Bless­ings of Bel­gian brew­eries

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

TAt the cafe, no reser­va­tions are needed but there is a strict limit of one six-pack a per­son a day. The monks’ brew can be sam­pled in a unique chal­ices­tyle glass for ($8) and a take­away six-pack costs

Savour­ing the com­plex ale in this cor­ner of ru­ral Bel­gium, where it was cre­ated, is be­yond price for those with a pas­sion for beer.

At the cafe, I spot at least one lo­cal farmer’s wife cradling a Westy 12, de­spite it be­ing only 10.30am. Sadly, the food here is unin­spir­ing in com­par­i­son with the beer (think cafe­te­ria-style sand­wiches).

A more sober­ing ac­tiv­ity is a pri­vate minibus tour of the re­gion’s bat­tle­fields, bunkers, craters and ceme­ter­ies ded­i­cated to the An­zac Dig­gers. Even to­day, relics of World War I abound. Out­side one farm, we spy an old shell, still live, propped against a lamp­post for po­lice col­lec­tion. We learn that the hop­grow­ing town of Poperinge, near the French bor­der, was on an im­por­tant sup­ply line dur­ing WWI but it is a large hop sculp­ture in the mid­dle of a round­about that catches our at­ten­tion.

A Bel­gian brew­ery crawl can take in five other Trap­pist op­er­a­tions dot­ted across the coun­try: West­malle, Or­val, Rochefort, Chi­may and Achel. At West­malle, the Cafe Trap­pis­ten sells the monastery’s two beer va­ri­eties (a dubbel and a tripel ), which are widely avail­able. With a su­perbly creamy head, the West­malle beer goes well with a lo­cal cheese that is made from the milk of cows fed on spent brew­ing grains, ac­com­pa­nied by a bitey mus­tard.

Achel is housed in the Achelse Kluis monastery, on the Dutch bor­der. Sig­nif­i­cantly, it of­fers a rare op­por­tu­nity to view a Trap­pist brew­ery, as Achel is sep­a­rated from its cafe by glass walls. We don’t spot any monks at work, but do ad­mire the brew­ery work­ings, in­clud­ing the stain­less-steel mash tun and boiler ves­sel, over­looked by the cru­ci­fix found at all Trap­pist brew­eries. Let’s hope their bless­ings en­sure my posted ale ar­rives home safely. www.sintsix­tus.be www.salient­tours.com HE Cus­toms in­spec­tor at Syd­ney air­port stares at the six bot­tles of beer in my open suit­case. His eyes widen­ing, he mur­murs ‘‘ Westvleteren? You’re lucky to get your hands on that, mate,’’ be­fore wav­ing me and my part­ner, Ben Bux­ton, a fel­low beer en­thu­si­ast, through. Clearly an­other con­nois­seur, the chap un­der­stands that ob­tain­ing this beer re­quires a visit to a ru­ral monastery near Ieper in south­west Bel­gium.

Ieper (Ypres in French) is a small Flem­ish city that fea­tures the im­pos­ing Cloth Hall in the main square. The city was al­most de­stroyed by shelling in World War I; it has since been re­built in its orig­i­nal me­dieval style. In com­par­i­son, the monastery of St Six­tus of Westvleteren, a lit­tle less than 20km away, is mod­est in ap­pear­ance. Next to the vil­lage school, and sur­rounded by end­less flat fields, the brick perime­ter build­ings of­fer no clue to the monastery’s as­so­ci­a­tion with world-class beer.

To those un­fa­mil­iar with the rep­u­ta­tion of th­ese Trap­pist monks, it may sur­prise that all Bel­gian monas­ter­ies of this strict Cis­ter­cian or­der house re­spected brew­eries.

One of the three beers brewed within the walls of Westvleteren is a bold bev­er­age com­pris­ing 10 per cent al­co­hol that is more rem­i­nis­cent of liq­uid Christ­mas pud­ding than beer. To put it in per­spec­tive, the two lead­ing beer-rat­ing web­sites — rate­beer.com and beer­ad­vo­cate.com— re­view about 30,000 world beers. Westvleteren 12 is at the top of both lists.

This sen­sa­tional drink is a lovely dark ma­hoganyruby colour, with many aro­mas rang­ing from port to raisins and plums.

The brew­ery, which is closed to most vis­i­tors, and the newly built Cafe In De Vrede across the road from it, are the only places where the beer can be bought. The monks brew only enough to keep the monastery run­ning and their beer reser­va­tion phone line is open for only a few ir­reg­u­lar hours through­out the year. Good luck get­ting through; you’ll also need to un­der­stand French or Flem­ish.

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