City Guides: Belgium Part 1 –Westvleteren and Oostveleteren
Preface to Belgium Part Two: Bruges
Our trip to Belgium initially began as a mission for acquiring the best beer in the world. Before I jump right into our time in Bruges, I think it’s important to provide you with some background information on our initial destination enroute to Bruges. Consider this post a condensed (but highly important) preface to our excursions in the medieval city of Bruges. I believe that fellow beer lovers will find this next bit of text to be a worthwhile read.
So, I’m sure most of you have heard that Belgium is famous for their beer. There’s no doubt that Belgium creates some of the best beer out there. What’s even more special about Belgium and their beer is their unique Trappist breweries. Housed in monasteries and brewed by monks (or at least they used to be), these beers use only the finest available ingredients and are brewed to bubbly perfection.
Trappist breweries originated in France back in 1664. When the Middle Ages rolled around, other regions of Europe caught wind of this phenomenon and jumped on board. The monks weren’t brewing beer to get drunk or to make a boatload of money; no, they started brewing to feed the community and to make just enough dinero to keep their abbeys running.
Many of the Trappist breweries were destroyed in the World Wars. Today, there are only 11 remaining Trappist breweries in the entire world, 6 of which are in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren). Some of the holy products are easily accessible around the world (e.g., Chimay beers); others are not. We were in search of the most sought after, delicious, rare brand of Trappist brew we could get our hands on, and that’s just what we did.
Our quest for rare Trappist beer began one week before we actually arrived in Belgium. I’d heard about this almost-mythical Trappist brewery located in the Middle of Nowhere, Belgium, called “Westvleteren”. Yes, you may have heard of it, especially if you’re a beer geek. Westvleteren holds the title for the best beer in the entire world, their “Westvleteren 12”.
Trappist monks from the Catsberg monastery in France founded the St Sixtus monastery (i.e., Westvleteren) in 1831. Seven years later, brewing began; however, it was only for visitors of the abbey at that time. They have never once stopped brewing since 1831, not even during the World Wars. It wasn’t until 1931 that the abbey began selling their beer to the public. Westvleteren remains the only Trappist brewery in the world where the monks still do all of the brewing themselves. The abbey does not seek to make a profit off of their world-renowned beer; they only make and sell enough to allow the abbey to continue to function.
The Westvleteren 12 has also been rated the number one sought after beer in all of the world because the abbey has a very unique philosophy on distributing their beers. Their philosophy on beer is that it should be enjoyed by everyone, and everyone should have equal opportunity to acquire the beer. This means that they do not sell mass purchases to major distributors, or anyone else, and they only sell enough beer to allow their abbey to continue functioning, no matter the demand.
Let me explain to you how the abbey works and how we came to acquire our liquid gold (although it’s actually a nice caramel brown color, but that’s beside the point).
First, one must call the monetary during a designated window of time approximately one week before a pick up can be scheduled. There are very limited phone lines to the brewery, so one must call over and over and over and over…. And over and over and over… and, well, you get the idea. On their website, I saw that I could call between 8 AM and 12 PM on a Tuesday, so that’s what I did. As a matter of fact, I called over 425 times, reaching a busy signal each time. Then, tada! Almost disbelievingly, I heard the pleasant voice of a monk pick up on the other end of the line. I almost thought someone was playing a prank on me. I actually got through? By that point, it was already 11:45 AM, and I had been sure I wasn’t going to get through (many people never do).
As posted on their website, I knew I would be arranging a pick up time for the best rated of their three beers, the Westvleteren 12 (they also have the 8 and a blonde, all amazing). Speaking perfect English, the monk asked me what my license plate number was. This is how they arrange a pick up. They don’t ask for names; the monks simply arrange pick up times based on license plate numbers. We arranged a time for the following Saturday at 2:30 PM. That was it. We were in! Although not a religious person, I nearly screamed, “Hallelujah!”
So, once you arrange a pick up time with your license plate number, that same license plate number cannot be used to acquire beer again for another 60 days, nor can the same phone number be used to make a reservation for another 60 days.
That brings us to our trip to Westvleteren. Unsure of what to expect, we embarked on our journey from a small town in Germany to the virtually non-existent “town” of Westvleteren. Calling the area a “town” is a slight exaggeration. As we approached the area, we drove down some narrow, dirt roads, past a couple of old farms, and arrived at our destination which was literally an Abbey with a small café immediately across the street; there was nothing else around to speak of.
Cool. This was neat. We were in the middle of nowhere and there’s this beautiful abbey cranking out top quality beer, two cases of which would be soon ours.
We arrived nearly two hours early, so we decided to grab some lunch at the one and only café across the street. Now, this wasn’t a bad thing. We were already told about this café by a fellow beer-loving friend. The cafe has its perks. You can order all three of the Trappist Westvleteren beers at this café and drink as many as you’d like. That’s a huge bonus for beer lovers everywhere who cannot acquire a pickup time but who want to see the brewery and try its beers; or for those of us who just wish to indulge a little.
