Westvleteren is one of only seven Trappist monasteries in the world where the monks brew traditional Belgian beer. What makes them special? They are the one Trappist brewery that only sells their beer on the premises, not in beer stores. You can get the beer of the other six Trappist breweries all over the world, including in London and in Vancouver. The only place you should be able to taste Westvleteren is in Cafe In De Vrede adjacent to the brewery at Saint Sixtus abbey (Westvleteren is actually the name of the nearest town), or in your home if you’ve visited and purchased a few bottles. However, some sneaky beer store owners have made the pilgrimage to Westvleteren and put their horde up for sale. I’ve come across this rarest of beer in Amsterdam and in Antwerp. I did buy some, but specifically avoided the legendary quad until I could make the journey myself. The aforementioned quad is widely considered to be the best beer in the world, just check out Beer Advocate and RateBeer.com for proof.
Since getting into beer and learning about Trappist brewing tradition, I’ve had it as a goal to make the trip. Now I’ve finally done it. This past Christmas Erik and I, along with the wives, took a trip to Belgium. We took the Eurostar from London to Brussels, spent the night there (Cantillon, Delirium, Mort Subite, Bruges, Antwerp, and so many more posts to come), then rented a car and drove out to West Flanders. The trip was supposed to take over an hour and a half, but, thanks to our rental car upgrade (Audi A4 diesel wagon) and my prodigious driving, we made the trip in just over an hour. We were getting a bit worried as we neared our destination since it looked as though we were in the middle of nowhere amongst the farmland of flanders fields. Our apprehension was not lessened as we approached what appeared to be a desolate monastery. Then we turned the last corner and saw a slick looking cafe and hundreds of other cars in the parking lot. Turns out we approached from the rear.
I was a bit disappointed to see a shiny new visitor center with a modern cafe restaurant staffed by normal looking people. I expected tonsured monks pulling bottles out of hay lined crates and blessing the beer before selling it to me. Oh well, at least I still had the best beer in the world to drink. We ordered one each of Westvleteren 12 (the quad), Westvleteren 8 (a dubbel), and Westvleteren Blonde (pale ale). They were all very good beers, but when something is billed as the greatest beer in the world, you expect magic. In that respect, I was a bit disappointed. I am quite sure the exclusivity of this beer helps it in the ratings department. Turns out the St. Bernardus brewery brews the same beers using the same recipes and St. Bernardus 12 doesn’t get quite the same attention, though it is still quite highly rated.
Don’t get me wrong, all of the Westvleteren beers were excellent examples of their style. Going right to the monastery and trying the best and most exclusive beer in the world was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I bought two bottles of each style and I haven’t drank them yet, so I’ve got a few more Westvleteren sessions to get through yet. If you like beer at all, I definitely recommend making the pilgrimage yourself. If not for the beer, then because something else happened on Flanders Fields a few years back.
When you consider the population of Canada at the start of WW1 was about seven million, it’s quite impressive that over six hundred thousand Canadians served in the war. When you think of what Canada was like at that time, we were barely a country, we barely had an army, and most everyone was a European immigrant (not necessarily from the UK). And yet Canadians, who were mostly farmers/labourers and possibly of German decent, signed up in droves to fight for Britain. Most of the sixty seven thousand Canadians that died in WW1 did so in Flanders fields. We saw monuments to Canadian soldiers all over Belgium and Flanders is littered with military cemeteries and monuments. Think of what the trenches of WW1 were like (I was freezing just standing outside for ten minutes) and consider the way Canadians fought for the UK and for Belgium. I did and being there, taking it all in, I’ve never been so proud to be Canadian.