Westvleteren: A Beer Journey – Belgium, Europe
There are seven beers in the world brewed by Trappist Monks – six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands (one monastery, Achel, is not shown) – Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Achel, Westmalle and La Trappe (Schaapskooi) are commercially available. In Portland, Oregon, they can be found at either Wild Oats or our specialty beer shop, Belmont Station.
Quest for the elusive trappist beer
This is a tale of my quest for the elusive Trappist beer, one whose mystical legend has grown and whose elusive flavors are considered to be the best in the world. This is the tale to obtain and quaff the beer of beer – Westvleteren.
Up until last year, I had never heard of Westvleteren. Being a beer geek, I was familiar with the other, more easily obtained Trappist beers, but the "Westy" was only drawn to my attention because of the beer website, BeerAdvocate, which put the Westvleteren 12 (the 12 being an abbreviated specific gravity reading, making the beer about 10.2%ABV) at its number one spot of best beers in the world.
Westvleteren beer is not marketed
Trappist beers are special, brewed by monks who put their heart and soul into these fine ales, many are considered works of art. Certainly, of the beers widely available, they are considered some of the best in the world. Most of the monasteries have signed distribution deals to get their beers to as wide a market as possible, but not the Westvleteren. You can only obtain their beers (they brew the aforementioned 12, an 8 and a Blond Ale) at the monastery in western Belgium. On the receipt they state very plainly that their beers are not for sale, personal use only.
Because of the beer websites and the rarity of these beers, a furor has been created. There are reports of mile-long car lines at the monastery, people selling cases of the beers on Ebay for $200.00 (they cost $50.00 at the monastery) and many companies trying to distribute the beers. But the monks have stuck to their guns. They only brew enough beer to maintain the monastery and lead their peaceful existence within its walls. Their beers have no labels, are simply packaged, the monks letting their craft speak for itself.
Great demand for these beers has made the monks set up a phone reservation system. I was in the area last November, I figured I would be able to stop by the monastery and pick up some beer. No way. You have to call the monk hot line, which will tell you when to call back to reserve the beer. You call back on the day and time they said on the first message and reserve the beer by giving your name or car plate number. They will let you know when you can pick up the beer. Upon arrival, you're allowed to load up to three cases. That's it! It's a complicated system. Only one beer is available at a time, based on the season (the strong 12 in the winter, the 8 in the fall and spring and the blond during the summer).
Calling hot line
My friend, Tyson, and I had planned a trip to Amsterdam from April 1 to 6. I was going to do everything to get some of this beer when we were there, even though it's a four-hour drive from the canal city. Two weeks prior to our departure, I called the hot line. The message is in Dutch and French. If you know the secret (thanks random internet site!), you can push "3" and the message is in broken English. The message said for reservations for the 12 (Yes, that's the one I want!), call between 9:00 a.m. and noon on March 26. I was giddy with delight.
I read on the net that the monks only have one phone line. The number of people calling can sometimes make the wait two hours to get through. On the 26th, at 9:00 a.m. Belgium time, I dialed. After a half hour of busy signals, I pulled out my cell phone and tried two phones at once! Felt like a gangsta mob bookie taking numbers. After another 30 minutes of two phone actions, I heard a ring! I was shaking, so nervous. Mr. Monk picked up.
"Do you speak English?"
"Can I reserve three crates of the 12?"
"Ok, what's your car registration number?"
"Well, I will be in a rental car. Can I give you my name? Nick Wusz – WUSZ."
"Ok, what day will you come?"
"Oh, is April 4 ok?"
"Yes. You will be here fourteen fifteen hours."
"So, fourteen fifteen, 2:15 on April 4?"
"Ok, thank you!"
That's it. They are reserved and the reality is…
That's it. They are reserved! I'm so happy. It was 1:00 a.m., I was fully awake, I felt very close to my dream of quaffing this elusive elixir.
