Imagine you can have access to the best beer in the world. According to RateBeer, the Westvleren beer has an overall rating of 99 out of 100. This Belgian beer is made by Trappist monks in a small place called Vleteren. Ever wondered how it works to get your hands on a beer that only locally brewed and in such a small batches? Does it live up to its name in terms of overall taste and quality? In this blogpost, I want share my buying experience in text and pictures.
Trappist abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren: Its beers and the abbey
First, I wanted to share some general information about the beers that the monks create, and the abbey because it is so unique, yet intriguing.
Saint Sixtus Abbey
Why the beer is so rare is because the monks only brew one day a week. The key goal of the monks is to make extremely high quality beer, without exception. At the other hand, the monks only want to sell beer in order to: “financially support the monastery and other philanthropic causes“.
As every man we must be able to live. So we have to try to earn our living and let others share in what we have to abstain from. Indeed, we have to live ‘from’ and ‘with’ our brewery. But we do not live ‘for’ our brewery. This must be strange for business people and difficult to understand that we do not exploit our commercial assets as much as we can. We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.Father abbot. sintsixtus.be
The 3 beers
There are three beers that are brewed. The types can be distinguished by the colour of the cap: the bottels don’t contain any label printed on it.
Westvleteren Blonde 6
The Westvleteren 6 is recognised by its green cap and alcohol percentage of 5.8%.
“Westvleteren Extra” is the former name of this beer with the blue cap and 8,0% alcohol.
A stronger beer (10,2%) with a yellow cap on the bottle.
|Beer||Westvleteren Blonde 6||Westvleteren 6||Westvleteren 12|
|Also known as||/||“Westvleteren Extra”||“Abtsbier” or ” Vlaamse Bourgogne”|
|Taste||Lightly fruity, bitter||Malt taste, bitter||Raisin sweet|
|Price||35 EUR||40 EUR||45 EUR|
These bottles don’t contain a label. Instead, the coloured cap of the Westvleteren beers contain all necessary information about the beer, such as its alcohol percentage and ingredients.
The price listed above includes the deposit for empty goods:
- Wooden crate = 12,60 EUR
- Each bottle = 0,10 EUR
When returning the crate(s) and/or bottle(s), this amount is returned to the customer.
Why I wanted to buy Westvleteren beer
If you are a citizen of China, United States, Japan, … such a beer is very hard to come by as it can only be picked up at the brewery premises. But in my case, given I only live an hour away by car, I wanted to taste it myself and go ahead and order it online and go pick it up myself. I took half a day off at work and jumped in my car earlier today to see what all the hype is about.
The Westvleteren Abbay of Saint Sixtus is located in Belgium, not far from the French border. From my home, it is about a 1 hour drive.
The Westvleteren beers have been awarded so many times and have received a lot of media attention. It is only logical that a as a Belgian – even though we already have plenty of very good beers – I’m proud of what we make and are recognised for.
Westvleteren is also unique as it is a ‘Trappist Beer‘. Such as beer can only be called a Trappist Beer when it meets all these criteria:
- the brewery must be in a monastery;
- the monks must play a role in its production;
- the policies and the profits from the sale must be used to support the monastery or social programs outside.
Westvleteren does tick all of these boxes. In the whole world, only 12 such places exist that can call their beers ‘Trappist’: half of these places can be found in Belgium (i.e. Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle).
While I’m not a heavy beer drinking in any way, it’s still very nice to try a new taste – while having the joy in sharing it with family and friends. Because believe it or not, most Belgians have never tasted any of the 3 Westvleteren beers in their lives!
The order process: How to buy Westvleteren
It’s important to note that you can’t just show up at the brewery of Westvleteren and hope you will be sold a crate of beer. Tourists by bus or locals by bikes often turn up, only to leave disappointed because this is it not how it works. The monks recently switched to an online webshop, where on specific dates, you can place an online order.
Order Westvleteren online
While the website of the Abbey itself can be found via https://sintsixtus.be/ (Dutch website, but there is an option to have it translated to your native tongue), the actual website to order their beers is different: https://www.trappistwestvleteren.be/en (yay, English is native supported).
You will need to register an account on their site when you have the intend to buy beer, and have to include your license plate for picking up your order.
Be aware that there are ‘opening hours‘ to order your beer: only during a couple of hours per month, the shop is open for new orders. Check out their calendar to know more. I suggest creating a reminder for yourself so that you are on time when the shop opens.
