Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Westvleteren: The Hunt for the "Best" Belgian Trappist Beer

When I landed in Brussels for a week-long vacation, I was a certified Belgian and Trappist beer (brewed inside monastery walls, though not necessarily by monks) novice, but my friends Luc and Carl wasted no time in indoctrinating me about the various styles of Belgian beer - lambic, kriek, gueuze, Trappist, tripel, dubbel, Flemish reds, etc etc. - and of course we spent quite a lot of time tasting all these "liquid gold", including a particularly hilarious experience at Dulle Griet bar in Ghent.

Through sheer luck, I was able to participate in the annual Belgian Beer Weekend at the Grand Place in Brussels - it was amazing: fun atmosphere, hundreds of different Belgian beers available, and surrounded by incredible architecture. Travel memories should all be like this.

Even though I had done some Lonely Planet guidebook reading about Trappist beers, I hadn't really tasted any prior to my trip except for Chimay. I was particularly intrigued to sample Westvleteren, the rarest among all Trappist beer and voted as the "best beer in the world" (we know how meaningless these "best of" lists are) by a website a few years ago. This honor simply resulted in more people driving through the Belgian countryside on the way to St. Sixtus Abbey in the town of Westvleteren. Pretty much the only way to get your hands on Westvleteren beer is to call the St. Sixtus abbey hotline and pick up a few cases (three cases annual quota), or relax at the nearby In De Vrede cafe and drink all afternoon.

So, when Luc and Carl suggested a road trip to Westvleteren, even a Trappist beer newbie like me realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and quickly replied, "Sure. When?". Our adventure (pictures here!!) commenced the next day from Ghent, and within a couple of hours we were outside the abbey, taking videos of the abbey workers loading cases into customers' trunks (lucky bastards), and then drinking Westvleteren 12 and Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede. At the small shop inside the cafe, I also bought a Westvleteren glass and even some Trappist shampoo (which didn't work out too well)!

And yes, Westvleteren 12 is an incredibly delicious beer. I savored each sip, trying to prolong the sensation on my taste buds. Although most of the Trappist beers are available stateside, Westvleteren is the exception. The monks frown on their cherished product being sold commercially, unfortunately. (Having said that, on two occasions I've tasted Westvleteren in NYC, but the beer came from the establishment owner's personal collection). Most Belgian beer enthusiasts can only dream of tasting the trio of Westvleteren beers (Westy 12, Westy 8, and Westy Blonde), but thanks to my friends, I had stumbled upon the Holy Grail just like that (or at least it felt like that). Lucky Belgian beer newbie me. A votre sante!

P.S. Click here for a few recommendations for great Belgian beer bars in NYC.

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