Monks and beer: a winning formula
Thanks to the help and generosity of some new friends here in Brussels, I was lucky enough to have the rare opportunity to visit the Sint Sixtus Abbey and get my hands on some of their legendary Westvleteren 12 beer, a Belgian trappist ale brewed by the Sint Sixtus Abbey monks that is considered one of the best beers in the world.
The Sint Sixtus Abbey is the only place you can buy this beer, and while it’s possible to have a glass or two at the brasserie accross the street, the purchase of any larger quantity to take home requires an appointment that can only be secured by calling the Abbey’s beer hotline, which only takes calls a few hours at a time, on just a few designated days a year. I’d heard stories of people trying for months, sometimes even years, to get through. So when I found myself on the way to Westvleteren from Brussels after the first attempt, I thought I’d share some pointers on how we managed to successfully nab ourselves some of the greatest beer in the world.
Divide and conquer
Starting a beer syndicate with some friends is a great way to divide and conquer. A mate and I were keen to make the trip to Westvleteren but without a car we knew it would be impossible to get an appointment – the registration number of the car you will use to pick the beer up on the day is required to secure your beer. So we recruited another beer-loving friend who offered to drive us in her car if we were lucky enough to get through. Having more people involved not only made it a lot more fun, it also meant that we’d have a better chance of getting through once the telephone lines opened.
Battling with the beer hotline
The timetable with the schedule for the reservation hotline and the available collection slots can be viewed online, and also notes which variety of beer is on offer at any particular time. It turned out that the phone line would open just a few days after we’d formed our syndicate, so I downloaded an auto dialer app and started dialing in as soon as the phone lines opened in the morning. After almost 2 hours and nearly 500 calls between us, we were giving our plate number and scheduling a time to pick up our allocated two cases of beer (this is the limit per car, per 60 days). It was such a rush to have gotten through. We called on a Thursday and managed to get an appointment the following Monday.
Café In de Vrede
On the day of our appointment we arrived a couple of hours early to visit the café across the road from the Abbey. This is the only place in the world that is authorised to serve and sell the Westvleteren beers. They offer a limited food menu which you can wash down with either the Westvleteren Blonde, 8 or 12 at very reasonable prices (Westvleteren blonde: €3.70, Westvleteren 8: €4.30 and Westvleteren 12: €4.90).
And what’s a road trip without souvenirs?
The small gift shop in the café offers a range of goblets, t-shirts and even the Abbey’s own cheese for sale. And if you’re lucky enough, as we were, you can also purchase six-packs of Westvleteren beer. That day they only had the blonde and the 8 available, with a limit of 2 six-packs per person. They are quite strict about this limit, which I discovered when I cheekily attempted to go back for second round – it was worth a try!
The pickup location is on the side of the Abbey and looks like a McDonald’s drive-through. We could see the cases of beer stacked up underneath the shed from the main road – it’s really hard to miss. There were several cars in front of us so it was just a matter of waiting our turn. A man greeted us at the car, ticked our plate number off a list and asked if we had any old bottles or wooden crates to return. We then loaded our two crates into the boot, jumped back into the car and drove to a window where the same man took our payment.
We didn’t get a choice of what beer to buy (the day that we’d chosen to call dictated which beer we would get), but we wouldn’t have had it any other way – today was our lucky day as we received two beautiful wooden crates of the Westvleteren 12, the scarcest and arguably the best of the Abbey’s offerings (Westvleteren 12: €40/crate; Westvleteren 8: €35/crate; Westvleteren blonde: €30/crate).
I tried all three beers at the café and they were all excellent. I had the 12 first, followed by the 8, which were very similar in taste with a hint of coffee and dark chocolate in their flavour. The 12 is a very strong beer at 10.2% and boy, do you feel it after just one bottle! My favourite would have to be the blonde, I’m usually a fan of the darker beers but this blonde was the best I’ve had. Light, fruity and smooth with a crisp aftertaste that was just perfect for the hot weather we had that day. I enjoyed it so much I exchanged one of my six-packs of 8 for the blonde.
So all it takes is a little bit of patience, luck and sense of adventure to get your hands on some of this legendary beer. Even if you don’t like beer, the road trip out to the Abbey and its café is well worth it. The adrenalin of calling the beer hotline and driving two hours and back all for a couple of cases of beer is an experience that only a few have lived, and one that I’ll never forget. A huge thank you to Sally, Trent and Billy for an awesome adventure! It was simply amazing.
Sint Sixtus Abbey Westvleteren
Donkerstraat 12, 8640 Vleteren
Café In de Vrede
Donkerstraat 13, 8640 Vleteren