Westvleteren 

   

The hamlet of Westvleteren lies in West Flanders, close to the French border, and less than 10 miles from the towns of Poperinge, Ieper and, our special favourite, Lo, with its Oude Abdij hotel.  It is renowned for being the home of St. Sixtus Abbey, where the Trappist monks brew 'the best beer in the world'.
A beer can only be labelled Trappist if it has been brewed in the main Trappist monasteries licensed by the Vatican.  There are 6 of these in Belgium: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren's Abbey of St. Sixtus.  The St Sixtus (officially called Westvleteren) beers are much more difficult to obtain than other Trappist brews – you can only buy them from the monastery drive-through shop or the café-bar called In de Vrede.  And they became even scarcer after a recent media storm when the ‘ratebeer’ web site called them ‘the best beer in the world’!   The monks refused to increase production (or price), as Father Abbot said:
"We have to live 'from' and 'with' our brewery. But we do not live 'for' our brewery.  This must be strange for business people and difficult to understand that we do not exploit our commercial assets as much as we can. We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks."

Although it's not legal to re-sell them (your receipt from the Abbey makes this clear) you can see bottles changing hands on E-bay for up to £16 each - compare that with the £1 per bottle you pay at the Abbey gate!   Our last purchasing trip to the Abbey was in September 2005, when we arrived at the crack of dawn, a full two hours before sale of the new batch of ‘12’ commenced, and were still a kilometre away from the Abbey gates!  The long queues of cars - the queue behind us was over two kilometres - have been so disruptive to the narrow roads of the area that the monks have had to institute a new system from September 2006.  Now you have to telephone the Abbey's hotline, to check what beer is available, then quote your car number, and you will be given a time at which you can collect your ration - normally a maximum of two crates per vehicle.  You can also buy from the shop in the café In De Vrede but there you pay slightly more and are limited to two 6-bottle cartons per person.

You can't visit the monastery itself as a tourist (although it is possible to stay in the Abbey Guest House and share in the life of the monks for a while) but In De Vrede has an audio visual display called Claustrum which explains the monastic lifestyle.

The website for the monastery - where you can check the latest information on how to obtain the beers - is at www.sintsixtus.be 
and you can find out about the café In de Vrede from their separate website www.indevrede.be Tip: on both websites you can choose English or Dutch (NL) text.  Once you've seen the English version, choose the same links on the NL pages and you may get more - for example, on the In de Vrede  NL site when you choose the shop (winkel) you get illustrations of all the products.

And here's all you need to know in pictures:


Westvleteren beers are not labelled but are identified only by the cap - Green for the blond 6 (5.8%), Blue for the dark 8 (8.0%) and Gold for the flagship 12.

 


The glasses make a nice souvenir and are perfect for drinking any Trappist or abbey-style beer.


This is what it's all about


You can buy beer by the crate from the Abbey's drive-through - here one of the brothers waits in the cold and wet of the early morning to load two crates for the next lucky punter.



And the next customer, with a broad smile at the thought of 48 bottles of Westvleteren 12, is yours truly!

 


The café In de Vrede is just across the road from the Abbey.  The name means 'In Peace' and it is in a delightfully quiet area.


The shop is just inside the entrance

As well as the 6-packs of beers and glasses the shop sells local ginger cake, Trappist cheese and pâté, and even soap made in a convent!

Prices (per crate of 24 bottles)

Deposit: € 6.50

Blond 6  € 19.00

Dark 8 € 23.80

Dark 12 € 27.00


The sign in the drive-through gives prices and instructions




Keep Trappist beer at 12˚ to 18˚ C

Serve our beer at  12˚ to 16˚ C

Move or open the bottle carefully.

Pour without sudden movements,

and don't pour out the last fingerbreadth.

And finally a delightful story from the days of World War I, taken from a book, now apparently out of print, called 'Journey to the Western Front - twenty years after' by R. H. Mottram
(Thanks to Nigel for drawing this to my attention and stirring me into getting this page completed.)

Note: "Pop" (Poperinge) was a main WWI supply centre, and was also used as a base for rest and recreation for troops.  A break from the hell of  the trenches of the Western Front must have seemed like Paradise - hence the affection in which the town was held.  C.R.E. was the Commander Royal Engineers

"Pop" had its bad days, twice at least, in April 1915 and in April 1918, and was never long free from long-range bombardment and nightly bombing.  All around it lay well-remembered billets, the spacious solidly built farms of the Proven Road, and the camps along the pavé to Elverdinghe, while just to the north, on the Westvleteren Road near the Trappist Monastery of St. Sixte, was that unique institution "International Corner", where a red-capped British military policeman shared the control of traffic and passes with a French and a Belgian gendarme.  I shall never forget the imposing figure of the Superior of the Monastery, the only member of the fraternity to speak to us, a man of magnificent presence and carriage, with his amethyst cross hanging on the breast of his white robe.  His speech, coming from a representative of so historic a body to a British General commanding an army in the field, at a critical moment of the world's history should surely have been upon memorable matter.  I regret to have to report that it was solely concerned with Beer.  The personnel of Divisional Headquarters had discovered with astonished delight that the beer the monks brewed was bon - a heavier and smoother drink than that on which they had languished for many a thirsty day.  They did it honour.  At the same time, the C.R.E. noticed a particularly stagnant and malodorous pond, which he forthwith ordered to be pumped out.  The Superior explained that this prevented the supply of beer from being renewed.  Apparently it was from this pond that the necessary water was procured."

 I don't think this bears any resemblance to the brewing practices of today!  And it's certainly not going to stop me drinking my supply of the liquid gold.

 

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