Anyone who’s been getting a bit tired of the last few ‘blog entries being primarily about beer can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s almost over. But not QUITE yet. We’ve got one more very important beer topic to cover:
Our visit to the Abbey of St. Sixtus near Westvleteren, Belgium.
Step one was a train to the city of Ieper (or Ypres to most Canadians and Kiwis… The fomer is the Dutch name, the latter the French one, which was more commonly used by Commonwealth forces during WWI.) Ieper was the focus of three large First World War battles, including the second battle of Ypers, which saw the first large scale use of chemical weapons on the western front, and the battle of Passchendale, one of the bloodiest of the war.
All that is far in the past now. The city has been re-built in fine imitation of its original medieval style, and the surrounding countryside has been restored to its peaceful, pastoral (if still rather muddy) self.
A church in Kortrijk, where we had a quick stop while changing trains on our way to Ieper
We took a walk from the station in Ieper to the town centre. It was a Sunday afternoon and the city was positively abuzz with action. Generally shops in Belgium are closed on Sundays, but in the leadup to Christmas they were open for business. In the town centre, the Christmas market was in full swing, complete with a skating rink (whose chillers were struggling in vain to keep up with the unseasonably warm weather.)
After our stroll we set ourselves up in a comfy, cozy cafe where we met our Couchsurfing host, Aagje, who very kindly showed us around its sights before we headed back to her home in Westvletern village for the night.
Sarah’s coffee at the cafe in Ieper. Those Belgians really know how to serve a hot drink with style (any drink actually… my beer came on a similar tray with a tiny platter of cheese and sausage!)
Canadian and New Zealand (of the Maori Battalion) war graves at the small cemetery we visited in Ieper
The monument to all the allied soldiers killed in action near Ieper whose bodies were never recovered. The sheer size of the monument and the number of names were shocking. There seemed to be no end.
The same monument from a different, more cheerful angle
Before the first world war the Cloth Hall was Ieper’s largest and most notable structure. And it still is today, having been reconstructed, almost brick for brick, according to the original design
Before getting into the story of our next day in Westvleteren, a bit more explanation of why we were there at all:
The abbey of St. Sixtus produces three different beers, #12, #8 and Blonde. All three of these are highly regarded amongst beer lovers, and the #12 in particular is regularly rated “the best beer in the world” on the two biggest beer rating websites.
It’s also (at least in part because of its reputation) notoriously difficult to get. The brewery is one of seven Trappist breweries in the world, breweries run by Cistercian monks who, by the rules of their order, may only sell their beers in order to raise funds for the operation of their monasteries or for other charitable works. Of all the Trappist breweries, the monks of St. Sixtus take the strictest line on this rule, producing enough (and only enough) beer to keep their monastery going.
These two factors have led to a situation of very high demand and very low supply. The monks produce a mere 475000L per year (by way of comparison, there are plenty of individual breweries [not brewing companies] in Canada that produce that much in a single DAY.) All of this means that buying Westvleteren beers is a challenging process. One must first make a reservation to buy beer by phone. Reservations can be made up to one week in advance, to buy at most two crates of 24 bottles each. However making a reservation isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, because there’s only one of the brothers manning the phone, and only for a few hours a day, meaning that we spent three mornings on the phone re-dialling as fast as we could, rarely even getting an actual busy signal, before finally making our reservation.
Not only are reservations tough to make, you can’t make them too often: reservations are only accepted from a given phone number once per sixty days, and the same vehicle can only come to the monastery to make a pickup once every two months as well. Further, you can’t specify which beer you want: each week there is only one type of beer available for purchase at the monastery, so if you’re looking for #12 specifically you have to wait until a week when they’re taking reservations for that specific beer (or just get lucky, which is what we did.)
So difficult is the process of buying Westvleteren beers that even Aagje, who lives in Westvleteren said that she’d been trying to get one for a few weeks, and that we were very lucky to have managed!
