The article reviews Belgium as an educational trip abut beer. A place where you can sample endless styles, visit age old breweries and settle down at some of the best beer bars in the world. Its true. Its totally true. I have done quite a bit of travelling especially around Europe and even beer aside, Belgium stole my heart.
The article touches on the key places you should go in this tiny country. Of course, there are so many amazing places, the article couldn’t mention all of them.
IF YOU GO
In de Vrede (Donkerstraat 13, Westvleteren; 32-57-40-03-77; indevrede.be)
Moeder Lambic (Place Fontainas 8, Brussels; 32-25-03-60-68)
Cantillon (Rue Gheude Straat 56, Brussels; 32-25-21-49-28; cantillon.be)
’t Brugs Beerje (Kemelstraat 5, Bruges; 32-50-33-96-16; brugsbeertje.be)
De Dolle Brouwers (Roeselarestraat 12B, Esen; 32-51-50-27-81; dedollebrouwers.be)
Brouwershuis (Trappistenweg 23A, Watou; 32-57-38-88-60; brouwershuis.com)
We were fortunate enough to visit the top four places listed. De Dolle is one of my favorite breweries in Belgium and the 1998 Stille Nacht at the Kulminator (another amazing beer bar in Antwerp). Next time, that will be at the top of my list!
Other honorable mentions from our trip include:
Pater’s Vaetje ( Blauwmoezelstraat 1, Antwerp, http://www.patersvaetje.be/)
Kulminator (Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp)
Eetcafé de Gans (Diephuisstraat 6 (zijstraat Korreweg, bij het Noorderbad),Groningen, http://www.degans.nl/index.php?page=contact-locatie)
Brasserie Thiriez (22 rue de Wormhout, Esquelbecq, France) Although not in Belgium, it is a mere 4 miles from the boarder of Belgium and if you are in West Flanders, it is worth the trip!
For the full NY Times article, click here.
We finally located over 60 videos of our time in Belgium. During our March visit, we did some pretty goddamned amazing things. Its great to remember (duh, we forgot) that we captured it on video.
So, its time to kick out the vids and see if we can make something from them. I am excited to see Flaming Trappists at De Gans, super rare lambics at Paters Vaetje, and a mess of imperial stouts under a windmill at De Molen. What else will we stumble upon? Hopefully, forgotten treasures of late night!
We located ours – find yours! As part of our transition to the new, more media hefty, website, we are starting to utilize much more video on BeerBlotter.com.
If you have videos of you drinking in Belgium – please send them our way! We would love to share you amazing experiences with the beer public and maybe help someone find their way to an incredible venue.
Feel free to email everything over to firstname.lastname@example.org. We cannot wait to see what you found!
On Friday, Beer Blotter offered its 300th post! Over less than a year has elapsed since we first went public on BeerBlotter.com. We have a had a blast so far, and we look forward to much more ahead.
In almost 11 months, we have managed to put up more than 300 stories (this article is #302). From our editor’s first beer review of Lazy Magnolia’s Jefferson Stout to Mark Leavens’ review of sandwich board art over at Atlantic Crossing – we have come a long way.
While we look forward to big changes over here, we wanted to take a look into the past and discuss the three biggest, and most memorable, moments in our short history. We have visited Belgium, Holland, France, Canada, San Diego, San Francisco, New Orleans, Cleveland, New York, Washington DC, Portland, Chicago and more – all in that 11 month period.
These three moments stick out the most:
#3 — Beer Blotter Spawns From the New Orleans Beer Arrival & A Chicago Surprise
If you have ever visited New Orleans, you are probably aware that its almost impossible to find a good beer. You are almost assured of being stuck drinking some fruity concoction of a massive amount of liquor. Not anymore.
We visited New Orleans in the beginning of last November with little knowledge of any beer scene. But, we stumbled our way through bar after bar and discovered that craft beer does exist. In fact, we were floored with what we found; hope for a good future was established.
While we were in New Orleans, our editor was surprised with a no notice flight up to Chicago. It was her first visit – and a great opportunity to see an amazing world of craft beer. We visited the Publican, drank Three Floyds at the Map Room, bought a bounty of beer at Binnys and took in a Browns v. Bears game, before returning to New Orleans.
Upon returning, we decided to launch this site. Beer Blotter was born over a pint of Lazy Magnolia Jefferson Stout and NOLA Hopitoulas at the Avenue Pub. From that moment – 300 articles followed.
