Brewery Snapshot: Westvleteren 12 at Sint Sixtus Abbey in Belgium
On Monday, I began a new series on the blog covering my trip to Belgium last spring. On Tuesday, terrorists launched a series of cowardice attacks in Brussels. My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Belgium.
Based on the advice from friends, I considered delaying the series. However, as I pondered this decision, the justification for not publishing the articles became more and more unclear. Was it out of sensitivity for the grieving nation or a delay until tensions settle? Both seemed like bogus reasons.
Who knows when tensions will cease. As the French Prime Minister declared, Europe is at war against terrorism. As for sensitivity towards Belgium, writing about the country’s rich culture hardly seems like a dishonor to the people. Quite the contrary. My coverage aims to celebrate their heritage by sharing their cuisine and beer with the world.
In the end, I decided to continue forth with my coverage as planned. To bury my stories only allows the terrorists to win. We cannot live in fear. We cannot be afraid to travel to Belgium or France or anywhere else in Europe. I didn’t live in fear when 9/11 happened. I traveled to Washington, DC shortly after the attacks on our shores and moved there two months later.
My desire with this series is to do what I set out to do in the first place: to inspire and help travelers to continue with their explorations of this great nation.
In this edition of Brewery Snapshot, I visit Sint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium – home to what many like RateBeer describe as the best beer in the world. Whether it’s the best beer in the world, well, you’ll have to read my post or visit the brewery itself to find out. However, I do believe the scarcity lends more than a bit to the esteem of the beer.
Sint Sixtus Abbey is one of 10 beer producing Trappist monasteries in the world. Of all the Trappist breweries, they produce the least amount of beer a year – just under 26,000 gallons as opposed to Chimay, the largest, which produces about 3.2 million gallons a year. The Sint Sixtus monks have no desire to brew more. Their intention is to make enough to sustain their abbey and life of prayer. Given the small amount of beer the brewery produces, it’s next to impossible to purchase the coveted ale.
Beer pilgrims can’t actually sample the beer at the monastery / brewery. Instead, the abbey operates a café across the street – In De Vrede. It’s here where beers pilgrims can purchase beer by the glass, or, if you’re luck like I was and are in the café on a rare day they’re selling to the public, purchase a six-pack to go (limit of two).
The other option is to reserve a case 60 days in advance over the Sint Sixtus beer line. Good luck, though. Operating hours aren’t posted. One guy I met at In De Vrede tried for five weeks before a disgruntled monk answered the phone. He drove from Rome to purchase his case.
>>> Book a hotel near Sint Sixtus Abbey! <<<
It’s easy to come to Westvleteren and get wrapped up in just the beer.
It’s why many of us make the journey – to try the best beer in the world. The halls and patio of In De Vrede are filled with customers from around the world making their beer pilgrimage. Many stop at the café and never venture further.
The beer entrances you and conversation starts amongst beer travelers. The talk begins with the Blond Ale, which should be your starter beer. It’s necessary to open up the palate for what’s to come.
It’s also the most perfect blond in the world. The fragrance is bright, floral, fruity, yeasty, and bready. I picked out banana and cloves. The taste delivered even more perfection. The light carbonization dances on the tongue and the clean flavors come to life with a slight hop finish. The 5.8% gets you talking more. The beer hunter bragging begins with stops along the pilgrimage.
You’ll want to order Westvleteren 8 with your meal since the menu is rather light (read deli sandwiches), and the Westvleteren 12 will overpower almost everything but the cheese plate. Westvleteren 8 is also a tease for the Holy Grail that awaits you in Westvleteren 12. You can wait though – they won’t run out. Westvleteren 8 is the little brother of Westvleteren 12. The nose is breadier and delivers less caramel.
For dessert, order the ice cream (the best thing on the menu) with shaved ice made from Trappist beer. It pairs surprisingly well with Westvleteren 12 and a sundrenched afternoon on the patio. Get ready for a moment of silence as conversation breaks as each pauses to reflect on the beer in a euphoric meditation. It is brewed by monks after all…
The bouquet easily put me in a meditative trance. The beer is their art, and it’s beautifully painted. The aroma offers a melody of spice, dried fruits, and caramel notes with a distinction you’ll never catch a perfume of again (unless you buy some). I wish I could describe more what it tastes like but I can’t. The beer is balanced to perfection like a harmonious chant. Nothing sings out. Every piece hums it’s part of praise. This is truly the most perfect beer.
>>>Headed to Europe? Check out my European Packing Guide!<<<
Please don’t let your trip to Sint Sixtus Abbey stop at In De Vrede Café.
Most people sip their beer and head to other breweries on their checklist. This is a bad idea for two reasons. First, these are large pours of strong beers. A responsible drinker won’t drive or even get on a bicycle. Second, the grounds are too beautiful. Spend a couple of hours exploring what inspired the monks to craft the harmonious perfection. In the visitor’s center are maps of various walks along the property and within the region. At the very least, check out the Lourdes Cave.
To the right of the abbey is a trail that leads through a wooded patch. At the end of the trail is an altar – the Lourdes Cave – carved into a stone mound with benches to sit and contemplate. Use this time to allow your beer inspired muse to further reflect on beer and life. I lingered for more than moment, as did many others.
Behind the altar are simple carvings of the Stations of the Cross. Tucked behind one of the stations on the right is a narrow trail that continues to the hops fields. The path then continues through the countryside, many more hops fields, and a World War II cemetery, before wrapping up where you started at In De Vrede. It’s a pleasant, relaxing afternoon to not only sip one of the best beers in the world, but to also explore the region.
Brewery Snapshot is a new series on the blog where I review a brewery that really captured my attention. Unlike my Brewery Spotlight series, which takes deeper look at a brewery through behind the scenes tours and interviews, Brewery Snapshot is meant to provide a brief overview of what the brewery offers and why you should visit / seek out their beers.
Have you drank Westvelteren 12? Did you think it was the best beer in the world?