The Westvleteren village church
So it wasn’t easy, but on a sunny Flanders morning, Sarah and I emptied out our backpacks (to make room for the beer) set out on foot for the 5km walk to the abbey. When we arrived there was already a queue of cars outside, so we headed across the street to the In Der Vrede (“In Peace”) cafe across the street, which, other than the monastery is the only place you can legitimately buy Westvleteren beers. There we got a sneak preview of our abbey purchase, enjoying one of each of the three Westvleteren brews, as well as some cheese made by the monks of the abbey as well. We also managed to snag a six pack of Westvleteren blonde to go (as is sometimes possible, but in much smaller quantities and at 250% of the price it’s available for across the road at the abbey itself.)
Afterwards we headed back across the road to the now empty pickup point. One of the brothers was helping a woman load up her car and asked for the name our reservation was under. He looked it up and said “go ahead and pick up two crates.”
We went inside, paid our 78 Euros (very reasonable, given that re-sold Westvleteren 12 often goes for 15 Euros PER BOTTLE) added a four pack of branded glasses to our haul and received the receipt including a printed request from the monks of the monastery that we not re-sell their beer.
We popped back to the pub to say goodbye to some friends we’d made over lunch and they very kindly offered us a lift back to town, which was something of a relief, as it would have been a much more tiring walk back what with 33kg of fragile cargo in our packs!
The Westvleteren countryside. Partway through our walk I realized there are probably parts of southern Ontario that are pretty much indistinguishable from this, so I stopped taking photos
The Abbey of St. Sixtus (I’ve actually been unable to figure out exactly who the “Saint Sixtus” referred to in the name of the abbey was. There were three early popes named Sixtus, as well as a Bishop of Reims. The second of the popes was martyred, which may make him the best candidate.)
Me with Trappist beers (blonde and #8) and trappist cheese (something like gouda) in the In De Verde cafe.
Picking up a crate of the good stuff.
So the big question is, what was the beer like?
At dinner that night we cracked open the first of our #12s, as well as a couple of the blondes, which Aagje preferred. And in fact I think we preferred too. It was light and bright, with a solid, bitter hop backbone and just the right amount of phenolic Belgian yeast aroma and flavour. With little doubt this is the best Belgian pale ale I’ve ever had.
The twelve meanwhile was a different beast altogether. Caramel, raisin and alcohol nose. Sweet, rich and boozy on drinking (10.2% ABV…) It was a very good strong, dark Belgian ale. Was it the best beer I’d ever had? Clearly no. Was it the best strong dark Belgian beer I’ve ever had? Closer. It WAS a very good beer, though I certainly wouldn’t say it’s clearly better than the similar Rochefort 10. In the end, it was more about the rarity of the beer and, more importantly the experience of heading to the monastery to pick it up.
After dinner we took a trip out to yet another charming, gothic village/town square, this time the one in the Veurne where we had a pleasant evening stroll around the town centre and its quiet (eerie almost!) gardens.
The epilogue of our Belgian trip took place the next day. We said goodbye to Aagje (and her bunny, Marbel) and headed back across Flanders in the direction we’d come from. We were actually planning to leave the country entirely, but had just enough time for a three-hour stopover in Bruges (or Brugge. Once again, English speakers most commonly use the French name, while the people who live there use the Flemish one.)
Brugges is one of the most touristed cities in Belgium. Indeed, in western Europe. When we arrived it was still fairly early in the morning, but by the time we’d completed our walking tour the main square was absolutely packed with tour groups. As was De Halve Maan (the Half Moon) brewery, which was our final (beer) stop in Belgium.
Me carrying our crate of beer to the post office. It was even heavier than a regular crate of beer, as the Trappist bottles are meant to contain high carbonation AND to be reused many times.
Bruges famous Belfry.
The Belfry from another angle, along with some of the city’s famous canals
My first, and only, frites in Belgium, home of frites.
Glasses emptied of de Halve Maan Dubbel.
That afternoon we caught a train to Antwerp, and thence further north still (on the same train we’d taken to the beer festival in Essen as it turned out) across the border to Breda in the Netherlands.
We owe a huge thank you to Aagje. Without her our journey to Westvleteren would have been entirely impossible.
Sarah, Aagje and I at dinner. Sadly there are no photos of Marbel (or her kitty Toulouse) as all the ones we have are pretty fuzzy (and in a bad, photographic sense, not in a good, cute animal sense.)
Tags: Belgium, Bruges, Brugge, Ieper, St. Sixtus, Travel, Vleteren, Westvleteren, Westvleteren 12, Ypres