The great Westvleteren “best beer in the world” debate…

A lot of “stuff” happened yesterday, and as I lay in bed last night, brain fuelled (distorted) mainly by Buxton “Jawgate” and Colin Stronge Extra Stout, it sort of all came together into this outpouring of thoughts, views and observations, some of which relate to a bit of a red rag to a bull debate and others of things still yet to come..

Image courtesy of CAMRGB

Image courtesy of CAMRGB

It was a quite inoffensive comment on a friends Facebook profile that started this off and linked to the events that fell before it, the comment (and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying so), was written by Simon from CAMRGB and was as follows: “Westvleteren 12. Supposedly the best beer in the world. It Isn’t. It’s just f*ckin hard to get hold of”

Now this isn’t a dig at Simon, we are mates, he knows his stuff and goes on to write a balanced review of the beer itself which you can read here, apart from perhaps slightly falling into the old “best beer in the world” trap again at the end.

That small section though is what gets the hackles up, and being completely fair, Simon is not alone, far from it. For every person I hear that has sampled Westvleteren 12, I probably hear two more that say something along similar lines. “It’s not as good as beer X”, it’s not the best beer in the world”, very expensive for what it is”, “I think St Bernardus Abt is nicer”, “don’t believe the hype”etc. etc. But what most people don’t seem to grasp is that they themselves are the ones that perpetuate those myths, feeding the hype that will keep this beer on it’s perceived marble pedestal.

detail silhouet groenThe Trappist monks that brew this beer have never claimed this beer is the best in the world, they are I believe quite embarrassed by all the fuss it causes it to a degree, although clearly the mystique around it helps them survive. However you’ll see no Rolls Royces driving out of the Abbey gates, all money made is ploughed back into living costs, the monastery upkeep and or goes to charity.

Back in December 2012, BeerPulse posted an audio interview with one of the brothers, it’s half an hour long, but I feel it gives the listener a real insight into what goes on behind those monastery walls:

The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren’s Brother Joris speaks

In my view there is no secret GRAND MARKETING campaign at work to propel it to stardom (geek-dom). If there was, it’s rubbish, incredibly “slow burn” and surely fatally flawed, as surely the whole idea behind marketing is to make people buy more and more? If you visit the brewery there is no vast loading bay with truckloads of beer leaving the building, there is one man, checking number plates on vehicles as they pull up to his little hut and loading two crates in each, hardly Anheuser-Busch world domination, unless of course they have secretly bought it and the whole thing is an elaborate front.

Of course not all of those daily callers are collecting beer to drink, that same hype feeds a huge black market, but do you really think the Monastery see a penny of the additional revenue made from the often 500% mark up on the original sale price as it filters out to bars and shops across Europe and the rest of the world?

Westvleteren isn’t hard to get hold of either, it just takes a bit of effort. Get on a ferry, train and travel to the abbey and taste it there, sitting in the sunshine.

The first time I did that, it was the best beer in the world, for me, right then, it isn’t now, but that isn’t the point. On my first trip I was so excited to try some, that I had this leering moon-faced grin that I just could not suppress no matter how hard I tried. I love Belgian quads, and in my mind this one was going to be so special. The planning, the journey, the anticipation, the beautiful setting with my wife at my side, even that “hype” fuelled that moment and by god I was going to enjoy it. Last year I had a similar moment drinking Houblon Chouffe in Gent, it’s all relative.

Of course not everyone can make that journey or even want to, but don’t expect to always “get it” if you are drinking it at home or in a bar after shelling out £10 plus a bottle for the privilege.

What I really don’t get most of all though, is why Westie gets singled out so much for criticism just because they limit sales. The St Bernardus connection probably doesn’t help, is it the same, is it different yeast, one is better than the other etcetera.

pliny-the-youngerI wonder for example, if Russian River get the same treatment for Pliny The Younger, surely even more limited in it’s distribution and availability? Similarly much-lauded as the best Double IPA in the world or even as a challenger to Westvleteren’s mighty throne, I am absolutely positive it is amazing. If I ever make it to queue for my half a glass I’m sure too that I will again involuntarily don that ridiculous moon-face, just then in that moment, but it will wear off shortly afterwards and I’ll be back to my usual miserable grimace before I know it.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no best beer in the world, only the best beer in your mind or in the moment you drink it, so if you get your hands on a Westie, Pliny or perhaps a can of SKOL found at the back of the cupboard from 1987, put all comparative thoughts aside and enjoy it for what it is.


Westvleteren gone West?

When planning a trip to Belgium, we always try to include a little venture to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, the home of the holy grail beer to so many beer geeks around the world and this recent trip was no different.

We had friends in tow this time around for whom the experience was new and it is an experience without a doubt. Again we were lucky with the weather and arrived in the beer garden of In De Vrede on the most glorious sunny day, and sat down to enjoy the three beers on offer with some Abbey cheese in various forms and had a great time, a new experience for some, a most welcome repeat for myself.

However I left feeling a little bemused at how they are choosing to sell take away beers to visitors. First off, if you are not familiar with how difficult it is to buy this beer in any quantity read here.

I only know of one person to manage this feat of telecommunication able to get a full quota, but for the rest of us, on previous visits you were allowed to buy six bottles of your choice per person.

Now the only option you have is to buy a gift pack at around €24, this includes two Westy blondes, an eight, a twelve and a glass. Not bad you may say, but the blonde is recognised as being the weaker (in style) of the range and I already have a glass which makes this little lot a bit pricey and not something I’d repeat again, not very often anyway.

Clearly this is an effort to reclaim the Westvleteren beer exclusivity, but I think it can only serve to reduce the flow of visitors to the site, be they be either genuine or black marketeer. The Abbey is not close to, well anything really. It’s a proper backwoods operation deep in the Belgian countryside, transport links are absolutely awful and the only way to access is by car or cycling from nearby towns with the obvious alcohol related limitations. I always thought it worth the journey for my few tasters and a six-pack to take away, but with the new regime will I bother to make that trip again, I’m not sure.

The annoying thing is you can get the beer quite openly in many of the bars and shops of Bruges and Brussels if you are prepared to pay upwards of €10 a bottle for it. In The Beer Temple (I think) I even saw the hideously packaged promotional Westvleteren Building Blocks packs for sale at around €85.

It seems obvious to me at least, that the folks supplying the black market aren’t likely to be your average day visitors.

On my last visit we saw one guy make a couple of trips to the Westvleteren beer shop for six bottles and back to his van and you are not telling me that everyone in country who manages to get through to the beer hotline is buying “for personal use”.

Maybe this time around those clever Marketing Monks have out-hyped themselves and drinkers will just stop bothering..


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..