#2 — The Crew Visits West Flanders
The entire crew decided to throw down and take an excursion to Belgium, back in March. We planned the trip for a period of 12 months, holding epic Belgian beer tastings once a week until we left. As part of the trip, we decided to visit Germany, France and Holland as well.
Every day was filled with splendor. From the iconic bottle shops, to the revolutionary brewers, Belgium brought us to our knees. We saw Cantillon in Brussels, visited Moeder Lambis during its opening week, drank gallons at De Molen, sorted through bottles at Paters Vaetje, and gifted a Pliny the Elder to Hane at De Gans.
But, nothing was more epic than a one day visit to West Flanders. I had caught a pretty vicious cold that had put me out of commission for a few days, but I refused to allow it to defeat my trip to Westvleteren to catch Westy 12. I sucked it up, chugged some orange juice, bought some nose spray (so i could taste again) and we took off for West Flanders.
When we arrived at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren – my cold cleared up. Whether this was an amazing intervention of the almighty himself or simply an incredulous recovery – we will never know. But, it all came together as my first Westy 12 was placed in front of me.
From there, we trucked on to St. Bernardus, visited a brewer’s cottage in Woesten, drove to France to sample Escambeq’s best (with a brewer who could not speak English), drank De Struisse’s finest in a living room at De Zon and enjoyed splendid wonders from the private collection of Alvinne’s owner. I’m unsure that this day could ever be eclipsed.
#1 — The Closing of Water Street Brewing & Alehouse
The number one moment is not a happy one. But, it certainly had a profound effect on me.
For days I labored over visiting my favorite beer spot before it would shut its doors, for the final time. In the end, I didn’t go. The horror was too much for me to handle.
If you never got a chance to read the hardest post I ever typed, take a gander now. For purposes of brevity, I will not relive the words that came to mind when I head that Water Street Brewing would close down. But if you were around me for those few days – you know it was always in my mind.
Bars come and go – that is for sure. Some bars leave way too early; that was the case with Water Street. Because of a legal spat that keeps the former Water Street brewing space vacant to this day (we just saw the space this past weekend and its still not even close to re-lease), Water Street was forced into early retirement.
But, like all great combatants, Water Street may rise again. Their Facebook page has provided snippets of hope to those of us who yearn to have Queen Nina pour us another IPA. Recently, Nina announced that Strange Brewfest would return this year! This was an amazingly welcoming sign that Water Street is still alive and kicking – somewhere.
300 posts of Beer Blotter has brought us this far and we vow to keep it going. In the next month, we hope to have our new site running, filled with gobs of media and more user friendly resources.
Stick with us, please. We’ve enjoyed your company.
52 Weeks: De Zon, Woesten-Vleteren, Belgium
No other place in Belgium to find a fresher Antiek or Struise.
Week 9 of 52 (We are through Week 12 – this one is late)
057 42 20 62
Rank: #2 of 12 (uniqueness gets the boost)
Neighborhood Pub/Time Portal
BEERS ON TAP (at time of visit) —>
De Zon, in a surprisingly not all that uncommon European business practice, has zero beers on tap.
BOTTLE OPTIONS: I don’t know for certain, but experience tells me that neither Brouwerij Deca, nor Struise Brouwers keg their beers. This pub is one block from Deca, and is therefore the unofficial brewery pub. Struise is a brewery with no brewery. They make a large percentage of their brews at Deca. De Zon carries many of each brewery’s offerings in the bottle.
FOOD OPTIONS: Well this is quite humorous, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Read on.
Though visiting In De Vrede and sampling the beers of the legendary Wesvleteren Abbey was without a doubt a top highlight of West Flanders Day, Beer Botter’s experience at De Zon was quite possibly the most hilarious and notable destination of the entire trip. Our experience here will forever live on in infamy.
Woesten is, at most, 8 km from Westvleteren. Struise is, without a doubt, one of Beer Blotter’s favorite breweries of all time. You can do the math, we were REQUIRED to go to De Zon. We knew, however, that the chances it would be open at the time of our attempted visit were very small. In De Vrede, in a stunning display of oddity, opens at the early hour of 10am, and you better believe that we were there when the doors opened. This meant that our foray into West Flanders would, for the most part, be confined to the daylight hours. As we had already discovered earlier in the tip, this is bad news when you are in Belgium and trying to drink beer.
