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.

Cheers

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..

Cheers!

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.

 

Introducing, Project “Time Capsule”

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while but have never managed to get round to it, start to age some beers that is. It’s taken so long for two reasons really, time and lack of it, plus the fact that I’ve never had enough beers that fit the bill around long enough to start..

So to start the ball well and truly rolling, this month I placed an order which included a few extras so that I could taste specific beers fresh, then set another aside for the ageing process. These have joined others that I have amassed and set aside over the last 6 months. Finally though, I am able to introduce you to, project “Time Capsule

It’s nothing to look at I know, just an old beer delivery box, but once filled, sealed and placed in a coolish dark place, I’m confident that it should provide a decent enough environment which is about as close as I can get to a real beer cellar.

For those who have not ever tried this before, I am reliably informed that basically you just need somewhere with a pretty constantly cool temperature without too much fluctuation. It also needs to be dark or at least certainly not in sunlight to prevent the beers getting light-struck.

Beer choices are partly trial and error and some through research. Some beers suit ageing better than others, high alcohol Belgian Trappist beers for example, but avoid anything light and hoppy as they really need to be drunk fresh. I’ve thrown a few in here that may not really fit the bill but as it’s a first time attempt then I’ll learn as I go.

So what’s in the box so far?

6 x Westvleteren 12

2 x Orval, Rochefort 10, Chimay Blue, Hoegaarden Grand Cru.

Large bottles of Achel Bruin Extra, St Bernadus 12 and St Bernadus Christmas, De Glazen Toren Canaster Winterscotch, Leffe Christmas  and Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van Der Kieser.

Then single small bottles of Goose Island Pepe Nero, Samuel Smiths Imperial Stout, Kapitel Prior, De Halve Maan Straffe Hendrick Quadruppel, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Thornbridge St Petersburg, St Bernadus 12, Robinsons Chocolate Tom and finally a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (the last two are not pictured).

The list is by no means a closed book, I intend to add to it as I go on and obviously drink some in time as this becomes a living beast. Each bottle that goes in is labelled with the date it was bought or roughly at least, so that in a few years time I can keep track of how long each beer has been kept. Willpower depending…. 🙂

I’d definitely be interested in comments and suggestions from beer enthusiasts, brewers, publicans etc, in fact anyone really with knowledge or experience to share as to how you think this will work out, have I made any glaring errors for example.

Are there any MUST HAVE beers that just have to go into the box (there are a few already in mind)?

Are there any beers already in there that you just know already are not going to improve and I may as well just enjoy now?

How long, is too long (or not long enough)?

I am learning here, so any input will be gratefully received..

Wish me luck…

If you enjoyed reading this blog post then please spread the love by telling your friends. Facebook share it, RT on Twitter or send it on by email. I’d love to read your views just click the button and wax lyrical in the comments section of this page. Or if you’ve nothing to say, just click the rating stars below..  Cheers Phil

Dog Gone Westie

This is a short tail of woe!

A short time ago you (hopefully) read with interest about my trip to Belgium and the highlight of the visit, when I finally made it to St Sixtus Abbey. It was a chance finally to taste and source some of the wonderful and oh so rare Westvleteren beer produced by the abbeys Trappist monks who live and work there.

Whilst there I brought home some supplies of beer, glasses etc, but also a gift set for my Belgian father in law.  He loves his beer and obviously is proud of his Belgian beer heritage in particular. He now lives in England, but is well travelled, including regular trips to his homeland where most of his family still reside, the thing is though he’d never been to that area of Belgium before and although knew about the abbey beer, had never tasted Westvleteren personally..

He was therefore understandably very excited when I presented him with the St Sixtus gift box. It contained one bottle of Westvleteren 12, two small branded sharing glasses and an insert written in Flemish explaining about the ethos of the abbey and how the pack was designed for the owner to share the beer with a loved one..