Reality = (How do we get these beers back home) + (How do we get out there)? It's weird to think about planning for something 10 days, 10,000 miles away, to get to a certain destination at 2:15 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon.
The big day
It was April 4 in Amsterdam. I was prepared for this driving adventure, I had been looking forward to this day since we arrived. Taking a break from sightseeing in Amsterdam, doing a European road trip, would be short and sweet.
Back home, I had procured the appropriate google maps, reserved the car in Amsterdam, plotted a path so that we could visit two other monasteries (La Trappe and Westmalle). It was essential that we not be late. We reached the car rental place at 8:00 a.m., when it opened. I forgot my passport for the car rental, we were millimeters from being rejected, but Tyson came through with his passport and flight information, which the man wanted for some reason. That was close! We drove away in our little Volkswagen Fox.
Driving south from Amsterdam, towards Tilburg, we noticed a few differences between U.S. and European driving – Europeans know how to drive! There is a sense of respect and politeness when drivers use the slow lane. The other two lanes are for passing only. Very cool. This allows for some fast driving, no one lingers in the fast lane. Our Fox was smooth, easy to drive. It handled well on the small, one-lane roads. There were no signs for slow driving on the small or narrow – passing was not possible, anyway. It felt good to sort out the road with other drivers – more rules equals less freedom.
We arrived at La Trappe Monastery in Koeningshoven (Schaapskooi) at 10:30 a.m., when the shop and cafe opened. As we would learn throughout the day, the monks placed these monasteries in beautiful, tranquil areas of the countryside. The castle-like walls beckoned to us, but the only areas of the grounds opened to visitors were the cafe and the small shop. We had an early morning quadruple (11%ABV) in the cafe, shopped at the store for some glassware, beer and cheese. We also spoke with the monk about our quest for Westvleteren beer. He was impressed.
Travelling southwest through the north of Belgium, we passed beautiful countryside and cities that yearned to be explored. Not today, though. We were on a mission! We descended into Poperinge and Ieper, in eastern Belgium, around 1:30 in the afternoon, quickly realized that our maps were not the best. Leaving the freeway, using the written part of the google map, we wound our way into hop fields not yet planted, where we started to see signs for the abbey.
If you weren't looking for the monastery, you would never know you were there. It's strange and appropriate that the world's best beer comes from an out-of-the-way place and a beautiful one. After a few more turns on curvy country roads, we arrived – 1400 hours, 2:00 p.m.!
At the monastery
The next part went quickly. There were about six cars waiting in front of a gate that led to a circular driveway, that passed by a small warehouse, where the beer is loaded into your car. Soon after 2:00 p.m., a monk opened the gate and the cars started filing in. We were overcome with excitement as a monk loaded each car with cases of the 12, slowly we moved car by car until it was our turn. I started getting panicky and nervous that maybe my name wasn't on the list. I saw the monk look at our car registration number, not finding it on his paper, but he saw my name on the list when I told him who I was. Tyson drove into position, three cases of 12 were put into our car, we paid (30 euros per case, plus 10 euro deposit for crate and bottles). Off we went.
Did that actually happen? Oh that was fast, sweet, efficient – all business. Hard to believe we drove to the Mecca of beers, obtained the nectar of the gods, straight from the source. The only downside to the day was the cafe at the monastery being closed. There, you can buy up to six bottles of each of the beers (at a higher price), eat, take in the scenery and drink. Oh well! Closed until April 6 for spring break, I guess. Now I have another reason to go back!
We pulled into the parking lot of a cafe, basked in the glory of our crates of beer. We were like pirates with their loot. People who didn't know the rules for obtaining the beer and just showed up, attempted to buy some of our beers from us. "Sorry," was all we could say. Using the glasses obtained at La Trappe (not the official Westvleteren glass, but still), we poured ourselves a Westvleteren 12, right outside the monastery. Can't get much better than this!
