Trappists laid bare

Westvleteren, the myth, an enigma, some say the best beer in the world, consistently top of the hit parade in Ratebeer circles at least, but is it all hype?

Are our senses clouded by the cloak of mystery that surrounds the abbey and the notoriously difficult buying process for the drinker?

Last night i set out to find out…

The main purpose of this experiment was to prove to myself which was better Westvleteren 12 or St Bernardus Abt 12 which is reportedly one and the same thing, St Bernardus having once been the brewer of the other under licence back in the day (hence it’s inclusion albeit not actually a Trappist beer), this argument having raised it’s head on many occasions. I also wanted to throw a couple of others in the mix too, to make things interesting..

So I opted for another classic, Rochefort 10 itself an absolutely epic beer and finally, the new kid on the block Gregorius, the 8th official Trappist from the Monastery of Stift Engelszel, Austria, completed the line up.

I also wanted to strip away any preconceptions for the tasting, to make this as fair a battle as possible, so each beer was stored together and was served at exactly the same temperature. The chalices too although branded, were identical in form so as to be indistinguishable by touch alone. Then finally all four tasters were blindfolded..

So there we sat, scarves tied tightly around eyes, looking rather foolish I expect, well actually of course I know we did as photographs were taken as soon as we could no longer see, (how these did not end up on Twitter etc I do not know). On a serious note though it makes you feel really vulnerable, your other senses working overtime to compensate for the loss of sight, but the beer itself stripped bare to aroma and taste alone.

Tasting session or firing squad, you decide? On second thoughts…

Each beer was passed by our “official servers” one at a time from taster to taster on the first pass, with a refresher of water in between, the order of course being changed from the original table layout and documented by the keeper of scores. We all then had a second chance to taste each one directly after the other and to revisit any again before making our individual decisions, our mission not to try and identify which was which, but simply to rate them one to four or best to worst.

We ranked in order of merit and I’ve scored them as such, top beer choice scoring four points and the bottom one, the results being as follows

  • Westvleteren 12 – 14 points
  • Rochefort 10 – 12 point
  • St Bernardus Abt12 – 8 points
  • Gregorius – 6 points

It was a really weird experience actually, much more difficult than I thought it would be and although the results around the table show a clear winner we certainly weren’t all in agreement in terms of favourites. Two judges had an identical orders for example with the other two having first and third place in complete opposites.

The one that surprised or maybe dissapointed me personally most tasting this way was St Bernardus. I buy it regularly and really enjoy it, but in this short experiment at least it failed to impress. Gregorius too was a tricky one, it never got out of the bottom two across the board, I thought it tasted a little harsh to be honest, a friend described it as raw and maybe that’s a good assessment, one to revisit.

Clearly the Rochefort and Westie were closest of all with the latter just edging it for me in terms of flavour and aroma hit, but not by much.

So what does this prove?

Bugger all really, it’s answered a few questions in my mind and for others around the table too. It’s not proved that Westie deserves its revered position as the best in the world only the best in my kitchen on a cold October evening…

Great fun though

Closed…

This is a very brief post on the merits of planning…

One of the ideas that spawned our recent Belgian trip was a plan I have to organise a future trip taking in all the Trappist breweries in a week, so far I have looked at options, talked to a few folks and that’s about it. Nevertheless all that talk ended up in four of us making the trip over/under the Channel and we decided it would be a cracking idea to visit some breweries on our travels.

Now I’m not sure about the situation where you (the reader) are based, but in the UK pretty much most breweries are open and welcome visitors, even if it’s only to a brewery shop via the back door. This may be the case in Belgium too, but from our experiences, who knows?

First off on our journey from Watou (where St Bernardus WAS open), we thought it would make sense to drop in on Alvinne. Error. Nuls Points. Turn around where possible.. It was very much closed.

So much so that there wasn’t even so much as a bottle to photograph.. Epic Fail

The next attempt was on the journey from Brussels to Brugge, lots of options here but we narrowed it down to either taking a detour to Bosteels home of Kwak, Dues and Tripel Karmeliet. Or, to go to the lesser known Urthel and then on to Rodenbach which was pretty much on route. Being the driver I made the executive decision on the latter.

We arrived at Urthel on a beautiful day in blazing sunshine, this after driving through lovely countryside into a forested area. Taking the long single track drive to the one building on it, we saw two men beavering away and thought “yes they are open”! As we parked though, the two figures scurried inside (I think hoping we would go away). We pressed on regardless and started to mooch around before they finally reappeared, explaining the owners were away and they were just working on the building itself.