Generally, beer bar owners in Belgium open and close their establishments at will. One could easily go to a bar at 10pm one night, have a great time, attempt to go to the same bar the very next night at the very same time and find that they are closed, completely randomly. This was a subject of much frustration on our trip, but 10pm is a reasonable hour of imbibing, mid-day on a Thursday, not so much.
Our attempts to view both the Saint Bernardus brewery and the Van Eeche brewery in Watou had already failed due to timing, so we were prepared for disappointment when we pulled up to the unassuming bar front in the tiny town of Woesten. Before even trying the door, quite possibly in a move to circumvent potential rejection, we trotted down the street to take a gander at the brewery. It looked much more like a beer distributor than a brewery from the outside. Various unrecognizable beers were stacked up to extreme heights all about the outdoor lot. It was like nothing I’d seen before at a brewery.
We figured we should get a closer look, but simultaneously, as curiosity grew within us, so did bravery, and an attempt at the De Zon door was made. For the love of Black Albert, the door opened and a bright heavenly light led us into the promised-land (promised-land, maybe, but that light thing…I just made that up!)
A rare moment of humor was found in Tim Webb’s guide when he described De Zon as a “Seventies time warp”. Humorous as it is, its god damn true. The inside of this place is small, smoke stained, old as all hell, and full of dog…
Most likely, many dogs have come and gone since this place last had a makeover, but the latest little yapper to frolic amidst De Zon was the first to greet us, after quite a few awkward moments sitting at the bar completely alone. We felt as though we had “broke and entered” into someone’s home and an uncomfortable feeling of not belonging washed over us.
We soon came to realize that we actually were in someone’s home! De Zon, as you can see above, looks like a pub in every way from the outside, once you enter, suspicions arise, and then by the time you leave you wonder how you ever were fooled into any thought to the contrary.
We were finally greeted in Dutch by the pub owner/inhabitant/dog whisperer, a woman in her 70s (or so) that was very kind, but as we came to find out, spoke no English what so ever. Now those of you reading who have never been to Belgium may not think that odd, and believe me, I’m not making note of it because I have expectations that everyone should be able to speak my language, but we were a good handful of days into our trip at this point and this was our very first encounter with someone that spoke absolutely no English. It was weird. I had expected it from the beginning of the trip, but it was still weird.
We fumbled a bit through the ordering process (and actually learned how to accurately pronounce De Struise in Dutch in the process), but we were eventually served beer, and that was an accomplishment of great ecstasy. I really wish you could hear our conversation with this woman in your head like I can. The words “De Struise” were said aloud at least…oh I don’t know…like 10 times each by all parties present. That was about the extent of our communication. We understood “De Struise”, the end. Could be worse things to bond over.
We were kindly served a bowl of nuts to snack on, a bowl full of nuts and…dog hair. I present the food options of De Zon. Yum!
At least we drank well. Bottles enjoyed: Brouwerij Verstraete’s (of Diksmuide, one of our favorite town names, pronounced like male genitalia and wet dirt all smashed together) Papegaei, a Belgian strong pale ale brewed at Deca, Deca’s Vleteren Dark Old Strong Ale, Struise Tsjeeses, a Belgian strong pale ale, and Struise Black Damnation, a Russian imperial stout. All were amazing.
Amidst our beer drinking, two joyous events transpired. First, a trip to the bathroom.
There was one hallway that split off from the bar area that was clearly the only possible home for the bathrooms. After a few steps down the hall it became apparent that the men’s room was behind the door straight ahead. A bit of confusion struck me as I opened the door and found daylight…an outdoor courtyard of sorts was behind the door. Had I misinterpreted the foreign markings for men’s room? Not unlikely, but a quick second glance at the door supported my initial decision.
I allowed the door to close behind me, and it immediately was evident, I was in the “men’s room” after all. Two urinals were fastened to the wall that marked the right hand side border of the patio. Quite possibly the greatest bathroom ever!
Next up, a visit from the perma-smoking co-owner/co-inhabitor/co-whisperer. This was clear not only due to the fact that he was in just as many photos tacked to the walls of the bar as our female host (who was so rudely interrupted from her sit and magazine read at the table directly next to us [awkward!]), but also due to the fact that he was greeted much less jarringly from the shedding dog at our feet.
Soon after his arrival, both hosts slipped through the non-bathroom door in the hallway that let into the house portion of the building. Smoking was soon accompanied by a lover’s quarrel, quite visible and audible through the door that was left wide open for our pleasure. At this point, we tried our very best to make a quick exit, which wasn’t easy, but we escaped relatively unscathed.
