Anyone living in Belgium is either a beer lover themselves (or become one rapidly, I mean, how can you not find a beer you like in this country?), or has friends who come over regularly, ostensibly to visit you, but in fact just to put some more notches on their beer belt. Whichever way you bend, you will soon start looking beyond the beer offer of Ghent and set your sights on the main prize: Westvleteren.
The name has mythical proportions among beer lovers. They whisper about it in reverence, sharing awe inspiring experiences with the brew, or pass on legends of a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who once managed to obtain a few bottles.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate. A little. What is true is that Westvleteren has been called the best beer in the world and that the monks who produce it are exceptionally gifted at something that could possibly be called viral marketing, were it not for the fact that monks do not do social media.
The Westvleteren beer is one of the 6 trappist beers of Belgium. And one of the 14 trappist beers of the world. For those not yet in the know – the title Trappist beer is a recognised label assigned by the International Trappist Association to beers that have been brewed inside the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by monks themselves or under their supervision.
Additionally, the brewery should not be the main reason for existence of the monastery but should be a secondary activity, meant only as a non-profit venture that provides the monks with sufficient funds to manage their building and grounds. Any additional income is donated to charity. This basically means that every time you drink a Trappist beer, you support a good cause. Cheers!
Westvleteren is thus in fact a monastery in West Flanders which goes by the official name of Sint-Sixtusabdij. It is found just outside of the village of Vlettern, which itself is a stone’s throw away from Poperinge, the hops capital of Flanders.
History of the Abbey
Reading up on the origins of the abbey on the official website, I have stumbled upon this intriguing story:
“In the winter of 1814 Jan-Baptist Victoor (married to the widow of J.F. Lebbe) left the town of Poperinge for the woods of Sint-Sixtus where he planned to live out the rest of his days as a hermit. In earlier times and only a few hundred meters from his new hermitage there used to be two monastic communities: from 1260 until 1355 the so-called ‘sisters of the house of Sint Sixtus’ and from 1615 until 1784 a community of monks of the Brigittine Order.”
I mean, aren’t we all curious to know why Jan-Baptist left his warm home and a new wife in the middle of a cold Flemish winter? What drove him to choose a solitary life in the wilderness? And how did the merry widow’s first husband die? Were there wolves in the forest? Was he a beer drinker?
The monks sadly do not provide any more details of this undoubtedly fascinating story, but go on to dryly note that the following summer the prior of the recently founded monastery of Catsberg and a few of his monks joined Jan-Baptist and a new Cistercian abbey was born.
Am I the only one wondering what possessed a group of monks to up and leave their comfy French abbey, just to hike for 20km and join a random Flemish guy in a forest? Were they beer drinkers too?
Read the history section of the website for more curious details about the community behind the beer.
Drinking the beer
The abbey itself is closed to visitors, however, the monks have outsourced dealing with the public to the publican across the road. Besides all three types of Westvleteren beers, In de Vrede cafe (In Peace) also serves snacks with abbey-produced cheese and meat products. There is also a small souvenir shops where they occasionally sell the Trappist beer in bottles. Note that not all types of beer are available at all times. See the notice board at the souvenir shop for current status (most likely “Sold Out”).
Buying the beer from the monks
As mentioned, the monks brew and sell the beer to support their monastery. Since the annual production of the Westvleteren beer is only about 475 kL, the beer is sold officially only through the cafe next to the abbey and to individuals following a reservation made by phone.
To book your allowed beer quota – 2 crates of currently available beer per car and phone number, once per 60 days – you will need a lot of patience: the phone lines are extremely busy.
The monks post the dates and times of the phone booking line online in advance. You can then make meaningful sacrifices to beer gods of choice or sell your soul to the devil in an effort to increase your chances of getting through to a monk on the designated day. During your call you will agree on the type of beer you can buy, the date and time of your pick-up. You will also need to provide your car registration number and your details. All the details about the purchase and how best to store the beer can be found in several languages on the abbey website.
Other things to do
If you need more than Westvleteren beer to convince you of a need for a day trip to ‘western corner’ (Westhoek), there are other attractions:
- To learn more about the monks behind the beer and their way of life, visit the Claustrum at the visitor’s centre.
- A 6.5 km-long walking route around the abbey takes you past the nearby Grotto de Lourdes. If you are wondering how the monks managed to find rocks in sandy West Flanders, the answer is they didn’t. The cave is built from rocks brought here from the Ardennes, in recognition of the fact that the abbey and its surroundings were spared during WWI.
- If you crave some silence and solitude, the monks also offer modest lodging in the abbey. This is a silent monastery and all staying guests are welcome to join in at prayer times.
- Poperinge was behind the frontline in the first world war, hosting hospitals and off-time soldiers. It has a nice old town where the main WWI attraction is the Talbot House. This Christian ‘Every Man’s Club’ was set up to provide the soldiers with rest and recreation time away from the ‘debauchery’ of the rest of the town (Poperinge was known as Little Paris by the troops). Today you can visit the Talbot House museum or stay at its unique B&B.
- As you can imagine, the countryside is dotted with WWI memorial sites. For more details, visit the website of the nearby Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
The Saint Sixtus abbey is a nice day trip from Ghent. You can easily reach it by car along the winding West Flemish roads, but even better experience is to combine it with a cycling trip through the gently rolling rural landscape. Take a train to Poperinge and rent a bicycle there (or bring your own bike on the train).
The abbey is about 15km from Poperinge and you can choose from two planned cycling routes: the Poperinge-Vleteren beer route (33 km) which takes you past the hops museum, Sint-Bernardus brewery and several pubs, as well as the Saint Sixtus Abbey. The second one is the slightly longer beer trip from Poperinge to Ypres via the Saint Sixtus Abbey. Additionally, the abbey is on the Flemish cycling network, so you can make your own route using the cycling network online planner (for example, Veurne-Sint-Sixtusabdij-Poperinge).
Do you have other beer trips close to Ghent to recommend? Or more interesting insights into Westvleteren? Let us know in the comments below.