My friends know I’m particular about beverages. Not that I am a snob but certain alcoholic drinks aren’t worth the caloric investment or even the hangover risk. At the top of my preference list, I like good Kentucky bourbon. Woodford Reserve, Elijah Craig, and 1792 Ridgemont lord over many mainstream varietals like Bookers or Jack Daniels (which is not a bourbon but a Tennessee sour mash). In general when it comes to beer, I decline politely and continue browsing the liquor shelf or wine rack. Unless you’re talking about a microbrewery or some craft brew, beer and I don’t mix company often. Of course there are a few exceptions: La Fin Du Monde from Quebec, and German or Belgian beers.
In early September, Neil and I were completing a loop around Europe including stops at the windmills in the Netherlands and wine street in Germany. After a hard 2 months backpacking, we were looking forward to settling into the university town of Leuven, spending quality time with friends we met in Huanchaco, Peru, and sampling the famous Trappist beers from Belgium.
What is Trappist Beer?
Of the thousands of beers that exist, only six carry the designation as “trappist beers” which means that they are all brewed by Trappist monks onsite at a Trappist monastery. Generally full bodied with a high alcohol content, the short list of beers includes Chimay, Rochefort, Achel, Westmalle, Orval, and Westvleteren. Two labels, Rochefort and Westvleteren, consistently rank on Beer Advocate’s Top 100 Beers in the World. But all are excellent and continue the tradition of great beer brewing in Belgium. As a result of the strict regulations for the beer designation, many monasteries have sold their recipes to commercial producers. So while they may not bear the coveted accolade, these beers carry the name “abbey ale” which implies a close connection to the traditional brewing process.
Our Trappist Hunt
Over our 8 days in Belgium, Neil and I were focused. We wanted to taste each of the famous beers while in the country. Rochefort, Chimay, and Achel are relatively easy to find in New York as they are in Belgium. So they were simple introductions to the beer culture while in Leuven with our friends. Two more, Westmalle and Orval were readily available even on a river kayaking trip that we took to La Lesse. At a little café on the river, they served almost all the mainstream celebrity beers. But we still hadn’t gotten our hands on the mythical and elusive Westvleteren 12, which is supposed to be the second best beer in the world.
As the week continued, we began to think that the beer’s reputation was pure hype. How could someone judge the excellence of a beer if no one can find it… and hence drink it! According to the guidebook and online resources, Westvleteren 12 is only available at the abbey and restricted to select cafes in the country. In truth, Hans and Anouk had never seen this beer either. In restaurants and pubs throughout Leuven, the bottle would be listed on the menu but was never in stock. What a tease!
We started to lose hope.
Side Trip to Brugge
On a great road trip north through Belgium, Hans and Anouk suggested that we stop in Brugge. The city is famous for history and architecture so we had to wander about the red brick city, eat a waffle, and check out the decadent Chocolate Museum. It was a chilly day so we ducked into a little pub called Bierbrasserie Cambrinus. With dark wood accents and high top tables, the restaurant was very cozy. We grabbed a small table by the window and opened the menu which boated over 400 beers. When Anouk pointed out the Westvletern 12, I shrugged. “They always say they have it.”
In rapid Flemish, Hans and Anouk interrogated the waitress who seemed quite patient even as we jabbed our fingers at the enormous menu. Then with gasps and toothy grins, our redheaded friends gave us the good news. “They have it!”
Then began the rounds of no-way, yes-way! No-way! YES-way!
We cleared the table top and prepared for the photo shoot of the famous brew. So special and understated, Westvleteren 12 has no label and bears its only marker through its beercap which we each took turns posing next to. Pouring the beer into the goblet, we set it down in the center of the table, surrounded by other great Belgium beers that we’d ordered. Chatting away through the midday hour, we passed the beer around and then conferred judgment. Was it the best beer in the world? Was it even worth the hunt and US$18?
Final judgment was split. Neil and Anouk argued that while it was a good beer, Westvleteren 12 was not their top choice, trappist or not. Neil preferred his Satan beer and Anouk liked a honey brew instead. Hans and I leaned toward the hype. While having an extremely subtle bouquet, the dark #12 was nutty and floral with a smooth finish that was flavorful without leaving a thick coating on the tongue. Worth the trip? Yes. Worth a second round? For the price, probably not.