Blessings of Belgian breweries
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.