Travel by car to the western edge of Belgium, and encounter the Trappist beer aficionados have coveted for decades – one of the few remaining true Trappist monastery owned and operated breweries left unspoiled by marriage to the corporate world: Westvleteren.
I first learned of Westvleteren, or “Westie” as its cult following affectionately refers to it, during my time in Germany. A friend described this beer as the Holy Grail of beers, imbued both with the purity of Trappist brewing techniques and the nuanced complexity of recipes untouched by corporate production. Today, the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus still brew and sell their beer from their abbey and visitor center. Despite demand for the beer, the abbey refuses to expand supply, sales, or profits, selling beer only to pay for abbey operations. With limited supply and no official outside distribution, collectors have been known to pay more than US$120 per bottle on the gray/black market for the limited-quantity Westvleteren 12 brew.
While it took me over a year to find the time (and vehicle) to make the two-hour drive from Brussels to the brewery/abbey’s visitor center in the quiet hills, small villages, and former World War I battlefields near Belgium’s border with France, it was a necessary and rewarding quest.
Its 1980s-style tasting room and restaurant feels like someone created a small-town museum and added the charm and hyperactivity of an Ikea cafeteria on a Saturday afternoon. It teemed with the chaos of families pushed to the brink of sanity by their long drive – and perhaps the long pre-meal wait in line to get their precious rations/holiday gifts of Westie Blonde, Westie 8 and Westie 12 six-packs, groups eagerly awaiting lunch, and servers hurredly but expertly pouring beer from their taps. Though we were slightly hungry, the menu was somewhat unappetizing to my American tastebuds – filled with heavy soups, pork and pate sandwiches. A leek and beer soup and dark bread turned out to be the perfect choice for a chilly, dreary day.
Of course, ordering a Westvleteren 12 with our meal was a non sequitur. So was it the best beer in the world? It’s always hard to judge when (1) something is so eloquently hyped and (2) that something isn’t one of your favorites to begin. So the long answer began with the first sip. It had the deep, earthy chocolate aroma of a stout but without the heaviness of, say, Guinness, and perhaps a bit more hops than is comfortable for me. But my opinion of its flavors increased dramatically when paired with food. My leek soup may not have been the best pairing, but it was a nice contrast. Alongside the hearty soup, the Westvleteren took on the complexity of a fine wine.
Unexpectedly, it was ice cream that for me transformed the Westvleteren into flavors worthy of the hype (or maybe numb my bitter taste receptors). The brewery’s signature beer sundae combines vanilla ice cream, Westvleteren beer, a spongy topping made from beer and with a texture of what would best be described as freeze-dried, astronaut ice cream or the marshmallows of Lucky Charms cereal, and plenty of fresh, whipped cream. The sundae was delicious on its own, but it was fabulous with the beer. Or the beer was fabulous with it.
The quest for beer ultimately led us to a transformational experience in the unholiest of frenzied restaurant settings. Is Westvleteren 12 the world’s best beer? I leave it to you, dear reader and beer aficionado, to decide!