Westvleteren Trappist beers1 are brewed in the small St. Sixtus -abbey since 1838.

For decades, a small brewery in nearby Watou was granted the right to use the St. Sixtus name to market their beers because the monks only brewed for 'internal use'. This agreement ended in 1990. The monks started to sell their own beer on a small scale. The brewery then dropped the 'St' in the name. This is confusing: the Sixtus brand beers are not produced in the St. Sixtus abbey. The genuine Trappist beer is branded Westvleteren.

Like most Trappist beers, Westvleteren comes in three distinct flavours2:

  • Special (6 degrees of alcohol), green cap, blonde beer
  • Extra (8 degrees), blue cap, reddish brown beer
  • Abbot (Dutch: abt, 12 degrees), yellow cap, dark brown

Most people rave about the very strong 12 degrees beer, but I prefer the Special, which is more of a "drinking" beer. I feel less "stuffed" (this is perhaps a bit disrespectful, but not meant that way).

Chances are you will not find this beer in your local pub (unlike eg. Chimay) because it's distributed in a peculiar, very artisanal way: you can only buy the beer "on site" or in a small pub in the vincity of the monastery (In de Vrede) !

The abbey (situated near Poperinge) sells unlabeled 33cl bottles in primitive wooden cases at the gates. Only the color of the caps can tell you something more about the beer3. There's a purchase limit of 10 crates. No vistors are allowed in the brewery.

The small pub also sells Westvleteren cheese. Tastes really great with the beer.

The choice for quality over quantity is not so obvious these days.

1The other genuine Belgian trappist beers are brewed in Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westmalle. There's only one Dutch trappist (La Trappe).
2The story goes that "ordinary" monks drank the 6, higher "ranked" monks drank the 8 and only the abbot had the privilege to drink the 12.
3Yes, I've also seen some pictures of Westvleteren bottles *with* label on the internet...

In my opinion the Westvleteren 12 is one of the five or so best beers in existence. It is also the highest-rated beer on ratebeer.com. There are some interesting stories about the distribution of Westvleteren. While it's true that only individuals can get the beer at the abbey, bottles manage to circulate around the world. A local store says that only about fifty stores in the world carry Westvleteren. The beer-drinking world is indebted to teams of people who go to the abbey individually and bring back the beer for labeling and distribution. The monks don't have a price for their beer. Instead an individual gives a donation to the abbey and the monks give what they feel is appropriate. Considering the fact that bottles of Westvleteren cost, in general, less than $10, they are clearly a steal!

When I visited Brussels the only beer I couldn't find was Westvleteren, and the citizens there clearly consider it in the highest regard. I happened to find a bottle of Westvleteren 12 in my upscale grocery store in Berkeley (Whole Foods Market), not knowing anything about it--just buying it because it was the most expensive one and I thought I'd try "the best." It changed my life. Now i'm a beer afficionado. While I think I like a few beers better--Westmalle dubbel for instance--Westvleteren will always be special to me.

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