Monday, November 24, 2008

Belgium Trip, Day 5 - Part I: Westvleteren

Sleep was fitful at best in the Polo. It was cramped and it was quite cold in the Ardennes that night. All the above being the case ensured that we were up, packed and checked out just before daylight and on the road to the Westvleteren Abbey in western Flanders.

Now, if you're reading this blog you already know that Westvleteren Abbey has quite a mystique surrounding it due to the ales that the abbey produces. They are one of 6 Trappist breweries in Belgium but are the only one that does not officially distribute their beers. They sell cases at the brewery by appointment but when you find them elsewhere it is strictly black market and VERY expensive. I have never thought that buying bottles for $20 each was really worth it but I was certainly going to make a special point to visit their cafe to try these legendary beers for myself. The timing of my trip was bad and I was unable to schedule a time to buy some beer at the abbey but I had heard that they sometimes sell mixed six-packs in the cafe store.

We arrived at the abbey cafe, In De Vrede, just after the opening time of 10:00. I headed in and checked the cafe beer available for sale. Bummer. But I couldn't be too disappointed. How many mornings do you have the opportunity for some fresh Westvleteren ales?
I ordered some pate and a Westvleteren Blonde, Dave decided to start with the Westvleteren 12 and work his way down. The blonde was crisp, fruity and hoppy. The least hyped of the Westvleteren ales, the blonde did not disappoint at all. This is not a beer built for aging (only 5.8%, forward hop character) so maybe it doesn't arrive across the Atlantic in the best shape. Fresh however, it is stunningly good.

I continued with the pate and we ordered a couple Westvleteren 8's. The 8 is a dark brown ale, a Trappist dubbel that is 8% ABV. Lots of earthy, bready flavors interlaced with all kinds of malty, dark fruit sweetness. There is a hint of alcohol but it disguises its strength for the most part and surprisingly has a fair amount of bitter, herbal hops in the finish. Excellent beer. Well done.

I ordered a hommelpaptaart (quite literally, a "hop-tart") and the Westvleteren 12. The Westvleteren 12 has the reputation of being the best beer in the world. It was time to find out. The 12 weighs in at 10.8% and whatever I said about the 8, the 12 is all that and more. It's very fruity with aromas of black currant and ripe plum. It fills the mouth with a rich maltiness and lots more of that dark fruit. The alcohol is quite pronounced and maybe a little hot. This beer was very young. Again, even with the big malt profile, there are some hops detectable in the finish. Really outstanding.

(As an aside, I thought I would address the notion of these beers as "the best in the world". They are all top-notch beer, there is no doubt about it. But if I were to compare the 12 against similar beers, would I say that is is head and shoulders above Rochefort 10 or St. Bernardus Abt 12? No. They are all so close in quality that it you would be hard pressed to say which is the "best". It was surely worth the trip to the cafe and I would like to buy some to take away on my next trip to Belgium. But I don't think I will be paying exorbitant black market prices to get them. The relative difference in taste is certainly no worth the enormous difference in price.)

After a couple hours and three quite strong ales, we decided to stroll around ground around the abbey to make sure we were OK to drive. There is a trail system around the countryside near the abbey so we went out for a walk for about an hour or so. It was quite a beautiful day and more pictures of that walk will follow. About 1:00 PM, we got back to the car and started toward Brugge.

If you have the opportunity, a visit to In De Vrede is well worth the trip. Three world-class beers, some fairly good food and a picturesque abbey in the Flanders countryside.

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