Westvleteren: It takes special dispensation to buy rare beer brewed by Belgian monks

Five monks in a remote corner of Belgium work silently, shrouded in secrecy, brewing what many connoisseurs consider the best beer in the world.

Outside their monastery in Westvleteren, a line of cars curls into the street, the occupants waiting for their shot at buying some of that highly sought beer.

And the monks themselves? They apparently couldn’t care less about all the attention.

The Abbey of Saint Sixtus is home to 25 Cistercian monks. They lead a simple, cloistered life focused on manual labor and prayer. Only five of them brew the abbey’s three beer varieties — the blond, the 8 and the world-renowned 12.

Of the seven official Trappist breweries in the world, Saint Sixtus brews the least amount of beer. Its monks brew just 75 days a year, making about 60,000 cases.

So not only is the beer really good, it’s also extremely rare.

And you can’t just belly up to any bar and order a bottle. You must go to the abbey to buy it.

"It’s got a forbidden-fruit kind of attraction because you can only get it here," said Jeremy Breiding, a home brewer who traveled from Orlando, Fla., specifically to taste the Westvleteren 12.

Before you hop in the car and show up, you’ll have to call the abbey’s "beer line" to see if the beer variety you want is available. Then you must make an appointment and give them your car registration plate number. You can only get two cases of the 12 per month (the monks don’t want people buying their beer for resale).

The process may seem as if it’s too much trouble — the drive to Westvleteren from Kaiserslautern, Germany, for example, is about five hours — but if you
really like beer, you’ll forget about all the hoops you had to jump through once you sip a "Westy."

How it happened

About two years ago, a Belgian journalist wrote a story, saying that RateBeer.com had voted the Westvleteren 12 as the best beer in the world. Several reporters followed suit, writing about the abbey and its brewery. The 10.2 percent alcohol beer is also ranked as the world’s top beer on BeerAdvocate.com. Since the publicity, it has been hell to get the heavenly beer.

Cars would back up for miles around the abbey, waiting in line to buy the brew. To ease the traffic, the monks set up a phone line through which buyers could make appointments. The initial phone system became overloaded with calls and crashed, prompting the monks to put in a beefed-up system.

The new line is still constantly busy, and you’re lucky to get through. It took me about a month of calling before the prized 12 was available on a date I could make the trip. I had to call the next day between 9 a.m. and noon to make my appointment. The line was busy for hours, but I finally got through before the deadline.

With my appointment booked, I tried to set up an interview with the monks for that day. They declined.

I’m not the only one who’s tried in vain to meet the monks. Home brewers travel from America in hopes of gleaning beer-making tips from them. Businessmen visit to learn how a beer with no label and no marketing garnered hype and became known as the best beer in the world. Reporters try to get exclusive interviews.

Fortunately, the abbey has a friendly, informative and English-speaking spokesman who works in the small museum in an adjacent cafe associated with the abbey. He fields questions and helps explain the brouhaha surrounding the beer so the monks don’t have to.

"They are monks who brew," said Mark Bode, the spokesman. "They are not brewers."

So why did the monks — with their religious bent — begin brewing beer in the first place?

Bode said that in the 1830s, a group of Cistercian monks decided to build an abbey in Westvleteren. The workers they contracted to do the construction stipulated that in addition to their wages they were to receive one pint of beer daily. Because it is boiled during its brewing process, beer was considered a safe drink, while water often was not. Each day the monks traveled into town to buy beer for the workers. They quickly realized that it would be cheaper and easier to brew the beer themselves.

From those practical beginnings, the monks’ beer-making operation grew. Eventually, they would load a truck with their freshly brewed beer, drive into town and sell their beer to the local cafes.

But in 1945, the abbey’s head monk believed that the monks had become too focused on their beer-making operation. The abbey sold the truck and vowed not to increase its annual beer production of 4,750 hectoliters — about 125,000 gallons. To this day, despite enormous demand, the abbey has not brewed any more beer than it did in 1945.

Enjoying a glass

The Saint Sixtus 12 tastes divine. It’s dark and chocolatey with complex flavors. It’s smooth. It’s strong. It’s sophisticated. It’s what James Bond would drink if he didn’t like martinis.

Texture wise, it’s like drinking a glass of liquid silk or velvet. The hoppy beer has a tinge of an alcohol kick at the end.

I have neither the vocabulary nor the palate to describe how good the 12 is. It’s just damn good beer. After my first sip, I reacted similarly to John Travolta’s character in "Pulp Fiction" once he tastes the $5 milkshake. I can’t print his reaction here, but if you remember the scene, you know what I’m talking about.

I’ll admit it. I’ve drunk some beer in my day. Most of it falls into the category of Stroh’s, Natural Light, Miller Lite, etc. To compare the 12 to any of those beers is like comparing an F-16 to a paper airplane. Yes, both can achieve flight, but the F-16 is infinitely better at it and more complex than a sheet of folded loose-leaf.

If you arrive at the abbey without an appointment, you can still drink its beer. The In de Vrede cafe, adjacent to and associated with the abbey, serves Saint Sixtus beer in special glasses. You can also buy one six-pack per person in a store in the corner of the cafe. On a trip in mid-May, the cafe store had sold out of beer, so I left Westvleteren with only the two cases of 12 I bought through my appointment. Adding deposits for the bottles and the wooden crates they come in, you’ll spend between $130 and $140 for 48 beers.

That’s well above — in price and quality — the 15 beers that came in the Stroh’s family pack I used to buy for $5.

Know & Go

The beer phone line for the Abbey of Saint Sixtus is (+32) (0)70-21-00-45. Its Web site, with information about the abbey, the monastic life and the beer they brew, is www.sintsixtus.be/eng/home.htm.

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