On a cloudy morning in late June, we arrived by train Poperigne. In Poperigne we rented two bikes. With a cycling map of the area and anticipation in our hearts, we biked through the fields of West Flanders (where poppies do blow, by the way). Our destination? Abbey Saint Sixtus. Or, more specifically, the cafe beside the abbey where we would be able to buy and drink the coveted Trappist Westvleteren (pronounced west-vleer-ten against all the rules of the English language), named the best beer in the world.
Our route to the abbey was clearly marked on a cycling map that we picked up at the Poperigne tourist centre. The route that we were taking was called the “Hoppeland Route” and it took us through the fields where the hops that go into my beloved beer are grown.
We were there during hop season so I’m not sure why these vines seem hop-less. The only explanation I can come up with is that they must have been freshly harvested. If you’re wondering what hops look like when they’re dried, you’ll find them posing as decor in just about every traditional bar in Belgium.
The abbey is about 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) from Poperigne. It’s an easy bike ride. Biking in Belgium is fabulous for a variety of reasons. For one, there are usually bike lanes in busy areas. In the country the roads are usually impeccably well paved! I also love the Dutch-style cruiser bikes with their high handlebars and wide, lady-hip friendly seats. The ride to Westvleteren was very tranquil, although anticipation had me wondering, “Are we there yet?” every couple of minutes. We only got lost once, which for us is really saying something. We tend to get lost EVERYWHERE. The signage for the bike route gets pretty sparse once you get out of Poperigne, but if you do find yourself lost, you can ask just about anyone on the road and they’ll point you in the right direction. If there’s no one around to ask, just follow the signs that say “Sint-Sixtusabdij” and they’ll get you there.
This is the only part of the actual abbey that’s visible from the street. You can see the whole thing from above here, but it’s still a rather small and unassuming place. I guess that you would expect this of a monastery, but because I watch too many movies I was expecting to find a big castle with huge gardens.
The abbey is where you would go if you had a car and wanted to buy a case of beer. The prices of the cases are listed on their website and are incredibly reasonable. A case of 24 bottles of the most popular beer, the Westvleteren 12 is only 39,00 Euros with a case & bottle deposit of 12,00 Euros, and rest assured that you’d be able to get much more for the case on eBay. I won’t even suggest selling the bottles themselves on eBay because I think that the practice of buying beer for a reasonable price from monks who devote their lives to charity & then reselling it to make a profit is pretty awful.
If you’re interested in buying a case this way, you can find instructions on their website (yes, even monks have websites these days). You’ll need to call ahead to reserve a case and you need to have your car’s license plate number when you make your reservation, which might be troublesome to those who are renting cars.
If you are biking or you just don’t want to bring home 24 bottles of the same kind of beer, you still have options. You can visit In De Verde (Dutch for “In Peace”), the cafe beside the abbey. Here you can try the beer, have lunch and taste some ice cream made with the same yeast that’s used to brew the beer. They also have a little shop where you can buy the beer, but you don’t get to be as choosy.
If you buy your beer from the shop in In de Vrede, here’s what you get: A “Degustatiebox” with 2 bottles of blonde (green cap), 1 bottle of 8° (blue cap) and one bottle of 12° (yellow cap), plus a nice glass with the Trappist Westvleteren logo on it. Each box is around 20,00 Euros, and availability is limited so try to get there early.
The cafe is surprisingly modern and not at all what I had expected. I’m not sure when it opened but I’m sure that it was sometime after 2005, which is the year that Ratebeer.com announced that Westvleteren 12° was the best beer in the world. Media got hold of the story and turned it into something of a sensation, and for some time after that, the beer pick-up area often had a line that stretched a couple of kilometers! I’m sure that In De Vrede was established as a way for people to taste the elusive beer and to allow the monks to get some peace.
For lunch, I went for the Portie Abdijpaté, which is a slice of pâté made by the monks at the Saint Sixtus abbey. The presentation was nothing to be excited about, and I had expected a little more considering the modern atmosphere of the restaurant. But it was delicious! It was very firm, which is typical of Belgian monk-made pâté and something that took some getting used to after coming from Paris where pâté is usually spreadable.
This was Richard’s lunch and he wasn’t too excited about it. The menu described it as being chicken in gelatin, but he thought that it might be a mistranslation. No, it wasn’t. It really was pieces of chicken suspended in gelatin and then cut into slices. I tried a bite but it was like eating rubber and I couldn’t enjoy it. In the end we shared my pâté and decide to treat ourselves to dessert.
We ordered the ice cream that was made with the Trappist Westvleteren beer. It was good, and a little tangy. My only complaint was that the whipped cream that they put on it must have been either too cold or left for a long time without use, because there were bits of hard, crunchy whipped cream below the fluffier whipped cream. It was a bit off-putting, although Richard liked it at first and thought that maybe it was toffee. Either way, it’s a neat idea and a nice treat.
And so we arrive at the moment of truth! I beg forgiveness in advance for being long-winded. As the blonde isn’t as highly rated and we also had more of it to take home, we skipped that and decided to taste the 8° and the 12°. I had tasted the 8° once before in Cafe Gollem in Amsterdam before I knew that the monks at Saint Sixtus are very opposed to having their beer resold for a profit. At the time we paid around 9 Euros for a bottle, which is nothing compared to the $25-$35 that Toronto bars will charge when they happen to have some to sell. The bottle had been cellared for about 6 months and to our palates, which at the time hadn’t tasted many abbey-style Triple beers, it tasted like a little bit of heaven. Since then we’ve expanded our palates a bit so I was interested to see what I’d think of this beer when I revisited it. The truth? The 8° was good, but not amazing. It lacked depth and character. The same was true of the 12°. I think that the reason for this is the fact that the cafe sells the beer so fresh that it doesn’t have time to properly age and gain the complexity that it’s capable of. We’re cellaring all of our 8° and 12° bottles and I hope to taste them next year and report that they do indeed taste like heaven when properly aged, but I get the feeling that part of the appeal of this beer is its scarcity.
While we were in Belgium we also learned that there’s an easier way to taste the essentials of Trappist Westvleteren without going all the way to their abbey in West Flanders. In short: St. Bernadus. To explain: St.Bernadus used to be called St Sixtus. Want to guess why? In the 40s, Abbey Saint Sixtus contracted the brewer at St.Bernadus to create beers that would mimic those of Trappist Westvleteren. In the 90s the contract ended and wasn’t renewed, but rather than quitting the brewing business, the brewer changed the name and improve the quality and started selling them as St.Bernadus. So if you can’t get your hands on any Westvleteren 12°, you could always try the St.Bernadus Abt 12. The recipe is probably exactly the same. I have both and I plan on doing a blind tasting after the Westvleteren 12° is properly aged. I promise to report back with my findings.
I’m glad that we went to Westvleteren to visit In de Vrede. It was a great experience to bike through the Belgian countryside and discover this highly acclaimed brewery for myself. We now have some bottles of very sought-after beer cellaring in our basement and I’ll have an opinion to give next time the topic of Trappist Westvleteren beer comes up in conversation with my beer-loving friends. It’s something that you really MUST do if you’re in the area, if only to say that you did it.
Abbey Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren
B -8640 Westvleteren
In de Vrede