A journey to Belgium for the holy grail of beers
Trappist beers are, by nature, the most holy of beers. In order to carry the designation of “authentic Trappist product,” the beer has to be brewed at an actual Trappist monastery by monks (or under their supervision) and can be sold only to raise funds for monks’ expenses and their charities. Currently, only 11 breweries qualify as Trappist and range from the four-century-old Brasserie de Rochefort in Belgium to the 4-year-old Spencer Brewery at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts.
But even in such rarefied company, one Trappist brewery stands out: the Westvleteren Brewery at the St. Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren, Belgium, home of the Westvleteren 12, the beer-geek-famous quad ale that has, multiple times over the past 15 years, been rated as the best beer in the world. And as a fairly obsessed lover of Belgian beer, I have longed for the day I would be able to tick the last box on my Belgian Trappist checklist.
Last month, I finally got my chance to place the manna to my unworthy lips. As my wife and I made our way through France on vacation, we split up and went on separate pilgrimages. She went south to the miracle waters of Lourdes, and I headed north in search of the holy libation at its source in the farmlands of western Belgium.
Of course, designating a “best beer” is ridiculous. As with many of the top-rated beers on the two most popular beer-review sites—ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com (where Westvleteren 12 is currently No. 2 and No. 24, respectively)—this one is hard to get. Unlike the other established Trappists, Westvleteren does not distribute. It is legally available only in Vleteren, which only fans the flames. To purchase a case (for approximately $48), one has to call months in advance to make an appointment to pick up at the brewery. And desperate overseas whale hunters pay more than $100 to have a six-pack shipped via dubious online retailers.
You can’t visit the brewery, and the monastery is open only for religious services. But the lively In de Vrede cafe across the street was filled when I visited with a mix of beer tourists and local day drinkers. It’s a separate operation, and the only place in the world allowed to retail Westvleteren 12 as well as the brewery’s other two styles—the Westvleteren 8 (a dubbel) and the much lighter Blond Belgian ale. Plus, it turns out, you can buy six-packs to go from the cafe’s gift shop, no reservations needed. There’s a two six-pack limit, and the cost in the cafe is about double the price of the preordered cases (I paid roughly $50 for 12 beers), but still much less than the bootleg options.
After securing my take-home bounty, I ordered a glass of the Blond as an appetizer. It was wonderful, the perfect table beer: crisp, lightly hopped, fruity and slightly earthy. I ordered the 8 to go with lunch—a gigantic slab of monk-made pâté on buttered bread—and the dark dubbel ale (8 percent ABV, and nearly as beloved by beer geeks as its bigger brother), with its caramel aroma and deeply rich flavor, was a hint of things to come.
For the main event, I retired to the patio, where the waitress smiled as she set the goblet in front of me. Like any good, big, dark Belgian beer, the 12 was a balance of caramel sweet and yeasty funk, but not too much of either. It was perfectly composed, with very little hops and lots of toffee, fruity, banana, coffee and raisin flavors trading places as it warmed up. Really smooth from start to finish. As good if not better than any quad I’ve had.
But was it the best beer? Yeah, on that day, in that cafe, with picture-perfect weather, sitting among the back-slapping Belgians, it was pretty damn perfect.