He decided that the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United was a fine occasion on which he was going to enjoy his prize. To make sure that the beer was served at it’s best he researched how to pour it and the optimum temperature it should be served for maximum flavour. As the game was about to start he took out the sharing glasses and carefully poured the beer, placing it on the coffee table in front of the TV and popped back to the kitchen for some match time nibbles.

When he came back a few minutes later, beer was not the only thing on the table…..

Now as the dog (Jess) had not done this before ever, (it would never get the chance again..), what can we deduce about Westvleteren 12, it tastes grrrrrrrreat maybe?

I’d be interested in your theories and comments?

The moral of this story is, you should always guard your beer doggedly….

Poperinge – Belgium’s Hop Capital

When planning this trip we needed a place to base ourselves for a day or two before heading up to Brugge, after much mooching around the T’interweb I settled on the little town of Poperinge.

The reason was simple, there were several places I wanted to visit, St Sixtus Abbey at Westvleteren, Watou, St Bernadus, Struise Brewery at Oostvleteren, Ypres and the Menin Gate being the main, Poperinge just happens to sit almost in the middle of all of them. Poperinge is also described as the hop capital of Belgium, it has the heritage and has plenty of bars so was potentially perfect.

We found a small hotel which had a brilliant beer menu and food to match, although a little expensive it looked fabulous on the website, was right in the towns square so met our needs perfectly.

Getting to the place proved difficult, the town is centred as most tend to be, around a huge square (Grote Markt), all roads seem to lead into the Grote Markt which is currently undergoing major refurbishment. There is also a complicated one way system which when coupled with the closed Grote Markt makes navigation almost impossible to an outsider. Even after two days we were constantly lost. It’s a nice town though so worth the hassle, but just be aware if you plan to visit.

On arrival at the Hotel De La Paix we were met by Linda Sambaer who owns the hotel with husband Koen who is also the head chef. Linda took us to our room which was stunning, it was straight out of an episode of Grand Designs, full width floor to ceiling windows overlooking the square, mood lighting everywhere, a stunning bathroom and even a Bose sound system. I wouldn’t normally go on about this on a beer blog, but it was truly exceptional and well worth the price tag.

The beer menu was a cracker with plenty to get our teeth into so we headed for the outside tables where the sun was blazing to set about it in earnest..

To begin with I settled on the Saison Biologique by Brasserie Dupont, which incidentally was another beer (number 44) knocked off my Belgian Beer Challenge. It’s a blonde organic saison beer, light in the mouth with notes of citrus and a lovely refreshing bitter finish, perfect for a summers afternoon.

At this point we decided we could put it off no longer and decided to drive to St Sixtus in search of the Wesvleteren trio (more on that tomorrow).

On our return though we enjoyed a fabulous meal in the hotels restaurant, I had the pork ham in tarragon cream, the ham had a lovely smoky flavour which went perfectly with the Moinette Bruin that accompanied it. 

The rest of the evening was spent working on that beer menu watching the world go by in the evening sun

Poperinge has many other pubs, cafe bars and restaurants and we visited quite a few of them, none though had the same standard of beer menu as Cafe de la Paix, tending to stick to fairly standard well known Belgian beers.

One thing that was a bit odd though was the opening hours. On the following Tuesday for example, many places just chose to stay closed (much to our annoyance), it seems just because it was the day after a holiday period and the townsfolk were tired… Although the town is not over run with tourists, there were quite a few about so that needs consideration by the tourist organisation which is pushing the area as a good place to visit for good food, beer and sightseeing..

On a more positive note, walking around the town you see small brass plates set into the pavement which depict a hop bell signifying the areas beer heritage, they are unmissable being about the size of a side plate and set roughly ten metres apart. These plates are a tourist walkway that lead to all of the towns landmarks, we didn’t actually walk the walk but is a great touch.

I’m glad we chose Poperinge although in hindsight I think we could have seen all we needed to by arriving earlier in the day and staying one night, although that view may have been different had everywhere stayed open. It’s a lovely area and very laid back so much more relaxed than the big city attractions. A car or bike is a must though as taxi’s are very expensive and few and far between.