February 15, 2006

Westvleteren 12 - I got some!


As any international beer fan knows, Westvleteren 12 is one of the most sought after and exclusive beers in the world. It frequently ranks as the world's best beer by those fortunate enough to have tried it, and beer lovers often travel the earth to obtain just a single bottle of it. I've been hunting for some for a while now, digging into the nooks and crannies of beer shops and cafes around Holland, with nary but a Rochefort to show for it.

But last weekend in Bruges, my luck changed - 24 times!

What makes Westvleteren so good?

Who knows? But the story of it is unique to say the least. It' brewed by Trappist monks at a monastery in Belgium, and they sell it to raise funds to live. Unlike just about every other commercial brewery, their way of business breaks every rule in the book.

They do no advertising or marketing. They sell it incredibly cheaply (around a euro per bottle). They only sell it on the abbey premises. Only private sales, meaning they don't deal with distributors or pubs or any businesses. They sell only a limited amount to each buyer (now 1 crate). The bottles have no labels. Reselling is actively discouraged. The monks eschew all publicity and almost never grant interviews. Despite their success, they don't intend to increase production.

They follow only one rule - attention to quality. And this one rule is all they've needed for their beer to become the most elusive and sought after on the planet. Back to Bruges...

Bruges is a wonderful city, and it's got a classic medievil feel to it. To walk around the town by day or by night plunges you into a period a thousand years earlier, with lots of little cobblestone laneways, dark by night and full of crumbling worn character. You could spend days exploring the town and there's always something to surprise you. We managed to find a quite well known brewery just a couple of streets away from where we looked for dinner the night before.

Bruges is also a very touristy town, and in fact tourism is the main industry there, though it didn't have that fake feel to it, and was a very genuine place. Nevertheless, lots of tourist-type shops are around, but fortunately big signage is not present and it's all quite subtle.

Amongst the more numerous shops are the chocolate shops and the beer shops. With Belgium being the world's best makers of both, this comes as no surprise, and the variety available at them was truly astounding, even more than the specialist shops in Holland. Prices are very reasonable, and the quality is superb. One of my favourite aspects of Belgian culture is the notion that top quality is not only for the rich, but for all.

During this trip I was keen to come back with a carload of beer, particularly the unusual ones. As always, I was on the lookout for Westvleteren, though not really expecting to have much luck. So we were looking carefully in the beer shops for any sign of the elusive beer. We passed one shop between the hotel and town centre, but at the time it was firmly shut, a bit weird for Saturday, and a bit of a shame - they had a good selection in the window!

Into town we went, getting some lunch on the way (mine washed down with a fabulous St Bernardus Abt and a refreshing Bourgogne des Flandres), and popped into the Chocolate museum, featuring a 1.2 metre high chocolate egg.

Heading back to the hotel, we found the beer shop open! They'd only closed for lunch and the look inside the door was too inviting so we headed in. Picked a few beers and a "Beers of Belgium" poster, but didn't spot any Westy. Then Geert used a bit of initiative, and asked the shopkeeper if they had any.

"Yes. We have the 12. How many do you want?".

Wow!! They had it!!

The only appropriate response to this was "All of it.". We laughed, and without hesitation, the deal for a whole crate was done and I had a grin from ear to ear that lasted the rest of the weekend. Of course, such an occasion needed to be recorded for posterity, so this is us having found the holy grail.

We got the beer delivered right to the hotel (and pestered the reception regularly about it) and finally at about 11pm we returned from a night out and picked it up. We felt even more proud when, on giving us the crate, the concierge begged us to tell him where we bought it! It's obviously that good. :) Being the nice people we are, we gave him our secret, and by now he's probably sitting at home sucking down a fantastic drink.

The following day we managed a quick tour and lunch at the Halve Maan Brewery, sampling a couple of their enjoyable brews. The snow started coming down very heavily whilst at the brewery, and by the time we got out it was almost blizzardy and the drive back to Utrecht was to be slow and hazardous, but our quest was a success, so we were happy and cold.

I've still not tried the Westy. My share (Geert and myself split it) sits at home proudly on display, and next time Geert visits we'll be popping open a bottle each and deciding for ourselves if this truly is the greatest beer. I'm going to send most of mine back to Sydney soon, and they will sit in the cellar to improve, and to drink on very special occasions. If I'm very lucky (and incredibly patient), I'll let a few bottles age for many many years (5? 10? more?) and by then they'll be the best drinks anyone can have. That will be a truly special occasion.

A whole crate of Westy 12! *happy happy joy joy* Expect my review Real Soon Now!

Posted by Ben at February 15, 2006 02:38 PM

Proost! Leuk voor een borrel in HV4?

Posted by: Sander at April 25, 2006 05:37 PM
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