Thanks De Zon, you were…a…ma…zing!
That closer look at the brewery that we were earlier distracted from came directly after our departure from De Zon, and after our loss of a single tear out of pure respect for De Zon’s epicness.
The Deca brewery visit was very much worth it. We ended up acquiring some very rare versions of Black Damnation; III (Black Mes) and IV (Coffee Club). These were successfully transported back to The States for future enjoyment. Woesten = Great Success!
We are back tracking to week nine, one of the two weeks we spent in Belgium. If I said I wanted to go back there tomorrow and live for all eternity….that would be an understatement.
9 of 52
9000 Gent, Belgium
09 225 06 80
Rank: #1 of 12 (again including there is one other unknown Belgian place, which will be in the top 5)
Type of Establishment: Your quintessential Belgium beer bar
BEERS ON TAP (at time of visit) —>
Rodenbach Grand Cru
House Beer Gandavum (blonde hoppy ale)
House Beer Mammelokker (dark ale)
House Beer Klokke Roeland (strong ale – 11.5%)
FOOD OPTIONS: No food options. Remember we are in Belgium. They drink all day on an empty stomach and so should you!
STAFF OPINIONS: A small establishment, there were two bartenders, one of which we had the pleasure of interacting with. He, like many, if not all Belgium residents knew his beer….he knew it well. He discussed 3 of the brews on tap that were the house beers and suggested we try them all. (Interesting, rare beers on draft are hard to come by in Belgium, a country that prides themselves on aged bottles). He was pleasant, informative and happy to introduce beers that we had never had into our lives. We are forever indebted.
Ghent was the first stop outside of Antwerp that we made in Belgium. A city with so much history and beauty, Ghent has much to offer in the realms of beer and art. During our stay we encountered medieval churches, bell towers, castles, canals and quaint squares. Although these elements of the city were preserved, Pizza Huts and modern hotels proved that Ghent was a city of the past and of the future. Prior to stopping at the Waterhuis, we ventured into Saint Bavo Cathedral to see the Ghent Altarpiece, otherwise known as the Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. Completed in the early 15th Century, this masterpiece was very high on my bucket list and is the single most impressive piece of artwork I have ever seen. The picture in this post is from the internet, as you are not allowed to take photos of the piece.
After taking in our art for the day, we head over to Het Waterhuis located along side a canal and therefore appropriately named in more ways than one. A modest space with old, almost rotting wood paneling along the floor, a layer of dust and a cloud of smoke, this bar would not exist in the US and this is why we love it. We find a space in the back with a barrel surrounded by four chairs next to a window looking out onto the water with a castle in the back drop. Dried hops hang from the bar with bottles, many of which we had yet to try, layered with dust and mold that lined the wall.
We sat in awe of the country we just arrived in, in awe of the beer we were drinking. Het Waterhuis was one of many beer experiences to come. It was amazingly worthy of our top spot to date.
Of all the beer bars and all the breweries and all the cafes and all the restaurants I went to during my trip to Europe, there is one that holds a special place in my heart. Don’t get me wrong, I have several favorites, but Paters Vaeje in Antwerp is my perfect beer bar.
Picture this. You walk down a cobble stone street past stone facades, small boutiques and cafes, in the back drop is a beautiful Gothic Cathedral with a tall, winding steeple. 700 hundred years have passed, people dress differently, store fronts change around the square, the seasons come and go, but this cathedral stands into the night sky, just as beautiful and ornate as it was at its conception.
Onze-Lieve- Vrouwekathedraal towers over the square and off to the side, next to an alley stands Paters Vaeje, know to us English speaking folk as The Monk’s Kettle. Already we are off to a good start. After walking through the square, admiring the holy structure and battling the harsh winds, we step foot into Paters Vaeje, a local beer bar. Adorned with trinkets, photos and art nouveau, mirrors and stain glass accent the back of the bar. At first attempt, we walk up a short, yet narrow spiral staircase to the second level of the bar. A small space with a balcony that over looks the lower portion, you can look down on the wood floors, the busy bartender, the bottles of beer and your fellow beer lovers. We quickly notice that the small, rickity space was encompassed by a group of boisterous, young drunks. After retreating back down stairs, we settle next to the wooden stove, embers burning, heating the whole bar.
