Westvleteren beer shares another scene as one of the world’s six beer operations qualified to be called “Trappist,” a way of distinguishing origination from the Cistercian order. Greenlee goes on to iron out how to get the rare brew without making a formal appearance at the Belgian abbey. Just beyond, a single bottle can cost $35 via resale.
Writer John Tagliabue in The New York Times elaborates that getting the beer at the monastery was once a simple affair, but to see a 3-mile line of cars with patrons in pursuit of the brew on a good weather day now is not unusual.
And the only way to get it — specifically at a decent price and generally by the rules — would be to journey to the abbey itself.
But the monks have the highest standards in selling their beer, requiring such information as name and license plate documentation of the vehicle that the buyer arrives in. Rumor has it that they also ask that their beer not be resold.
Don’t expect to take home any great quantity in excess of one case or two at the most, as its popularity has strained production such that the best experience lies in wait only for those who visit the brewery’s for the hospitality at In De Vrede, the pub.
The monks are not brewing to compete for market share but rather specifically for funds necessary to keep Abbey St. Sixtus in regular condition. A recent offering in the American market sold 6-pack “bricks” of the beer, complete with drinking glasses, at $85 apiece to raise enough cash to repair the abbey roof.
And then there were none. The brewery returned to its exclusive arrangement of offering beer exclusively through the monastery pub organ.
The story of St. Sixtus dates back to the Cella Beborna monastery in the year 806 CE, built on the spot. In time, three other monasteries replaced it, the third resulting from an 1831 CE gathering of monks and prior hops trader Jean-Baptiste Victor, who joined the Catsburg monastery in Godewaersvelde (now French Westhoek of traditional Flanders). These monks founded St. Sixtus, a recognized “abbey” as of 1871, the same year that it was renovated.
Mindful of how money was spent, the first beer brewed was used to quench the thirst of monastery builders. Early Westvleteren beer was first produced in 1838, for trade, and the following year a brewery was added to St. Sixtus monastery. Upon resorting to trucks to deliver the beer, intervention from the Abbot Gerardus called a halt to there being anything of a wild side of devotional prayer and silent meditation and thus limited the distribution scheme to the monastery. The year was 1945.
At the direction of the abbot, brewing continued off-site at St. Bernardus monastery of Watou. The monks there were given two periods of license to be brewers using the incorporated St. Sixtus style that, upon expiring was reclaimed by St. Sixtus once again in 1992, for the law had specified that Trappist beer must be brewed by Trappist monks at a Trappist monastery, which St. Bernardus was not.
• Westvleteren 12 was not brewed until the second World War.
• St. Bernardus continues to produce their own beer to this day, said not to be dissimilar to Westvletern 12.
The six Trappist sources brew some wide variety of independent flavors. In De Vrede (Dutch for “in peace“) carries one out of a total six unique Trappist variety beers of Belgium: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle; and Westvleteren, the latter brewed in St. Sixtus abbey.
The monks at In de Vrede offer Westvleteren in three strains, Westvleteren Blonde, Bruin 8, and Bruin 12 (numbers that loosely refer to their ABV, alcohol-by-volume). More varieties are known to exist, such as Westvleteren 4 and 6 that BeerTourism claims to be on brew hiatus since 1999.
Its composition consists of three special varieties of hops and special Westmalle yeast. Beyond that, only a beer specialist with special talent for reverse engineering could say.
In operation as a brewery since 1838, early St. Sixtus monastery reverted to the up-class abbey in 1871, surviving harsh world war and debuting the famous Westvleteren Bruin 12 after the Second Devastation’s grip had ended. Popularity of the brew remains strong because of limited availability, although the pub of the abbey, In de Vrede, also offers a considerable menu of fare to complement its three beers. Only briefly did the monks offer their famous beer for sale in the USA, for the express purpose of roof renovation. With such a legendary flavor to live up to the popularity of the brew makes a good rabbit to pull out of a hat whenever times get tough. Hopefully, there will be more people who see virtue in reaching such pinnacles of refinement, who can appreciate more than just beer and use their abilities to reach some necessary peace within.