Posted in Beer Culture, Breweries

The Holy Grail of Belgian beer

Muslims visit Mecca; baseball fans visit Fenway Park; Disney fans go to Disney World; wine fans go to Napa Valley. Beer fans (freaks?) visit Westvleteren, Belgium.

Sint-Sixtusabdij – Westvleteren, Belgium

Westvleteren is a town inside the small municipality of Vleteren in the middle of nowhere in Western Belgium. The municipality counts just under 4,000 people but is also home to one of the most famous and sought-after breweries in the world: Westvleteren Brewery, a brewery founded in 1836 inside the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren.

Their Westvleteren 12 (aka Westy 12), a quadruple-style beer, rates #3 on and #49 on Beer Advocate with a score of 100. Many articles have even called it the best beer in the world.

The monks brew three different beers: Trappist Westvleteren Blond, Trappist Westvleteren 8 and Trappist Westvleteren 12. The abbey is still vetted as a Trappist abbey and holds that appellation. Currently, 12 breweries hold the coveted appellation in the world, 5 of which are Belgian. The International Trappist Association is a Belgian organization that oversees the appellation and its requirements.

In de Vrede – Westvleteren, Belgium

From the AIT website: “To be able to use the label on one of its Trappist® products, the abbey submitting an application to the AIT must meet these three strict criteria:

  • All products must be made within the immediate surroundings of the abbey;
  • Production must be carried out under the supervision of the monks or nuns;
  • Profits should be intended for the needs of the monastic community, for purposes of solidarity within the Trappist Order, or for development projects and charitable works.”

My experience?

I met up with my dad in Brussels and dragged him all the way to Vleteren, a 3-1/2-hour roundtrip from where he lives. I was super excited to be able to visit the one brewery the most common of beer drinkers will never get to see. Not sure he found the trip to be quite as exciting. I’m the only beer freak in the family if you can believe that.

Trappist Westvleteren Blond at In de Vrede – Westvleteren, Belgium

As you may expect, the abbey, like all other Trappist abbeys, is closed to the public. I had tried ordering a case of beer for pickup online, but it proved way too hard in the little time I had. Instead, I went to the ONLY other place where the sale of the three Westvleteren beers is legal: the place across the street from the abbey, a tavern named In de Vrede.

We first stopped by the tiny gift shop to make sure they’d have enough of what I wanted before sitting down to get a bite to eat. At the gift shop, I tried to get a sticker for my collection. Strike one. Then I tried to get a t-shirt. Strike two (though I got a t-shirt of In de Vrede). I was able to score in the beer department, which is what I was there for in the first place so… SCORE!

We then proceeded to the dining area and ordered a charcuterie board. Let me tell you; they have a different idea of what a charcuterie board should look like in Europe. That thing was packed with awesome meats and cheeses. It was practically a meal for two. We also sipped on the Westvleteren Blond and the Westvleteren 8. What a treat!

Was it worth the trip? Absolutely! Is the beer delicious? Certainly! Is the scarcity part of the hype?…. I’d have to say so. But all in all, I’d recommend putting this place on your beer bucket list if you have one.

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Yours truly, MTB Head Brewer Ryan Woodroof and MTB Brewer Josh Hmieleski enjoying the Trappist Westvleteren 12

I brought back a total of 6 bottles of Westvleteren 12. I had originally bought 8 but gave one to may dad and one to my Belgian friend Christophe. Though he lives in Belgium, he had never tried it and was ecstatic. Of the 6 I brought back to the US I gave one to my friend Frank, who watched my dog for two weeks while I was away. I shared two of the bottles with the brewers at my work, Mother Tucker Brewery.

Head brewer Ryan and brewer Josh were both super excited and loved the beer. We drank it side by side with our collaboration with Locavore Beer Works, Wesley 12 Belgian Quad. Late last year I brewed this collaboration beer with Mother Tucker Brewery and Locavore Beer Works and named it after Westy 12 (Westvleteren 12) and my dog Wesley, who has become sort of a mascot at both breweries. Though our take on the Belgian Quad is not as complex as the original Westy 12, it holds up! I guess those monks have been at it for hundreds of years, and their experience is unrivaled. Also, we’ll never be able to use the same yeast… The color, however, is pretty much spot on. We are also missing a bit of that raisin/wood aroma and flavor that are present in the Westy 12, but it’s a fantastic effort nonetheless!