As I sat drinking Boon Geuze, Rochefort 8 and 10, the sky was dark and grey, the cathedral shown bright outside the window, I felt as though I had found that perfect place with the perfect lighting inside, the perfect scene outside, the perfect noise level and a beer list of bruins, lambics, geuze, blondes, triples and Trappist beers.
Although we did a lot of beer consuming, we also stopped for some tasty delights during our trip to Belgium. Just like that tasty Toast Cannibale above, we tried a lot of local dishes.
For those Americans taking a trip to this amazing country, please note, beer bars in Belgium do not serve the array of bar snacks and platters we are accustom to having. If your lucky and we mean, REALLY lucky you might be able to get your hands on a meat and cheese plate, general salami and gouda. So just keep that in mind as you swing ‘em back on an empty stomach.
Chocolates: Its true, Belgium makes unbelievable chocolates (Brown Sugar in Bruges might be the fan favorite). Chocolate is an art form over there. You have hand painted individual chocolate delights on display in small windows on cobble stone streets. Hazel nut, violet, ginger, cappuccino, orange, coconut, caramel, dark chocolate, white chocolate, nibs, milk chocolate…its all there and its all earth shatteringly good. During the entire trip, we carted around boxes of chocolates, to pair with beers of course! Guezes and Lambics complemented the richness of the chocolate with a dryer, tart flavor and the nutty, sometimes fruity flavors of the Briuns or Dark Ales, were emphasized alongside these treats.
Mussels and Frites: The dish that is forever associated with Belgium. The night we indulged in this local fare, we stopped at a restaurant (can’t remember the name) located along the side of Antwerp’s main cathedral. Here, we enjoyed Rodenbach and Corsendonk’s Bruin on tap with mussels cooked in the popular Belgium style beer, Triple. The wheatiness, slight sweetness and citrus components of the Triple make these shellfish sing. Absolutely ‘delish. Cooking with beer, can’t go wrong!
Chickory (Witloof) with Ham and Melted Gruyere Cheese: Outside of Ghent, at one of our top places, De Ganes (the Goose), we ordered this dish. Unique to Belgium, this dish consists of Witloof, which is chicory, which is like an endive, a root vegetable to say the least. After this root is cooked, it is wrapped in ham and smothered in a melted Gruyere cheese sauce. It is comfort food at its best, while presenting rich flavors and thick texture. The perfect dish to pair with almost any style of beer, and that, is what we did. At De Ganes we sampled, Cantillon Grand Cru, Crudde Bruin Bier and Buffalo Stout (among many, many, many more).
Aside from the three foods mentioned in this post, Belgium has waffles, stews, gelato, toast cannibal (raw ground meat with herbs on toast- so good, we swear), Stoemf (potatoes and carrots) meatballs and lots of beer. Prior to traveling to Belgium, we were unaware of all the local dishes, so we made it a point to sample them all.
We thought we would start out our bevy of reporting on our trip to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands with a short set of our “Top 3″ in Belgium and beyond.
There were three members of BeerBlotter.com on this trip, so its impossible to come to a verdict about the ranking of the Top 3 at this point. Perhaps by the close of our two weeks of stories on the journey, we will have formed a consensus. For now we are simply providing what we believe to be the best 3 places to visit in a particular category.
Please note: we did not visit everything, we couldn’t. Though Belgium is only about 90 miles across, there are so many places to visit. Those venues are not bunched in any easily manageable way, especially the breweries of West Flanders. Thus, we will expose our limitations – we can only rank those places that we visited. Later in the week, we will be providing reviews on each establishment visited, so you will be able to get a better idea of what was visited.
Also, we are stating the names of these places in Flemish or French so that you can find them on a map/online easier.
So, here we go:
Top 3 Breweries to Visit:
1) Picobrouwerij Alvinne, Heule, Belgium
2) Brasserie Cantillon, Brussels, Belgium
3) Brouwerij De Molen, Bodegraven, Holland (Ok Ok its not in Belgium – its in the Netherlands. But its so amazing!)
