December 10, 2009

Westvleteren Experience, November 21st, 2009

My brothers and I recently returned from a beer adventure through Belgium, where we visited four of the seven Trappist Breweries - owned and operated by generations of monks - as well as a number of other fascinating breweries. The following blog chronicles our unique and singular experience at Saint Sixtus Trappist Abbey, the location of the Westvleteren Brewery, followed by an account of our time at the De Struise Brewery. (The Westvleteren 12 has been ranked as the No. 1 beer in the world by an aggregate of beer-ranking websites, most notably Check it out at: )

DAY 3: We awoke from a restful Chimay-induced slumber around 9:30am and packed our growing suitcases. Opting for breakfast, we went downstairs to the restaurant area to find a feast of goodies awaiting our growling stomaches - croissants, bread (with yummy beer-butter, Nutella and jam spreads), meats, an assortment of cheeses, yoghurt, and hard boiled eggs. This was our first legitimate (and definitely best) breakfast of the trip, and we ate to our hearts content, knowing a long and exciting day awaited us.

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After breakfast we finished packing, paid our tab at the front desk, and headed out. With Chris behind the wheel, we commenced towards the small, but compelling, town of Westvleteren. The sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable - of all our brewery stops, this was the one we had been looking forward to the most. The Westvleteren brewery, like all breweries owning the coveted ‘Trappist’ label, is run by monks, and the beer is sold only to financially support the monastery and other philanthropic causes. Unique among the Trappist breweries, however, Westvleteren is operated in its entirety by monks - ten monks in total do everything, from the brewing to the bottling. (In addition to the monks, the remaining Trappist breweries employ a number of ‘civilians.’)

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Regardless of demand, the monks only brew enough beer to support the monastery. This is especially the case at Westvleteren, where recent international attention has only served to exponentially increase demand; however, the monks refuse to increase production and supply, making it much harder for anyone to get their hands on this sacrosanct stuff. A monk at Westvleteren is quoted as saying, “We are no brewers. We are only monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.” Such humble words from the makers of the world’s greatest beer!

The two and a half hour drive, the longest stretch we’d traverse in our beer hunt, was pleasant and fun. The temperature was a balmy 60 degrees or so, and the sun radiated off the golden Belgian landscape - perfect driving weather. We listened mainly to Radiohead during the drive (mainly the albums Kid A, OK Computer and In Rainbows), probably the favorite band of us all.

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Arriving in Westvlerteren around 2:30pm, we parked and went inside the beer hall across the street from the Abbey, called the In De Vrede (‘In the Peace’) cafe. At first sight, the area outside didn’t look crowded at all, but inside was a bustle of activity.

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We hit the gift shop immediately, making sure to obtain at least a couple of the famously hard-to-get Westvleteren 12’s (or Westy 12’s) before they ran out. Chris and I both bought two Westvleteren gift packs, complete with two 6’s (blond), one 8 (triple), one 12, and a cool Westvleteren beer glass. I chatted with an American girl in line behind me who was studying in Belgium - she said these will make good Christmas gifts for her family...I joked that they’ll make good gifts for myself!

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After our purchases, we found a table and started imbibing, ordering three Westy 12’s right off the bat. The waitress returned with our first round, we set up our cameras and took our first sips - yes, very delicious and unique, tasting noticeably different from the other Trappist brews. The texture was smooth and slightly bready, and dark fruit (plum) and chocolate flavors undulated across the tongue. A creamy gingerbread taste also subtly romanced the taste buds. I was, however, a little turned off by the winey and slightly boozy character of the flavor and aftertaste. It was very caramely and malty, which I adore, but it left a definite unwelcome ‘boozy’ taste on my palate. Chris and Benny, in Westy 12 induced orgasms, said they could taste a hint of this character as well, but it didn’t seem to bother them as much. To each his own. I became somewhat of a naysayer (but would be vindicated later!)

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The blonde and the 8° were both delicious as well, especially the blond - it was crisp and flavorful, with a beautiful lingering citrus aftertaste. Incredibly refreshing and exuberantly effervescent. The 8 had a wonderfully unique earthy characteristic to the flavor, and it was almost as complex (although not quite as balanced) as its older brother. (The Westy 8 is ranked No. 11 on's esteemed list.)
We also ordered some soup, a deep orange carrot soup served with bread and beer-butter. This was the best soup of the trip, and perhaps the best soup I’ve ever experienced. I’m not normally a ‘soup’ guy, but this hit the spot, particularly enjoyed in concert with the buttered and slightly doughy fresh bread. When the waitress came back to our table, I asked for another bowl, but alas, they were out. After two hours or so of indulging our taste and olfactory senses, we paid our tab and left the cafe.