The café, called “In de Vrede”, was incredibly busy. People come from all over the world to eat at this café, whether they are merely grabbing a quick bite to eat before their pickup time at the abbey, or they are sampling some of the famous Westvleteren beers. Ryan and I found a table quickly and immediately ordered up a Westvleteren 12 and a Westvleteren 8 to try. Both were amazing, of course.
The 12, an abbey style quad, had notes of baking spices, brown sugar, dates, and stone fruits. At a whopping 10.2% alcohol, it was surprisingly light bodied when compared with other Belgian quads. The 8 was a Belgian Dubbel style beer with similar flavors to the 12, although lighter in alcohol (8%). The medium-light bodied beer offered notes of stone fruit, vanilla, nuts, and raisons.
It was time to order some lunch. The menu, although limited, offered some tasty local treats. The majority of the menu consisted of soups; “toast”, which was essentially a piece of bread, topped with either abbey cheese, abbey Pate, or smoked ham; and grilled sandwiches with the same fillings. They also offered a very special Westvleteren ice cream that I wish we would have tried!
We ordered two toasts as a snack, one with abbey cheese and one with abbey pate. These tasty little treats were great with our beer; better yet, all of it was made by monks at the abbey next door.
It wasn’t quite time for our scheduled pickup yet, so we decided we’d better try the Westvleteren blonde beer. The blonde was much different from the 8 and the 12. Weighing in at 5.8%, this underrated Belgian blonde had a sweet Belgian yeast taste with notes of bubblegum, bananas, and light fruit. Yum, yum.
There was also a small “gift shop” at the café where one could purchase Westvleteren glassware, the abbey cheese and pate, and limited quantities of Westvleteren beer (e.g., one six pack per person).
Overall, we had a great little lunch; but, it was time to get going as our beer was waiting. If you’re interested in learning more about the In de Vrede Café, you can find a link to their website here.
To get our beer, we had to drive up to a car line. We weren’t supposed to take pictures, but I had to :):
When it was our turn, we basically pulled up our vehicle and popped our trunk. A monk grabbed two cases of beer and helped us put it in the trunk. We then drove up to the payment window, not unlike a McDonald’s window, where another monk rang us up. We paid and we were on our jolly little ways (two cases of Westvleteren 12 richer)! By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about the St Sixtus Monastery, you can visit their website here.
As if that wasn’t enough beer-filled excitement, we caught wind of yet another world renowned brewery called De Struise Brouwers in the neighboring town of Oostvleteren, not a 10 minute drive away!
Established in 2003, De Struise Brouwers was deemed the number one brewery in all of the world in 2008 (according to RateBeer). They are known for their Belgian style quads and have more recently ventured into even bigger, bolder, and more creative (not necessarily traditional) Belgian style ales. More on that in a minute.
So, De Struise Brouwers had a well-known beer shop in the center of Bruges; however, the actual brewery was located in the small town of Oostvleteren and was only open to the public on Saturdays between 2-6 PM. Guess what time it was? 3 PM on a Saturday. GREAT.
Oostvleteren could have be considered a town, unlike its neighbor, Westvleteren. With a small stretch of restaurants and homes, the sleepy town was an unassuming host to one of the best breweries in the world. The brewery was very small and was actually difficult to find, slightly hidden behind other establishments in an old renovated school building. Entering the taproom, I knew immediately that our beer tasting experience was going to be great.
There were a limited amount of seats and beer lovers of all ages enjoying the De Struise brews. It was a very casual setting; like a good beer establishment should be. At the back of the room there were 30 taps of beer including everything from spiced ales to triple IPAs to bourbon and wine barrel-aged quads. The man pouring the beer enthusiastically described each of the 30 beers to us. We decided to start by tasting four of the beers. For a small cost of one euro per glass for some of the best stuff in the world, we were on beer cloud nine.
By the end of our tasting, we tried 9 of the 30 beers; we would have liked to have tried them all, but we needed to drive to Bruges that afternoon. Some of the most delicious and unique beers were the Double Black Albert, a 26% alcohol version of De Struise Brouwers’ specialty, “Black Albert”; a quad that was aged in barrels and used peat smoked grains (it tasted very similar to a peaty, smoky, scotch), a barrel aged version of their friend’s quad, the Prearis quad and; my personal favorite, a big, barrel-aged stout (14%) called “Black Nuts”.
This was seriously an amazing brewery. In fact, I can confidently say that this is now my overall favorite brewery in the world. They just so happened to make great beers in the style that I LOVE, and they do them all extraordinarily well. I highly recommend making the short 50 minute trip from Bruges to West/Oostvletern if you are able!
Sadly, it was time to go. I hated to leave the De Struise Brouwers brewery, but I knew there were more exciting adventures ahead. Our next stop? Bruges.