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 02:38 PM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2006

Not without my beer

Recently I've been making plans for the future. After so long in Holland, I'm hoping to get back to Sydney this year, for good. In preparation, I've been taking care of various things for this. Mostly little odd things, such as selling junk that I'll no longer want, and sorting out other things that I'll need for a move back.

Retaining the best of what's here is important too. Moving back will leave me without some things I enjoy here, so I've been trying to make up for it where possible. Fewer travelling opportunities, and a different way of doing what I've become used to. There's also been the matter of food and other lifestyle things that I could miss. Most of these I can live without, but one thing in particular I cannot.

The gorgeous beers of Belgium. I'll sorely miss them.

I've been spoilt to death by being right next door to the world's greatest beer country. Before coming here, I thought beer was just another cheap drink, with little in the way of variation in brands and styles. I've since learned that this is far from the truth. Beer is a beverage with as much going for it as "traditional" fine drinks like wine. There are dozens of styles and varietes, some with enormous complexity, and in total there are about a thousand different beers available. If I'd tried one different beer every night since arriving in Holland 6 years ago, I'd only just have finished them all. The shops here in Holland only have about 500 varieties anyway!

I'm determined not to give up these heavenly and diverse flavours.

I'm going to ensure a lasting supply for myself in Sydney. The good news on these beers is that unlike regular lager style beers, they last. They can be cellared for between 3 and 10 years, so I won't have to worry about them going stale.

One of the plans is to buy lots of beer here, and post it back to Sydney, taking advantage of cheap surface mail rates. 3 months shipping time is no problem for these beers. Once they arrive, they can be cellared at Mum & Dad's until drinking time. I came up with a list of those beers worthy of taking back. It would work out at around $6-7 total cost per bottle...not cheap as I can get most here for about €2, but being so far from the source always adds a premium.

I've since discovered a couple of places in Sydney that have a few of these beers, at fairly reasonable prices. A shop in Leichhardt also sells about 40 different Belgians, with some top quality ones amongst them, so that gives me a good stock for times of need. But some of the greatest that I need aren't there, and I'm still searching. Where oh where can I find a Rochefort 10 in Sydney??

I recently came across Megabeer, an Aussie bunch who sell beer online. They only have six Belgians, but that doesn't matter as they have St Bernardus Abt, my second favourite beer in the world!!! (I have never tasted my favourite beer though - the holy grail of all beers is the Westvleteren) I quickly ordered 50 bottles in total of the Abt, Prior and the legendary cave-aged Grottenbier. By the time I get to drinking the last of them, they should develop into unforgettable drinks. So 50 bottles now sit in Mum&Dads cellar, building up those lovely aromas and esters.

Of course I won't survive on imported Belgian beer alone. I'll start to brew my own, with a helping hand from dad and a couple of mates who have been brewing for a while, and I'll try to reproduce the essences of these Belgian artesian beers. Mmmm!

In the meantime, this weekend I'll be in Belgium, visiting Bruges and tasting everything on offer, and perhaps bringing a few back to Holland.

Posted by Ben at 10:48 PM | Comments (0)

February 03, 2006

A sorely needed FF extension

For a long time now (years and years), I've been waiting for a firefox feature which no one seems to be able to do well at all. It's incredibly simple (in theory) and should be a big hit for anyone, but just doesn't seem to be around yet.

What I'm looking for is a way to synchronise my bookmarks with a server somewhere, and have them shared amongst multiple computers. Every time I add a bookmark, it would get added to the bookmark store somewhere, and also removing and rearranging bookmarks will get synchronised to the store. Then when I fire up FF on another of my computers, it reads (and writes) to the same bookmark store, effectively giving me truly portable bookmarks.

There are extensions around that will do this, but they fail in that they have one or more of these annoyances: (1) They only sync with a manual action or when FF starts/closes. (2) They don't integrate natively into the existing FF bookmarks UI, but create additional menus and dialogs. (3) They require the use of some obscure service.

Please! Can someone write a decent system to do this? It shouldn't be hard at all and I'm getting quite sick of this just not being out there yet. And before you XUL coding sucks and I've not got the time to learn at the moment.

Posted by Ben at 02:43 PM | Comments (1)