Discover the Westvleteren selection on our website:
From the early years of Christianity, monks lived more like hermits. About 1,500 years ago, St Benedict felt that this was too extreme and wrote a book of rules in 73 chapters for monastic life which aimed for a balance between seclusion and working with the community.
1,000 years ago, the Cistercian order was established following these rules, in particular that each monastery should be self-sufficient. By 1663, there was a feeling that this order was too liberal and the new French Trappist order was born emphasising prayer, minimal conversation, reading and manual labour. By 1685, the first Trappist brewery was established.
In 1831 Trappist monks from the Mont des Cats monastery in France founded the St Sixtus monastery outside Vleteren near Poperinge in Belgian’s main hop producing area. Seven years later they started brewing and they have not stopped since.
In fact, as that part of Belgium was not occupied by the Germans during the First World War, it was the only Belgian Trappist beer to keep its copper vats and to continue producing beer during the war. The Germans had confiscated the fermentation equipment of all the other Trappist breweries during that war.
Originally, you had to be a guest or monk to drink their beer, but in 1931, the abbot allowed sales to the public. During the Second World War, they stopped selling to wholesalers and since then the beer is only available either at the Abbey or at its visitors’ centre.
The monastery only produces 475 hectolitres each year, as the Father Abbot put it when the new brewery was opened "We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
One of the main external characteristics of Westvleteren beers is the lack of a label. All the information which is legally obligatory is printed on the cap. This means that Westvleteren is the only Trappist brewery not to carry the prestigious Trappist Beer logo on its bottles, although it is on the wooden crates.
If you want to buy some beer from the abbey, you must register 60 days in advance, and then you can only buy one crate of 24 bottles. In 2011, the abbey needed to raise money for urgent renovations and 93,000 six-packs with a Westvleteren glass were sold in Colruyt, a Belgian supermarket chain. A further 7,760 gift packs were imported into the US by the Shelton Brothers.
This control on supply helps keep the beer more exclusive and perpetuate the myth of best beer in the world.
The beers are made with only malt, hops, yeast, water, sugar and, surprisingly, caramel. The brewing has an almost religious status as five of the monks brew the beer. Secular workers assist with the bottling and carrying out manual tasks, but may not brew.
There are only three beers.
Westvleteren Blonde - green cap, 5.8% ABV;
Westvleteren 8 - blue cap (formerly Extra), 8% ABV; and
Westvleteren 12 - yellow cap (formerly Abt), 10.2% ABV.
The blonde beer, usually referred to as the Westvleteren 6, is often overlooked when compared to its heavy-duty brothers,but it still has a wonderful balance between sweetness and hoppiness. Unlike the other two beers, this one should be drunk at around 6⁰C. Its ABV, whilst low for Belgian blondes, makes it a well graced and lasting beer with a creamy mix of heavenly hops.
Visual: Gold with a banana haze and light carbonation, a smooth creamy bubbled off-white head that leaves suds like trails.
Nose: Light crisp hops, fresh and wheaty. Restrained bitterness, fresh citrus and crushed oranges. Banana, honeyed and a slight touch of cloves.
Body: Dry wheat, syrup and rising hop oils. Very smooth creamy texture yet with a granite touch at times. Grapes, oranges, vanilla and light toffee.
Finish: Dry bitter hops, very crisp and dry in texture. Long lasting hop, lots of wheat, with an undertone of fudge.
Conclusion: A smooth and bitter precursor to today’s trend for hopped blond Belgium ales
Classical Music Pairing: Shostakovich Jazz suite number 2, especially its famous waltz.
This is a beer to be served at warm room temperature. If served chilled or cold, it will be initially quite disappointing until it has warmed up. This is a complex, heavy and more expressive beer auguring the pleasures within.
It is dark and powerful with bitter fruit flavours that take time to express themselves. You can clearly understand why the Trappists do not talk much. Just thinking of this beer would keep you quiet.
Visual: The head is small and uneven and the dark brown red body is cloudy brown from sediment, which clears up as it settles.
Nose: Fresh, slightly lactose with a sharp character and elements of rich fermenting fruit such as cherries and white grapes, almost raisin like.
Body: Fizzy, then the elements start coming through. Figs, slightly dry, brown bread and tiny touches of cherry. Then it runs through an interesting array of tastes from dark rum to milk chocolate to plums.
Finish: Bitter, high percentage bitter chocolate with some nuttiness. The aftertaste is a balanced hoppines underlaid by a honeyed treacle.
Conclusion: This is a truly exceptional beer which stands above all of the others in its genre.
Classical Music Pairing: Schubert piano music, some of the later Beethoven sonatas or Rachmaninov piano concertos.
Westvleteren 12 (Quadrupel:10.2% ABV)
The epitome of a strong dark beer.
It starts with the dark fruits in style of their Westvleteren 8 to which there are copious amounts of toffee sweetness and banana. This is beautifully rounded off and smoothed by the ageing, which adds richness to the beer. It finishes with heavenly chocolate in a silky environment
This has frequently been called the greatest beer in the world, and if I were to disagree, it is only because there are some other styles of beers which I prefer. It will always win the gold medal in its class. It is also a beer which improves with age; and you will have to withstand the temptation to drink it instead of keeping it in your cellar.
Having said that, this is a beer to be served between 18⁰C to 20⁰C to get the full gamut of flavours and aromas. On a simple level, it is a rich with coffee, chocolate and dark fruits. You do not feel the alcohol and you are left with a wonderful flavour in your mouth reminiscent of great desserts. It also leaves you with a question; do I really want to share my next bottle with anybody else?
After looking at the dark cherry colour and latte coloured foam, you should close your eyes so that there less sensory interference in what could be described at the greatest zythological experience in the world
One a complex level, you are dealing with a divinely inspired and executed beverage which, even to the untrained pallet, will send you through strata of sensations, more than with any other beer. The reason it is the best in the world, is that this complexity is achieved in a balanced manner whereby no flavour pulls the sensation off-centre.
Visual: Almost black cherry hue. It pours with a liquor like viscosity forming islands of off white head.
Nose: An initial touch of red wine followed by cream, raisins and mint flavoured toffee. You cannot miss the malt, banana and that childhood favourite – candy floss.
Body: Plenty of body with lots of dark fruits, brown sugar, banana and a certain creaminess from a milk chocolate with raisins.
Finish: All of those traditional dessert flavours stay on the tongue: plum pudding, rhubarb crumble, custard, caramel and milk chocolate. As with the 8, figs and top quality bittersweet chocolaty undertones.
Conclusion: Give your bottle 3 to 4 years to site before you drink it and you will enjoy the experience even more. If the Magi were coming this year from the Orient, they would bring a bottle to the manger.
Classical Music Pairing – definitely the Lachrymosa from Verdi’s Requiem, played a touch on the loud side with surround-sound in a dimmed room.
Definitely worth their place among the best beers of the world and their rarity adds to the lustre, and it is worth the effort to get hold of some bottles. Men - if you really want to drink a lot of these beers, you should consider joining the monastery. Women – there is no Westvleteren convent, yet.