Friday, July 29, 2011

Trappist Westvleteren - The Best Beer in the World?

The Abbey of St. Sixtus lies in the tiny village of Westvleteren, which itself can be found in the very westernmost part of Flanders, Belgium. Within its ancient walls are housed a small contingent of Catholic monks who belong to a strict Benedictine monastic order known as the Cistercians, small communities of which can be found all over the world - including five abbeys in Canada. The monks' day-to-day life comprises of a regimen of prayer, scriptural reading, and silent reflection, all of which is done to bring about a state of peace and closeness to God. But another path to godliness, which was highly praised by St. Benedict in his teachings, distinguishes Cistercians from other Catholic orders, and that is the concept of manual labour. Rather than exclusively relying upon external funding like tithes or donations, Cistercian monks will keep their abbeys afloat through the fruits of their labour ("the work of their hands"), which usually involves some sort of craft or food production to be sold to the general community. Since each abbey is essentially autonomous, it is up to the local monastic community and the abbot to decide what sort of labour project the monastery will undertake, and how it will be undertaken. And it is a very good thing for brew lovers around the world, that at some point in its history, the Westvleteren Abbey of St. Sixtus decided to begin brewing beer.

Consistently rated among the world's greatest beers are two of the three varieties produced by Westvleteren: their #12 Quadrupel Ale, and their #8 Dubbel Ale.  Westvleteren 12 currently occupies the very top spot at both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, whose ratings are gathered from average joes like yours truly, while respected published beer critics the world over - like the late British author Michael Jackson – also consider these two brews to be among the world's finest.  Perhaps the monastic lifestyle does something to the Westvleteren brewmasters.  Perhaps it inspires them to create great works in the glory of God and all creation. Or maybe it’s the patience and inner peace that comes from men who are governed by no sales budget, no focus group, no one but their brothers and God himself, allowing them to approach the true 'zen' of beermaking. Whatever the key is, the brothers at Westvleteren have found it, for theirs is often referred to as the best beer ever made. 

The magnificient seven...
Westvleteren brews are part of a small, but extremely influential family of beers known as "Trappist beer," which is a very specific descriptor of an abbey beer's origin; the name is 'trademarked', just as one would do so for Champagne wine and Parmesan cheese. For a beer to be called Trappist, it must be made exclusively on abbey property by Cistercian monks (who, in honour of their original La Trappe Abbey in France, are often known as "trappists"), and all of the proceeds from beer sales must only go towards keeping the monastery afloat, as well as to support charitable endeavours. At present, there are seven Trappist breweries in the world, with Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren found in Belgium, and the lone holdout “La Trappe” Koningshoeven rounding things off in the Netherlands.  Though each brewery’s output differs in volume, style and complexity, all are extremely regarded amongst the beer-loving community.  Indeed, many of Europe’s great breweries are indebted to the Trappist line, having been inspired by the monks’ unique approach to brewing.  Leffe, De Koninck, Maresdous, and Affligem are just some of the more mainstream, high-production breweries from Belgium whose beers are brewed along the same lines as the Trappists.   But while all Trappist beers seem to be rated very highly, the brews from Westvleteren consistently top the charts.  So if this beer is so good, why haven’t we all tried it before? 

The brewery of the abbey of Westvleteren operates on a simple principle: “We are no brewers.  We are monks.  We brew so we can afford to be monks.”  For that reason, production numbers are extremely low at Westvleteren, despite the growing clamour from those who just can’t enough of their beer.  But that isn’t the entire problem; Achel’s brewery output is even lower than Westvleteren’s, yet their beers are occasionally available overseas in specialty beer stores.  What sets Westvleteren apart is the fact that there is only one way to get their beer.  Forget driving out to the abbey and hoping to pick up a few bottles.  It’s not going to happen.  Nope, first you have to call a beer ‘hot-line’ to see if there is any beer available.  If there is, you place your order over the phone; your number, name and licence plate are recorded.  Then, at the appointed time, you drive to the brewery, provide your information and receive your beer allotment, which may be as little as one or two cases per month.  

Or, you find someone whose gone through all that and is willing to trade with you for a couple of bottles.  Airfare to Belgium being what it is, I opted for the latter, and managed to acquire a bottle of both the 8 and the 12.    So, I wondered to myself as I brought these two treasures inside: was I truly in the possession of the world’s greatest beer?  Only one way to find out...

In the next posts, we'll have a look at both the 8 and the 12 to see what all the rhubarb is all about!

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