***Brasserie Thiriez in Escambeq, France – very cool too, if you speak French***
Top 3 Beer Bars to Visit in Belgium:
1) Paters Vaetje, Antwerp, Belgium (Amazing atmosphere and great bartender)
2) Poatersgat, Bruges, Belgium
3) Moeder Lambic, Brussels, Belgium (new, incredible)
Top 3 Beer Bars to Visit in Holland:
1) Cafe Gollem, Amsterdam, Holland
2) ‘t Arendsnest, Amsterdam, Holland
3) Beer Temple, Amsterdam, Holland (for the variety – and if you miss the USA)
Top 3 Places to Enjoy a Beer in Belgium:
1) ‘t Waterhuis Aan De Bierkant, Ghent, Belgium
2) Picobrouwerij Alvinne’s Loft, Heune, Belgium
3) ‘t Poatersgat, Bruges, Belgium (cmon, its in a medieval cellar)
Top 3 Beer Lists in Belgium:
1) Kulminator, Antwerp, Belgium (vintages really help)
2) Cafe Cambrinus, Bruges, Belgium
3) Bier Circus, Brussels, Belgium
Top 3 Bottleshops
1) Willems, Grobbendonk, Belgium (ridiculous, go here)
2) Picobrouwerij Alvinne, Heune, Belgium (worldwide selection)
3) De Bier Temple, Bruges, Belgium
Top 3 Beer Experiences in Belgium:
1) Drinking Nuclear Penguin & Sink the Bismark with owner Davy Spiessens at Picobrouwerij Alvinne
2) Enjoying Westvleteren 12 at In De Vrede Cafe on the St. Sixtus Abbij
3) Tasting young gueuzes and special lambics at Brasserie Cantillon
***Checking out the cooling cellar at Moeder Lambic was cool too***
Top 3 Places for a Meal in Belgium (Beer Involved Venues)
1) De Gans, Huise, Belgium
2) Bier Circus, Brussels, Belgium
3)Brouwerij De Molen (Holland) & Brauerei zum Fuchschen (Germany) (again neither in Belgium, but damn good)
***We didn’t make it to Den Djiver in Bruges – we dont have 100.00 for a meal***
Top 3 Belgian Food to Eat
1) Toast Cannibale (raw beef across bread)
2) Witloof Casserole (Belgian Endive with Ham and Cheese)
3) Stoemf (potatoes, sausage, herbs and vegetables all mashed together)
Top 3 Issues with the Current State of Belgium
1) Construction in Ghent! (the entire city is under construction – kind of killing the ambience)
2) non-uniformity of business days
3) unknown/spontaneously selected opening and closing hours (its always a guessing game)
***Note: We were there during off-season, and we knew that, so the hours/days issue is partly our fault***
There is more to come. I’m sure I forgot to rank many things. We will try and wrap it together soon.
Enjoyed on 3/18/2010
Brewery: Brouwerij Westvleteren/Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus
Location: Westvleteren, Belgium
Presentation: 0.33L brown glass bottle, capped
Style: Belgian Quadrupel
Recommended Serving Temp: 55 degrees
Notes from the bottle: Part of me just wants to put N/A here for consistency sake, but I’ve, not surprisingly, never put N/A in this section. The bottles that contain the three beers of Westvleteren have no label what so ever. The only marking that can be found on the bottles themselves is the word “trappistenbier” emblazoned in the glass about ¾ of the way up the bottle. The differentiator is in the cap. The 12 has a yellow cap.
Food Pairings: Deep, meaty dishes with a lot of flavor, smoked things
Cheese Pairings: Brie, Gouda
Beer Advocate: A+
Rate Beer: 100 (4.49)
I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write a review of this beer. It is, without a doubt, one of the hardest beers to come by in the entire world. But, if you are familiar with Westy 12, you already knew that. That is without a doubt a reason that 12 is consistently rated the number one beer in the world on nearly every list out there that was created for the purpose of rating individual beers. The question that has always haunted me most is on the other side of that coin; does it taste like the best beer in the world?
When it was finally solidified that Beer Blotter was going to Belgium, it went without saying amongst us that we would find our way to St. Sixtus at all costs. We rented a car whilst there, largely for the purpose of this portion of our trip, considering that no reasonably managed public transit system would deliver us to Westvleteren. Please, Google Map (satellite view) the town. You will see how remote it is. Nestled in the heart of West Flanders, it is closer to the French border that any other major city in the country (not that that’s really saying anything, Belgium is very small).
Short aside: If you think about it, by choosing to head to West Flanders for this visit, we were making a huge time and money sacrifice to taste a beer that we only knew of in lore. A beer that we didn’t even know was good with any definity. Were it not for a man they called “The Beer Hunter” telling the world that this was the best beer in it, things would be ever so different. Never the less, we trek on.
