Westvleteren's Quiet Way
Having one of your beers judged as the best in the world is an honour most breweries would give their eye teeth for. But for one brewery it was not such good news.
When a leading internet beer site bestowed the honour on Westvleteren’s Abt, the subsequent media and consumer attention it generated created serious problems for the poor, unassuming Belgian monks that brew it.
The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren was founded in 1831, when a handful of brothers from the nearby abbey of Catsberg broke away and set up their own fraternity in an area of flat fields and woodland in West Flanders.
Despite the tragedies of two world wars that have raged through their backyard, the abbey has grown and flourished.
Brewing has been part and parcel of life here since the early days, offering nourishment in times of fasting and, as at the other Trappist monasteries that brew, also providing financial input, a revenue stream that helps keep the abbey ship-shape and supports worthy local causes.
In Its Place
But, more than at any other Trappist monastery, the brewery at Westvleteren is kept well and truly in its place. Indeed, in the 1940s, Abbot Dom Gerardus Deleye decided to cut back production. The tail was not going to wag this dog.
For a number of years, Saint Sixtus beers were also brewed under licence by the St Bernardus brewery, a few miles away, but the agreement drew to a close in 1992 and now – although St Bernardus’s own abbey beers make excellent substitutes – the monks’ own beer is only brewed at the monastery itself.
A new brewhouse was added at the turn of the 1990s but the output is still capped at 4,800 hectolitres (just under 3,000 imperial barrels) a year. It’s no good asking for more, they won’t brew any. What’s more, they don’t distribute the beers either.
If you want to buy some, you have to telephone the abbey at a given time (and no other: consult the schedule of what’s available, and when, on the abbey’s website) and – assuming you actually get through – place an order.
You will then be given a small allowance, if you’re lucky and if you promise to keep it for personal consumption and not sell it commercially.
The alternative is to do what I did – make your way to Westvleteren and call into the abbey’s own café, just across the road. Here you can drink the beer on site, or pick up a bottle or two to take away, but again you won’t be able to fill the boot of your car.
Café ‘In de Vrede’ (‘In Peace’) is not what you’d expect to find at a hallowed religious establishment. It looks a bit like a modern church from the outside but inside it’s airy and barn-like. It was constructed in 1999 to replace an older one that the monks considered too noisy and disruptive for their lifestyle.
The style is open-plan cafeteria – so don’t expect closeted charm – seating 250 people inside and another 200 in the open air. Attached to the eating and drinking area is a small museum of abbey life, accessible free of charge.
Just because the bar is effectively the brewery tap doesn’t mean it can abuse its position when it comes to doling out the precious beers. Manager Philip De Backer (pictured left) – who is not himself a monk – is given an annual allowance of Westvleteren products and has to use it wisely.
Priority is given to sales for consumption in the café itself, and this means that, while the shop often has bottles to take away, it doesn’t always. ‘I have to make sure I don’t run out beer,’ he says, ‘which has happened’.
So what is it about the beers that makes them so craved after by beer nuts? No doubt their rarity counts for a lot. You always want what you can’t get. But that would be to overlook the quality of the beers themselves.
These are brewed only from pale malts. The dark colour seen in two of the beers is the result of the addition of dark candy sugar. The hops are the Northern Brewer strain and yeast used comes from fellow Trappist brewery Westmalle.
On my visit to In de Vrede (pictured below), I settled down with a glass of the beer simply known as 8 – a throwback to the old way of declaring approximate strength – which was beautifully served in a branded chalice with a downy duvet of foam.
It was sweet and warming to taste, yet with a robust bitterness, too. Malt and brown sugar flavours led the way, with spicy, earthy notes emerging, alongside winey, raisin fruitiness. Sugary the finish may have been, but it was also drying and robustly bitter at the same time, leaving a sappy hop character.
I also managed to try the relatively new Blonde. This was only introduced when the new café was built and it replaced a brown number 6. The monks had brewed a blonde for their own consumption previously, but at a mere 4%.
They upped their game to create this 5.8% replacement and now no longer brew a weaker beer for private consumption. Unlike the darker Westvleteren beers, which are designed to improve with bottle conditioning and years of maturity, the Blonde is meant to be drunk young and fresh.
The taste is bitter and herbal but with enough honeyed sweetness for balance and with traces of Ovaltine in the malt. Soft, full, honeyed malt flavours linger in the slowly drying, herbal, increasingly bitter, warming finish. It’s not, by any means, your typical sugary continental blond.
Top of the Range
It was the top of the range product known simply as Abt (‘Abbot’), or by the number 12, that set the internet buzzing a few years ago and caused such a commotion for the peace-loving brotherhood.
Abt packs plenty of punch at 10.2% ABV and, in many ways, it’s the archetypal nightcap beer, one to sip at leisure, allowing the alcohol to loosen your tensions and free up the mind for reflection.
Like all great beers, it keeps you interested at all times, from the tart, fruity, malty nose to the bittersweet, malty finish with herbal hops. In between, strange herbal flavours wash over full malt with its creamy, nutty notes. There’s also a spicy, peppery character, some dried fruits and a rummy sweetness.
The packaging – as for all the Westvleteren beers – is minimalist. As there is no marketing of the product, there is little call for labels on the bottles. All the information is crammed onto the bottle cap.
Having flipped that cap and taken full advantage of the contents, I can confirm that the internet judges were right. Westvleteren Abt is indeed a great beer.
If you see it on sale, don’t miss it, but please don’t hassle the monks. They lead a quiet life and that’s how they want it to stay.
Note: Check the In de Vrede website for up-to-date opening hours. It is generally closed every Friday throughout the year and also every Thursday, except in July and August. It may also close for long periods at other times of the year.