This beer does not disappoint
After all the hype, this beer did not disappoint us. Its flavors reaches the cosmos, hints of nutmeg, plum and a subtle alcohol taste (hard to do with a 10.2% beer!), a wood and smoke taste, a perfect carbonation and the after taste is as good as the first millisecond it hit the tongue. Truly an amazing beer, definitely the best I have ever had. This journey was so worth it!
We left the monastery. These monks are to be respected. The brew they produce is a piece of art, the flavor speaks for itself. I appreciate their hard work.
Area around Ieper and Westvleteren
Tyson and I then headed to Poperinge for lunch and other Trappist beers, toured a few WWI cemeteries. The area around Ieper and Westvleteren is spectacular – hop fields, farms, estates, greenery – a great time of year to be there. The grass was long and wavy; the sun was shining. Hard to believe that 500,000 soldiers from WWI are buried here. There must have been beautiful days during those long battles.
Our next destination was the monetary of Westmalle, located near the Dutch border, east of Antwerp. Another beautiful setting, especially at twilight – the shadows of the trees and the birds chirping made for a glorious, romantic setting. Tried to hold hands with Tyson, but he wouldn't go for it! This monastery was closed to the public also, but we had some Belgian food (meat) and Westmalle Tripels (Trip-Trap, Westmalle dubbel and tripel mixed) at a nearly cafe. Great beers and great food. Seeing three monasteries in one day was quite an achievement. We were tired. Only four more to visit someday.
How to get the cargo into the U.S.
By 11:00 p.m., we were back in Amsterdam with our precious cargo safely in the back. We couldn't drop off the car at the rental place outside of business hours. We nervously approached Amsterdam central. Being so late, we easily found a parking spot outside our apartment. The task at hand was how to get the cargo into the U.S. I borrowed a large, hard Samsonite suitcase from my mom and bought a roll of bubble tape. I fit 48 beers into that suitcase! Tyson fit 24 beers into his roll case, packing the valuable nectar in his dirty underwear. My bag (and his) were super heavy. I could barely lift it, rolling it was brutal on my back. This is for the benefit of all mankind.
Before leaving Amsterdam, we bought Westvleteren glasses at the local beer shop to make it all official. My two check-in bags were packed with beer, souvenirs, knick knacks and beer glasses – heavy and fragile. I also had one of the wooden crates as my carry-on, got a few interesting looks. Tyson took a crate as well, we left one behind. I approached the check-in counter at Schipol airport with trepidation and anxiety. To my disbelief, the lady at the desk didn't even glance at the digital scale read off, it registered 40 kilograms (88 pounds) for my big bag and 25 kilograms (56 pounts) for my other bag. Phew! Relief. Lucky. I had them put stickers marked fragile on both bags. Hope my bubble wrap holds – a tragedy if I came back with two beers instead of two cases.
I put a lot of faith in luck and hoped the Baggage Handling God was on my side. We flew Amsterdam/London/San Francisco. I went through customs in San Francisco, I couldn't find anything on the form that I needed to declare, so I declared nothing. I picked up my bags (no leaking!), headed through the green customs line swiftly and surely. No problem! As soon as I got through, I opened the little case – no moisture. Nice. I opened the big case – oops something had broken or leaked, but not much. Maybe one bottle, I thought. Forget it. I picked up the bags, checked them in for my final flight to Portland.
My large bag approached me along the luggage conveyor. Just beyond it, along with a strange, dank, beer-y smell, a puddle. I didn't want to look! At home, I surveyed the damage. Two bottles broke completely, eight leaked half their contents. Must have been some heavy pressure (or poor bottle cappage) to cause leakage like this. That leaves 38 bottles of pure liquid heaven, safe and secure. Not bad! The only casualty is my mom's suitcase, even after a good scrubbing and air out, still smells of the best beer in the world.
It's four days later, the beer is stored cool and dry in my basement. It gets better with time, so I hope I can be patient and disciplined enough to let a few bottles age for at least two years. What an adventure! It tastes so much better knowing what we had to do to get it. I am officially a beer geek now.