Westvleteren 12 in Belgium
We were twitchy with excitement. We were finally seated in the café of the St. Sixtus Abbey in West Flanders, about to taste the Westvleteren 12. It’s a Belgian Quadrupel-style ale (very strong and dark), at 10 percent or higher ABV, and widely considered the best beer in the world.
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Our attempts to order the two cases that people are permitted to buy every 60 days had failed, because the single phone line to the abbey, which allows calls only from 8:30 am to 11:30 am on Wednesdays, was permanently busy. Our first attempt to visit the café had failed because we’d gone on a Friday, when the Trappist monks close up shop.
But now it was Monday, and the café was open. We hadn’t managed to order cases, but we’d lucked out: the Westvleteren 12 was available on tap. The place was packed. Some visitors, many driving Porsches and BMWs, had gotten through on the monk-phone and had come to pick up their beer. One young soldier stationed in Germany told us that every 60 days his commanding officer made him drive to Belgium to get his two cases. A busload of elderly people disembarked, most in wheelchairs or on crutches. It turns out that the abbey has a grotto modeled on the one in Lourdes, where people go to be healed. The group had lunch and beers, and even before heading a bit unsteadily down the path to the grotto, they seemed well on the way to better health.
Our beer came. We drank. It was ambrosial. For all the extravagant hype surrounding it, the Westvleteren 12 really did taste extraordinary. It was dark, heady, strong but balanced, with hints of dark fruit, caramel, and coffee. I didn’t register the “brown bread and workbench dirt” or the “musty barnwood” flavors, but it was deeply complex and utterly delicious.
Our waitress told us that occasionally they sold a few bottles in the gift shop, but there were no extras that day. Undeterred, I accosted a waiter and asked him if maybe, possibly, there was a bottle of the 12 lurking somewhere that we could buy, as we had come all the way from America to taste it.
“Look!” he replied. “They’re selling some right now!” A line of people had suddenly materialized at the gift shop, which was offering a very limited number of four-bottle gift packs, including one 12 and a Westvleteren glass, for an outrageous price. Thrilled, we rushed to buy two gift packs and held them high, giddy with beer and the joy of achieving a near-impossible goal.