To Belgium, in search of the world's best beer
There was one thing my husband, 25-year-old daughter and I agreed we wanted to do on a recent trip to Europe — visit Belgium to try Westvleteren beer, which has been described by several sources as the best beer in the world.
Belgian chocolate, Belgian French fries, picturesque cities on canals and rolling green countryside also lured us.
We planned the trip, however, around the Westvleteren beer. It was to be found, we had been told, at the St. Sixtus Trappist abbey in Flanders, where it is produced and sold — there and nowhere else. The monks sell the beer nowhere but at the monastery's visitor's center.
Daughter Caitlin, while spending a year as an au pair in the Netherlands with a lot of time off, had gone to the brewery with a Belgian friend, Katrien De Schepper.
Caitlin met Katrien through couchsurfing.org, a website that matches up travelers with slim resources with hosts who don't mind sharing their homes and local knowledge. Katrien had taken Caitlin to the area near the border with France to try the monks' beer. Caitlin thought we would enjoy it as much as she had.
We stayed in the nearby town of Watou, at Het Brouwershuis, or The Brewers House, a bed and breakfast on the grounds of a brewery. The B&B had, among other attractions, a refrigerator full of beer in the lounge for guests.
We drove from the Netherlands to Watou, stopping in Bruges on the way for a lunch of mussels, Belgian fries and beer at outdoor tables. We spent a few pleasant hours wandering Bruges, enjoying the medieval architecture, canals and chocolatiers. Bruges is well worth a much longer stay.
Het Brouwershuis sits on a quiet country lane next to a hops field on the grounds of the St. Bernardus Brewery, which produced beer under license from St. Sixtus until 1992 and now brews under its own name.
Our large attic room had plenty of space for the three of us, lovely views out each window, and enough closet space for permanent residents. The beer frig was full of the St. Bernardus beers, with a jar on top for donations. (Back home, if you can find it, St. Bernardus beer sells for around $8 per bottle or $48 for a six-pack.)
After a lovely dinner at the charming family-run Het Ovenhuis in Watou, the three of us spent the evening in the glassed-in conservatory attached to the B&B sampling the St. Bernardus beers, which came in dark and light versions of up to 10.5 percent alcohol. It was very good beer.
The next morning after a walk in the countryside we headed off to the St. Sixtus guest center, anticipating not only tasting our fill of the Westvleteren beer, but also the cheese and ice cream the monks produce.
The abbey, founded in 1831, has been brewing beer since 1838. The monks brew the beer themselves. They do not advertise and sell only enough beer to support the monastery.
The beer is sold only in the visitor's center next door or by the case at the monastery, where the amount sold to each person is strictly regulated and must be arranged in advance by phone on a line that is almost always busy.
St. Sixtus is one of seven trappist monasteries, six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands, that brew beer sold to the public. Chimay is one brand that is easy to find locally, others are Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel, Koningshoeven and Orval.
There are three Westvleteren beers: Blonde, Dark 8 and Dark 10.8. The brewery's website describes the blonde, which has 5.8 percent alcohol, as "made with the help of three kinds of hops of the region, (with)... a light and soft taste." The Dark 8 (the 8 is the alcohol percentage) is described as having "a sweet and fruity aroma with an accent of melon." The Dark 10.8, which is the most respected of the three, is said to have a "generous, creamy aroma and powerful caramelized and malted taste."
At the guest center, we were surprised to be able to park right at the entrance. Once there, we quickly discovered why — it was closed. All week.
Not one of us cried, but we all felt like it. I later discovered, deep in the guest center's website, that the closure was planned, as it was a school holiday week in Belgium.
We consoled ourselves by taking another hike through the countryside, where we discovered another B&B, Pahilleke, only a few minutes walk from the St. Sixtus vistitors' center. Pahilleke serves dinners based on local foodstuffs and has rates even more reasonable than those at Het Brouwershuis.
We then tried to get lunch in a pub in the nearby town of Vleteren only to discover lunch service had ended. The bartender suggested a nearby bakery for sandwiches to bring back to the pub, which we happily did. We had trappist beer with our sandwiches, just not Westvleteren Trappist beer.
That night we crossed into Godewaersvelde, France (painless in these European Union days) and had another wonderful dinner at Het Blauwershof, a Flemish pub and restaurant packed with noisy, cheerful diners. After several trips to Europe, we've found that ordering the set price menu at a restaurant is a good idea, and here it even included a local beer bottled just for the restaurant.
Without the chance to try the Westvleteren beer, we decided to cut our planned visit a day short and left the next morning. Caitlin wanted to meet Katrien and visit the Ghent flea market.
Katrien showed us the highlights of Ghent. But what will endear her to us forever was her response when we told her, sadly, that the Westvleteren visitor center was closed.
Ah, Katrien said, but she had a four-pack of Westvleteren beer in her apartment. It seems her father, who grew up in that part of Belgium, also appreciates the monks' beer and visits as often as he can. Sometimes the visitor's center sells four-packs to go, and he had brought Katrien one after a recent visit.
We begged Katrien to sell us the beer, but she not only insisted on giving it to us, but had a friend deliver it to us in Ghent's center. We celebrated over yet another not Westvleteren, but still pretty good, trappist beer.
The four precious Westvleteren beers went back to the Netherlands with us. One evening, when Caitlin was off at her Dutch language class, we shared two of the beers with our host. The next night we shared the other two with Caitlin.
Since I haven't tried every beer in the world, I can't say if the Westvleteren is the best. It was, however, good enough that I wouldn't mind going back for another visit when we're sure the visitor's center is open. In fact, just writing about it is making me thirsty.
Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener from Woodside who writes the Dispatches from the Home Front column.