This though is where it got ever so slightly more interesting, as we could see they were working on a new bar area which will be open to the public (on weekends). It’s a lovely looking little place which stands looking all Hansel and Gretel in it’s forest setting. It’s a bit of a trek though so how many visitors will make it I’m not so sure, worth checking out though if you have a driver among you as Urthel beers ROCK!

We moved sadly on to Rodenbach where we thought we were bound to have better luck. Parking on a little side street near the brewery I almost walked straight into a chaps living room by mistake as he happened to live by the biggest Rodenbach sign I have ever seen and his door was wide open… You should have seen the look on his face…

Undeterred, we wandered around the huge brewery (where nothing looked open) until we found an office and thought aha! There awaited a receptionist (Gladys for the purposes of this blog), as we arrived Gladys was on the phone and thought nothing of the four weary travellers from the East that had plonked themselves in her nice tidy reception area and continued her chat.

“Wot no Beer?”

After several minutes during which Gladys finally finished her chat and we had made use of the office washroom facilities we approached and in my very best Steve McClarenesque pigeon Belgian/Dutch hybrid English I asked “are you open for brewery visshits?”

“No” said Gladys curtly.

“What about a brewery shop, surely you have a shop?”

“Yes” said Gladys.

“Oh good can we go and take a look and perhaps by some beer?”

“No” said Gladys, “it’s closed, only open at the weekend”…

So that was it, another failure, everything well and truly closed. Which goes to show, piss poor planning means two hours wasted drinking time…

Watou and Carbon 14

You hopefully will have read my post yesterday featuring the St Bernardus bed and breakfast hotel Brouwershuis, which is situated about a mile out of the village of Watou on the aptly named “Trappistenweg” road.

Watou was the surprise gem on this trip, a stop off point that was really planned in to take advantage of Sint Sixtus Westvleteren and St Bernardus. I had been to Watou before in very similar circumstances last year and it was closed… Seriously we hardly saw a soul as we wandered about at around lunchtime, the odd shop, a dog and a bronze statue of a brewer, this time we went on a hot Monday Summer evening and the place was buzzing.

After a seemingly endless walk along the Roman straight Trappistenweg road we arrived in the towns main square at around 7:30 PM and set to looking around for somewhere to eat. There are several bars and restaurants dotted around which may seem surprising for such a small village, but when you consider the proximity to such famous breweries and Belgium’s “Hop Capital” Poperinge not so much so. We settled on the obviously popular ‘t Hommelhof as this had been recommended as being top quality, but also because it looked so inviting and quite frankly the plates of food being delivered to tables looked awesome.

“T Hommelhof specialises in no-nonsense Belgian style dishes made with Belgian beers. There are a few set menus priced at different levels, but we opted for just dinner and a beer. The wife and I opted for fried cod, with baby vegetables and bacon in ‘t Kapittel Abt and sorrel mash, this was delicious. However, our two friends opted for the leg of ham in ‘St-Bernardus tripel which was simple, huge and stunningly well cooked.

I have to add that although we only ordered a main course, as we waited, bread, olives and the most beautiful pâté I have ever tasted arrived at the table. Made in-house with (I believe) St Bernardus beer it melted in the mouth like really slow cooked pork whilst retaining some of it’s original texture, it really was so good, in fact remained the talking point of the meal for the entire evening. If you visit Watou, please, please plan in a visit to Hommelhof.

We then moved to a lovely little place across the square called Gastof De Eendracht, quiet and unassuming compared to our former location, but with outside space and a real local feel. Beer choice was limited as was communication as our hosts spoke almost zero English, luckily Marc (one of our fellow trip-ees) spoke reasonable French which helped massively.

It was here we spent a few hours just soaking up the local vibe. The square was buzzing with people eating, drinking, laughing and generally having a good time. A couple set up an obviously regular barbecue and were cooking sausages that smelled delicious and all around the square men of all ages were engaged in a sort of street version of crown green bowling.

I’ve since found out that this is called “Baanbolling” or “Rolle Bolle”, the basic rules being that teams (or individuals) take turns to roll their Bolle (sort of 6 inch stumpy wheel with a weighted bias on one side) at two discs screwed into the street at about 30 paces. This was half on cobbles half road but I think that was down to current location rather than a stipulation. It was all good-humoured and barmen and women scurried across the street to refill glasses as the night wore on.

Once the game finished I wandered across to try and understand what the game was about and was told that it happened most Mondays and was just friendly rather than inter village etc. I even managed to have a couple of efforts myself too.