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Now for the tricky part...The only way in the world to legitimately and legally buy Westy 12 is by ordering it ahead of time and picking it up at the abby during designated hours and days of the week. There are a strict set of guidelines to be followed - first, one must call the abby beer ‘hotline’ and order one or two cases. (Two is the maximum allotted per car.) Second, the Westy 12 cases are only available for pick-up on prescribed days of the week - after placing an order and receiving a day and time, you must come on that day only (they ask for your license plate to verify). Third, you must physically come to the Abby, wait in at the potentially lengthy the car line, and finally, pop the trunk for the monks bringing out the case or cases.

We had two of the three procedures squared away. Chris had called and talked to one of the monks in charge (named Father Michael) a week or so earlier and had reserved the maximum allowed two cases. (Actually, Benny had tried calling before Chris’ successful attempt, but to no avail. He strived to get through their beer hotline on two different mornings, spending a total of five hours trying to break the interminable busy signal.) Our pick-up day, however, was to be the following Tuesday, not today (or so we thought). This presented quite a predicament for sure, but having come all this way in search for the world’s greatest beer, we decided to get our car in line and try our trifecta of pastor’s kid luck!

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After 20 minutes or so of waiting in the car line, we arrived in the hot seat. Chris jumped out of the car and started talking to one of the monks (Benny and I, inside the car, watched intently). After quick introductions Chris handed the monk, who happened to be the one from the phone conversation, Father Michael, a token gift of two beer coasters, one from Squatters Brewery in Salt Lake, and one from New Belgium in Ft. Collins, Co. (As a small measure of our appreciation, Chris gave these coasters, complete with a personalized thank-you message on the back, to each of the brewmasters and deserving bartenders we encountered on our journey.) He proceeded to flip through his order chart for the day, where, as expected, we were not on the list for pick-up. Chris was then led inside the building to small anteroom, where Father Michael double-checked the case reservations with a monk colleague on their computer (yes, the monks are tech-savvy). After several minutes, Chris and Father Michael started walking back towards the car - I flashed Chris an inquisitive thumbs up sign and he flashed a confident one back. Success! The monks wheeled out our allotted two cases, I popped the truck, and we were good to go - we now had two cases of Westy 12 hanging out in the back of our Mercedes.


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As we drove off, giddy with excitement, Chris gave us the inside scoop on how things went down in the back room. Not present on the physical order list for today (Saturday), the monks used Chris’ driver’s license to double-check our reservation status on their computers; unfortunately, we were not on the list for a Tuesday pick-up either (most likely their error). Father Michael asked Chris if we had called to make a reservation. Chris responded with an assured, “Yes, of course,” and he recounted calling and getting through the previous Friday evening (their Saturday morning) from his home in Salt Lake City. A lightbulb went off in Father Michael’s head.
“Yes. I remember that came all the way from America, from Utah to get our beer?”
“Yes, of course!” Chris responded, to which Father Michael half-jokingly exclaimed, “You’re crazy!”
After this exchange, Father Michael, trading nods with the other monk, said to Chris, “Okay, two cases.”
Indeed, perhaps we are a little crazy, Father! As we drove off into the fuchsia-orange sunset along the winding dirt road, Chris proclaimed, “By the grace of the gods of delicious beer, we ended up with forty-eight bottles of arguably the best beer in the world!”

(An interesting side-note, one which further illuminates the difficulty in even placing an order for this mystique-laden beer, is the actual phone conversation Chris had with Father Michael. After hours of being on hold, Chris finally connected and politely requested a reservation and pick-up date for Saturday the 21st. Father Michael, on the the other end in Belgium, responded with a terse, “That is not possible. Only pick-up on Tuesday” (the 24th). Although knowing that we probably wouldn’t want to change our carefully and studiously mapped-out itinerary for the trip, Chris still smartly and providentially reserved two cases of Westy 12 under the Detrick name for the dictated Tuesday date).

Following Westvleteren, our next stop was a small Belgian brewery called De Struise Brouwers, about 3 miles north in the town of Oostvleteren. Benny and I knew nothing of this brewery, but Chris highly recommended it and was intent on stopping. I’m so glad we did. After parking on the street and finding the place (they had recently moved their operations into a complex with a half-dozen or so classrooms...we later learned that it was formerly an all-girls school), we wandered around, looking for someone to guide us. We finally came upon a room full of people, all sitting in desks in front of a chalkboard flush with notes and mathematical equations, presumably on brewing processes and techniques. We were told to chill for another ten minutes until the seminar wrapped up.

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Once the crowed departed, we sat down in the very front of the classroom like earnest third graders, intent on pleasing the teacher and absorbing as much beer knowledge as possible (we were the only ‘pupils’ in the room). The head brewer, named Carlo Urban, was a portly, bespectacled fellow, whose tiny wire-rimmed glasses accentuated his cone-shaped bald head. After graciously welcoming us, he proceeded to talk about the brewery, specific brewing processes and techniques they favored, and the particulars of a few of their beers.