If you are visiting the order page during the opening time of the web-shop, you will enter a queue and can make your selection only during a 10 minute time window – after which your position will be become invalid. I heard some people mention this looks somewhat like another Belgian phenomenon; Tomorrowland.
Once successfully ordered (don’t worry, the order process itself on the site is quite straightforward), you will receive a confirmation e-mail which contains an attachment. Print it and keep it safe, it contains a QR-code which you will need later on! A digital copy on your phone may work fine as well, but I haven’t tried it in any case.
Picking up my order
There must have been some ‘competition’ when ordering the beers online, as I only had a few options to choose from when selecting a pick-up date. So, unfortunately, I had to pick a weekday and hence I had to take half a day off work. What a dedication, right? 🙂
While the queue seems rather small, each car takes about 5 full minutes to be served fully up until the next car is instructed to enter the pick-up building.
When driving from my home to the township of Vleteren, I drive across the city Kortijk. But once I pass Kortrijk, the roads become more and more rural. During quite a bit of the ride, I’m calling my brother so I’m not completely focused on the environment. But at a given moment, the navigation indicates my destination is almost reached… but I’m at the middle of nowhere.
At one point, I see a small school ‘De Akker’, and right next to it the buildings of the monks. From that moment on, it’s clear what to do next: there are a number of cars waiting in a U-shape driveway at the pick-up location.
The friendly man at the counter allows me to take a quick picture of a pile of crates. The crates of beer are neatly ordered per type of beer and all contain the text TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN and AUTHENTIC TRAPPIST PRODUCT.
In my view, the crate is surprisingly ‘low’. A regular plastic Stella Artois crate is as high as the bottle itself (and a bit). These wooden crates that hold the Westvleteren bottles are only high enough for these bottles to not . I don’t have a clue as to why this is the case, perhaps they wanted to save money? For now, let’s just call this an optimised approach as a minimum of wood is needed to create a crate.
Exploring the area
Once I picked up the beers, it’s time to explore a bit what can be found near that pick-up location. I was parked at the small parking (next to an international audience: cars from France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and the likes) at the street.
The abbey itself is a simple, yet symmetrical building with 3 statues. Hidden behind it are the houses of the monks, or at least that’s what I suppose. I didn’t really explore this area as it seemed too intrusive for the people living their.
‘In De Vrede’
About 100 meters further across the street, there is a cafe/brasserie called ‘In De Vrede‘. Literal translation is ‘In The Peace’. This is a small yet peaceful tourist centre, and a ‘node’ for biking. Given it’s rural location, this is an excellent biking area for sure!
In De Vrede is a cafe with indoor and outdoor seating, where you can… yes, order a Westvleteren (needless to say, it is served in a fitting glass). Just like a Hardrock Cafe, this place also has a merchandise shop. This small shop, operated by a single person, sells a modest variety of local products. Cookies, candy, cheese, … and beer is all being sold here.
As a ‘tourist in my own country’, I bought some things, just like the guy from The Netherlands in front of me who paid with his Apple Watch (which worked just fine).
- A piece of cheese (goes well with the beer)
- 6 original glasses (the regular ones, not the small ones)
- A ‘gift box‘ (i.e. 2 bottles of beer and one glass, in a gift box)
With a trunk full of delicious, exclusive things, it was time to go home again!
Tips and tricks: Serving and tasting a Westvleteren
If ever you can get your hands on a this beer, you may want to know more about how to best serve and taste Westvleteren. Don’t just go ahead and drink it from the bottle ad fundum.
First of all, the 8 and 12 beers can be kept in their bottle for quite some time (‘ageing’). Some say they even get better when you do so (if you can wait that lone :-)). It will continue to ripe in its bottle, adding additional flavours.
Second important point is that the beers don’t need refrigerating. While you would do this with a Vedett or Stella Artois, the beers are at their best when you keep them at ‘cellar temperature‘. So let’s say you have a wine cellar, or a cool room in your house, those are much better places to store this beer than your fridge. On their website, the monks mention a temperature between 12 and 16 degrees Celsius. The beer will have less taste when it’s too cold.
Equally as important as the temperature is the position: always store it vertically, not horizontal. Personally, I would keep the beers in the wooden crate at all times and store it as is.
As last ‘tip and trick’ for your Westvleteren drinking experience: be gentle when poring out your Trappist Beer. Take your time and give the beer the chance to breath.
And now, before you dig in, remember what the monks say: “Trappist is not something you drink. You taste it!“.