Top of the brews
Our columnist has a taste of what is considered the best beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.
WE are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks,” said the Father Abbot of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium, during the opening of the abbey’s new brewery in 1992.
“We make the beer to live, but we do not live for beer,” said one of the abbey’s monks in an interview with the UK’s The Independent back in 2005.
Why all the fuss about Abbey of Saint Sixtus and their beer? Well, that’s because the beer these reclusive monks have been brewing for over 160 years is currently regarded as THE best beer in the world.
In 2005, the abbey’s Westvleteren 12 Trappist Ale was named the Best Beer In The World by RateBeer (www.ratebeer.com), an independent beer ranking website. Till today, it is still the highest-rated beer on that site, with a perfect score of 100.
Trappist ales are beers brewed by Trappist monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. One of the factors that make Westvleteren beer so highly sought after is the fact that it is brewed and sold exclusively at the Saint Sixtus Abbey located in Westvleteren, a small village in the province of West Flanders, and regardless of how much demand there is for the beer, the monks only brew enough to financially support the operation of the abbey, and not for profits.
On top of that, Westvleteren Trappist ale is sold only to individual customers who buy it from the abbey, and resales of the beer are not permitted.
Yes, you can still get the beer in specialty beer shops all over the world, but these are usually obtained through secondary channels and would usually cost you a bomb.
So, how do you get the beer er ... legitimately then? During a recent trip to Belgium, my host – independent whisky bottler and beer enthusiast Luc Timmermans – graciously drove us to the abbey and walked us through the process of getting the beer.
According to Luc, there are only two official places you can get Westvleteren beer – the abbey’s beer shop, and the In De Vrede welcome centre opposite the abbey (Donkerstraat 12, B -8640 Westvleteren), where you can drink the beers, and visit an exhibition containing information about life in the abbey, the brewery and the brewing process (the abbey and brewery itself is off limits to the public).
If you want to buy a couple of crates of the beer to bring home however, then things start getting a little tricky. First of all, you’ll have to check the abbey’s website (http://www.sintsixtus.be/eng/brouwerij.htm) to see if they have any available. If they do, then you have to make a reservation by telephone (no, you can’t order it online), and even then, you’d have to be incredibly lucky or very, very patient.
“Please take into account that you may often get a busy signal when you call to make a reservation, due to the fact that our beer lines are overburdened!” proclaims the official website of the abbey/brewery. “Due to our small-scale production, the number of telephone calls is much greater than the number of available reservations. That means, it’s a matter of having a lot of patience as well as a lot of luck.”
If your luck is good and you manage to get through, you then need to make an appointment with the operator, and provide the licence plate number of the car you will be using to pick up the beer. Then on the day of your appointment, you’ll have to drive all the way to the abbey’s beer shop to get your beer.
To add to the exclusivity of the beer, once you’ve gotten your batch, you can’t call the abbey on the same number to order another batch for at least 60 days. And even if you use another telephone number to call in, you can’t use the same car to pick up the beer within those 60 days as well.
So, is Westvleteren Trappist beer worth all the hype and hassle one has to go through to get it? The answer is a resounding YES.
The brewery currently only brews three different beers, all served in an unlabelled bottle bearing only the words “Trappist ale”, and the only way to distinguish them from one another are the bottle caps. The green-capped Westvleteren Blonde is a 5.8% ABV ale that is served exclusively at In De Vrede. Then there is the blue-capped Westvleteren 8, an 8% ABV double Trappist ale that ranks all the way up there with some of the best beers I’ve ever had.
The crown jewel of the Westvleteren range however, is the golden-capped Westvleteren 12, a Belgian Trappist quadruple ale that contains an impressive 10.2% ABV.
Introduced by the abbey in 1940, this is the Holy Grail of all beers. This is the beer that is ranked number one on RateBeer. This is the beer that is considered the best beer in the world, so sought after that people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars just to get their hands on a bottle.
The first time I tried the beer, I couldn’t believe that a beer could be THIS good. The bouquet of rich fruits, nuts and sweet caramel honey scents; the balance of the ever-evolving flavours of malt, honey, cereals, dried fruits; and the wonderfully long and lingering caramel-bubblegum sweet aftertaste ... it was simply too complex to describe properly. And that was just the newer version of the Westvleteren 12, which was brewed in 2012.
According to the abbey website, the beers may have a “sell-by” date stamped on the caps (usually three years after its brewing date), but can last long after those dates have passed. In fact, as long as you store the bottles vertically in a dark place between 12°C and 16°C, the bottle-conditioned beers will “continue to ripen” and become even better (though this applies only to the Westvleteren 8 and 12, not the Blonde).
I got to test this theory first-hand when Luc later brought out a bottle of Westvleteren 12 brewed in 2007, which turned out to be the single greatest beer I have ever tried in my life.
It had all the flavours and richness of the 2012 brew, but with the addition of a certain balanced mellowness that exploded into a complex kaleidoscope of flavours. It was as if all the possible flavours I would expect in an ale were having a party in my mouth. And best of all, was that sweet, long, wonderful finish that lingered on long after I had finished the final sip of the beer.
Is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world? In my book, it is. Sure, there may be better tasting beers out there, but for me, it’s not just about the liquid in the bottle. Everything about it – the hype, the story of the abbey, the monks’ steadfast resolve in not selling the beer for profit, the extreme exclusivity of the beer, the long and complicated process of getting it ... all of these factors add up to make Westvleteren Trappist ale my personal greatest beer of all time.
Michael Cheang wishes he lives in Belgium just so it would be easier to get a bottle of Westvleteren.
Premium: Westvleteren Trappist ale is considered by many to be the best beer in the world.
Westvleteren Trappist ale is brewed and sold exclusively at the Saint Sixtus abbey located in Westvleteren, a small village in the province of
West Flanders, belgium.
Westvleteren Trappist ale comes in an unlabelled bottle, and the only way to differentiate its three beers is by the colour of the bottle cap.