The closest town of any population is Poperinge. Those familiar with that name are probably thinking of hops right now. Poperinge is the hop center of Belgium, and our travels in this remote corner of the country found many a hop field. It was truly a beautiful drive. Thin, barely paved roads snaked through ancient European farm, one after the other. To find a tranquil monastery out there in the countryside, well, it just seemed right. One could get some serious meditation in out there.
Thursday, March 18th was Beer Blotter’s West Flanders day, and we meditated together, albeit indirectly, with Trappist abbey monks, via the enjoyment of the holy product they produce.
Since the abbey itself is not accessible to the public, our consumption would be confined to the café and visitor center – In de Vrede. This is a very modern looking building adjacent to the monastery…much, much too modern. We could have easily been in America once we stepped through the doors. With the exception of the abbey merchandise and a few photos on the walls of the brewing equipment, In de Vrede is a pretty sterile place to have a beer and cheese plate. I guess it doesn’t really matter though…they serve all three Westy brews out of the bottle for a very reasonable price. This is the only place in the world that can, or will say that.
We went straight for the 12, without a single care for what it may do to our pallets, as if we just may up and have a heart attack in the next 15 minutes and not be able to taste it before death. The much-heralded elixir was poured right from the yellow-capped bottle (no kegs exist) into the official Westvleteren chalice. The time had finally arrived. Fear stuck me. What if it was bad? All my hopes and dreams would be spoiled in one sip. Ok, maybe I’m being a little too dramatic…
The fluid is a deep mahogany brown, allowing just the slightest bit of light to pass through it, mostly near the edges. A fluffy, off-white, near tan head arose from the pour and stuck around for a while, eventually diminishing to a wisp and ring where the beer met the glass.
The nose was somewhat challenging to decipher at first. The beer was chilled unnecessarily, but understandably. Also, a major malfunction of the chalice as a serving vessel: yes, it looks cool and is no doubt the quintessential Belgian presentation, but it offers no collection of scents. I definitely stuck my nose into the fluid on several occasions trying to gather in the smells. Patience and a lot of swirling brought a wonderful, deep malty sweetness and a substantial dose of that near omnipresent yeast fruitiness in Belgian ales. Dark, rich breads, stone fruit and spices came to mind.
The mouthfeel was undeniably smooth and slick. Good body for a Belgian, but carbonation was present as well, though subdued. Intriguing. A bitter smack to the pallet brought hops temporarily to the mind, but make no mistake, this is a malt bomb! A distinct burnt brown sugar flavor is most present. Molasses and chocolate are sensed as well. The spices are hard to pinpoint amongst the intense sweetness, but they are there. Complex is for sure. The carbonation, slick mouthfeel and rich sugars lend a cola like aspect to the beer.
The 10.2% isn’t completely hidden, but is by no means overpowering or boozy. The aftertaste is very lasting, thankfully. There is a slight dryness and the carbonation wilts away with time. Rochefort 10 was the abbey beer to beat for us. It’s close, but I’d give 12 the upper hand.
Beer Blotter can now answer that looming question…does 12 taste like the best beer in the world? Well…have we had a better tasting beer in our time? Yes, BUT…this beer is really, really good. It’s a hearty, unique, complex quad with a lot of history and a great story. Have we had a beer more rare? No. If you combine the taste and the rarity, do you get the best beer in the world? Quite possibly. Was it worth the trip? A resounding YES!
2 interesting things we learned about Westy along the way, from the Belgians that know it best:
All the hoops that have been set up by the abbey to limit the ability to obtain the beer is really annoying…to everyone, hence the extreme mark-ups found in all the bars and bottle shops that sell it and the large number of bars that now refuse to sell it, either out of frustration or simple inability to get it.
If you ever order a Westy at a bar (other than In de Vrede of course), make sure you ask your bartender or waiter to let you watch them open the bottle in front of you. As it turns out, it is a growing trend to keep an empty Westy bottle around in the back of the bar. Then, when one is ordered, the bartender will fill it with St. Bernardus Abt. 12 and serve it as if it were the ordered beer. This method working more times than not since most have never tasted said Westy, and saving the bar some serious dough along the way. There are probably worse scams in the world since Abt. 12 is a damn good beer, but a scam none-the-less.
If you like 12, you should try…
St. Bernardus Abt. 12; Trappistes Rocheford 10; and Allagash Four
Disclaimer: This beer was purchased at the only place in the world that it can be procured at a reasonable price, as the monks intended – the abbey itself. Get jealous.