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To augment the learning process, we tried an assortment of brews. The first, called ‘Black Albert,’ was a dark, malty brew with hints of coffee flavor...very tasty. Another, with the moniker ‘Black Damnation,’ was tantalizing as well, but the coffee flavor was a bit to pervasive for my tongue. Next was a sumptuous spice-infused quadruple called Pannepot, an old fisherman's ale named after the fishing boats from the village of De Panne. (Pannepot is ranked No. 57 of's list).
Although the Pannepot is their flagship beer, their claim to fame brew is called ‘Tsjeeses’ (or rather, ‘To Jesus,’ complete with a smiling, cigarette-smoking Jesus in a Santa hat caricature on the front). This beer was intensely fruity, sweet, a bit hoppy (12 or 13% alcohol), and named in honor of yes, Jesus of Nazareth. In my view, this characterization was more of a compliment to Him than a put-down; however, in order to import this particular beer to the US, they had to invent a more Christian-friendly, less ’60s-hipster Jesus image for the label. (God has a sense of humor, right?)


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After a while, two more brewers joined us in the classroom - one was the wife of Carlo, and the other, who was the brains and inspiration behind the Tsjeeses beer, a co-owner. They inquired about our trip, and we recounted our memorable visits to the La Couffe, Rochefort, Orval, Chimay, and Westvleteren breweries the past few days. Carlo asked specifically about Westvleteren, and what we thought of the famous Westy 12. We all loved it, we said, but I remarked that I thought it tasted too boozy was slightly unsatisfied with the brew in general. He nodded and said this is a common feeling some people express after tasting the beer, one with such high expectations. He then looked at us unabashedly, his eyes opening wide with excitement, and asked, “Would you guys like to try a year-old Westy 12?”

Happily obliging, we sat giddily as he brought out a dust-covered Westy from a back room. “Give this one a try,” he said assuredly while pouring us the aged holy grail. We drank and reflected; indeed, the booziness I had tasted in the more virgin batch was all but gone - only beautiful and succulent, dare I say virtuosic, flavor remained. We all agreed it was even more remarkably exquisite than the Westys imbibed that afternoon! (The monks do, in fact, recommend aging and storing the Westy 12 for at least a year to obtain optimal flavor.)
While relishing the Westy, the conversation continued. We had a blast talking about beer and different beers from around the world, and Chris inquired about their brewing methods and processes. I was impressed with Chris’ breadth of knowledge in beer generally and the brewing process in particular. Benny and I both learned a great deal from our savvy middle bro over the course of the trip - studious pupils to his beer expertise!


Interestingly, the conversation turned more philosophical, as we pondered the eternal question of why so many people drink such crappy beer (referring to Bud, Coors, Heineken, et al.). Much of it has to do with the huge beer conglomerates, like Anheuser-Busch and Stella Artois, buying up and taking over smaller, formerly independent breweries. (Additionally, in Texas, lobbyists employed by the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Coors pressure lawmakers to pass legislation making the beer importation process as arduous and difficult as possible. Frequently, kegs and cases of various German, Belgian, and other imported brews sit in docked boats, held up by burdensome red-tape while waiting for proper clearance. Ridiculous!) Faced with less choice, the consumer naturally drinks whatever beer is available, cheap, and familiar. I feel that if one was educated and given a choice between a delicious German or Belgian brew and a Bud, the former would always win. Carlo channeled our collective disgust into colorful joke about Heinekin: “Drinking Heineken is like fu#kin’ in a canoe - they’re both fu#kin’ close to water!” Funny stuff, and so true.

In a similar vein, Carlo explained that while their brewery was small and catered only to a small sliver of the beer-drinking population (even in beer-utopia Belgium), they were content with this situation and lived happy and meaningful lives. On a high from all the extraordinary beer savored, I wholeheartedly agreed and added my two cents:
“So you go home and you can feel satisfied that you’re actually creating something of quality, versus someone working at Budweiser or Stella Artois who is just a cog in the system...they’re just producing something that someone’s gonna piss out without really, ya know, enjoying the taste.”
Carlo nodded and tellingly remarked, “This is a way of expressing ourselves, through our beer.”
“Yeah, and you’re not conforming to the lowest common denominator,” Benny chimed.
Carlo continued. “I can’t say that we make ‘art,’ but we make a product with a lot of love.”
“You make liquid gold!” exclaimed Chris.

From the perspective of three brothers in the business of discovering, creating, and sharing art, Carlo and his gang at De Struise, as well as the esteemed yet humble monks at Westvleteren, do indeed beget art - in the form of delectable and heavenly beer!

We will never forget our collective experience this memorable day - it was one for the books and will be happily remembered each time we enjoy the Westy 12’s successfully transported back to our respective homes. For all you beer lovers out there - visit Westvleteren before you die!

(Or you can ‘illegally’ purchase it on the following website, where it’s marked at $50.00 per 11 oz. bottle!

Matt, Chris, and Ben Detrick

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