Our dear friend S turned 40 this past weekend and such a milestone deserves to be celebrated in style. For this massive beer fan and the only friend I have who has Welsh as his mother tongue, Mr B and I decided to try our luck and attempt to get our hands on some Trappist beer regularly listed as some of the ‘best in the world’.
Belgium is of course, home to some of the most popular beers globally and trappist beers are particularly revered. Belgium has 6 monasteries still brewing, sometimes the monks themselves directly brew, at others monks supervise the brewing. Any profits made above the basic living expenses of the monks are given to charity. This means you can drink down some great beer in good conscience!
I’d heard about the Abdij St. Sixtus, close to Lille and Ypres, and its particularly small batch beers from an American colleague but did not realise the adventure that actually getting the beer entails. The Abbey was founded in 1838 and is the only brewery in Belgium where monks do all the brewing which makes it particularly special.
So how did we get hold of the beer?
- After checking online, we noted down the 3 hour period (yes, seriously) when the ‘beer line’ would be open.
- Mr B took the first 1.5 hours trying to get through and then I took over. I had a weird but very clear feeling we’d be successful. By 11.55 I was getting slightly anxious we’d have to revert to a back-up gift when the engaged tone changed and started ringing.
- Once I’d given our licence plate and received our pick up slot (immediately calling Mr B despite him being in a meeting to let him know the good news), we were left to contemplate how exactly the monks have the technology to block the phone numbers of those who have got through for 2 months – all very intriguing.
- At the designated time (OK we were 15 mins late) we finally found the unobtrusive beer pick up zone to the left of the main Abbey building.
- A worker (monks don’t do this bit unfortunately, that would be too cool) checked our license plate, loaded up the beer in their distinctive wooden pallets and then rolled forward to the ‘drive through’ payment window (That’s right. By the way, only cards are accepted, no cash).
- We drove off pretty delirious that it all actually worked out!
- If you’re after the coveted Westvleteren 12 be aware that you are limited to one ‘pallet’ of 24 bottles
- If you’d like to try the beers but didn’t have our luck, the onsite restaurant/cafe has all 3 (12, 8 and blond) for sale, as well as the Abbey’s cheese. You can also buy the official beer goblets at the tiny shop here.
- Getting to the monastery is a challenge. Public transport is extremely limited (rail to Poperinge and then a bus) so we recommend hiring a car (designate a driver!) and taking the opportunity to visit some of the war cemeteries while you’re in the area. There is also a Westvleteren walking trail you can pick up at the Abbey.
- While you can’t visit the Abbey or the Brewery themselves, there is a small exhibition room on-site open from 2-5pm but most of the information is only in Flemish.
- The restaurant and exhibition are closed on Fridays which is the official ‘rest day’ of the monastery.
- Those who want the full Abbey experience can stay at the guest house on site for up to a week as long as they are willing to participate in the ‘full life’ of the Abbey where silence is the norm and morning prayers are held at 3.30am…
- The nearby town of Poperinge is known, unsurprisingly, for its hops. The annual ‘Hop Festival’ takes place on the third Sunday in September.