A couple of weekends ago, I found myself on a train for three hours, and in a car for five, careening through the Dutch and Belgian countryside – for beer.
This is no ordinary beer. It’s also not just an unusual beer. It’s rare, and incredibly difficult to come by.
Westvleteren trappist beer is made by the monks at Sint Sixtus Abbey, in Flanders, near the French border. There are only seven trappist beers in the world, which is a distinction requiring all ingredients used in the making of the beer to be grown on the property of the abbey. The other six trappist beers, while maybe not exactly easy to find if you live in, say, Saskatoon, are readily available in Europe, some even in supermarkets. Westvleteren, however, can only be bought by reservation, picked up at the abbey in person, and you can only get two cases at a time.
So when my brother-in-law, a huge fan of the stuff, called to say that after 4 days on the phone he finally got through and had to pick up his beer the following Saturday at precisely 2:45 pm, I thought I’d go along for the ride.
There are more restrictions: you can only make a reservation from the same telephone number once every two months, ditto for your car license plate. Suffice it to say that this is a beer with extremely limited production, and you have to work to get it. And once you have it, you agree that you’ll never sell it to a third party. Given that you agree to this while in an abbey, the promise holds a bit more weight than a casual handshake or verbal contract… there are some who violate the agreement, and at last check, a single bottle of Westvleteren was going for an average of $25 per bottle, with some vintages going for around $150 a bottle. (At the abbey, the case price averages out to about $2 a bottle.)
You get the idea.
The abbey is tucked in behind the hundreds of Canadian graveyards that litter Flanders, and if you drove by and weren’t an obsessive trappist beer fan, you’d probably miss it.
It’s one of the most understated abbeys I’ve ever seen.
The abbey itself is closed to visitors, except those picking up beer, and that’s done in a shed at the side of the building with an efficiency that belies the excellence of its beer, and its fanatical following. You pull up, give your license plate number, and while you’re chit-chatting with the drivers of other cars in the line, comparing how far you’ve come for two cases of beer, someone brings out your cases, you load them in, you pay, you leave. C’est tout.
But then you taste it. Now, Westvleteren 12 is consistently called the best beer in the world by amateurs and professionals alike. I’m a skeptic, and tend to take statements like that with a grain of salt. But I have to say, far and away, it is the best beer I’ve ever had. In a previous lifetime, I worked at a microbrewery and was educated in the finer differences – the things that made a good beer good, and a not-so-good one not worth drinking, and this one was beyond good. It had an earthy flavour, but it wasn’t overpowering. You could taste the hops, but it wasn’t bitter. It was smooth, smooth, smooth and tasted a bit like salt and dry ash at the end – something very pure, of this world, and yet not.
Was it worth a whole day? Absolutely, even though tasting it made me a bit melancholy because I knew I’d never taste a better one in my lifetime, or possibly even this one ever again. But if a bit of effort gets you a bottle of the best beer in the world, count me in.