We also made friends with a couple of local characters here an old guy called Emile and his lively little dog Carbon 14. On arrival a small black scruffy but cute looking dog was sat on a bar stool in the bar, on his own apart from the hoteliers pottering around. But after a while he was retrieved and brought back outside by his owner Emile a really nice fella as we were to find out. Of course being a youngish dog Carbon 14 was a little “lively” which of course encourages infectious conversation with fellow dog lovers. This proved difficult as Emile had obviously had a few and spoke almost no English, with Marc again coming into his own in a sketchy French meets Flemish, Dutch drunk hybrid affair. From this we gathered his and the dogs name, plus the facts that he’d moved away and moved back again and that Watou was beautiful (we think…). We agreed and bought him a drink as we left.

I very much doubt he’ll ever read this but if he does, CHEERS Emile, you are a top man.

We finished our evening at Ood Gemeentehuis (which I think means Old Town Hall), this was really a locals pub and was really lively for a Monday night, lots of families sitting outside and a buzzing but pretty much spit and sawdust style interior. Although clearly outsiders, we never felt threatened or unwelcome and enjoyed several beers before heading back up the long moonlit road to the hotel for a St Bernardus nightcap.

As I said when I opened, Watou was a real surprise for us, nothing fancy but a little bit of a back country Belgium gem. Don’t come here for huge elaborate beer lists, come for a genuine Belgian experience and bring a torch..

Cheers

Brouwershuis – St. Bernardus

 

Travelling to Belgium from the UK these days is a breeze, cheap flights, the Eurostar, Eurotunnel and of course regular ferry crossings, but for most of the latter it’s travel this side of the Channel which is the issue. From Stoke for example it’s about a four-hour non stop journey to Folkestone. Because of this when we’ve travelled before we booked a hotel down on the south coast to ease an early Chunnel time the following morning.

It was while researching for said suitable hotel that a friend suggested we try Brouwershuis, this is the boutique style bed and breakfast hotel aligned to the Sint Bernardus brewery near Watou.

Now I realise of course that Watou is not on the English south coast, but it is only an hour away from Calais once across (or under) the water and as such is in easy striking distance. The other advantage is that you are also on very close proximity to Westvleteren, Struise, Alvinne for beery visits although transport is scarce.

A lot closer to home of course is this little place next door. There is a shop and brewery tours can be arranged in advance.

Brouwershuis sits on a really quiet road about a mile away from Watou itself and although it is directly next door to the huge brewery plot which is unmissable (see above), hides away almost unnoticed behind high hedges in rustic country style. Driving in you are greeted with a tree-lined garden with quirky statues dotted about to catch the eye, somewhere to catch a bit of peace and quiet in the sun.

Once inside the hotel itself is a mixture of old country style and boutique chic, downstairs a huge book lined lounge with sofas, high backed chairs and old school gaming tables welcome you to kick back and relax.

A large conservatory dining area leads on to a secluded decking area with more seating alongside a large fishpond. In the evening we sat out here for a good while star gazing. One of our party is a keen astronomer and had thought to bring a pair of powerful binoculars to take advantage of the rural location. The effects were stunning as with so little light pollution, even with the naked eye the sky was a sea of shining diamonds.

The rooms are located throughout the main house, two levels up to a large attic room, with others in a single story building which stretches back into the gardens. Both seem equally well equipped although it did seem those inside had recently seen a make over. We were in the attic and it was a picture perfect room, with our friends housed on the lower level but having the benefit of an outside space with table and chairs provided to enjoy the warm summer evening.

Of course being the St Bernardus Brouwershuis I suspect the main reason for your visit is likely to be the same as my own, the beer and you are not going to be at all disappointed.

The lounge has three or four well stocked fridges which contain the breweries entire range, these are freely available at any time of day on an honesty system, even the hotels promotional video suggests trying them with breakfast. (I was tempted, but resisted…)

Breakfast is a continental affair with ample selections of bread, cheeses, cold meats and pastry’s. There is the normal cereal selection too and options for eggs freshly cooked to your liking washed down with as much tea and coffee as you can guzzle.

My only regret about choosing Brouwershuis as a stop off point was only booking one night as none of us wanted to leave, it’s such a serene place to stay in a wonderful part of Belgium. Our host Jackie described it as “an island” and I can see exactly what she meant. A peaceful welcoming place with hospitality second to none, a world away from the busy hustle and bustle of Brussels and Bruges city centres.

I’m looking forward to getting marooned there again sometime very soon..

Cheers

Note: A massive thank you to Jezza for the recommendation and contact information.