Nick Wusz goes the extra mile to find one of the world's most elusive beers.
There are seven beers in the world brewed by Trappist Monks, six in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle, and Westvleteren) and one in the Netherlands (La Trappe).
Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Achel, Westmalle, and La Trappe (Schaapskooi) are commmercially available, and in Portland, Oregon, can be found very easily at either Wild Oats or our specialty beer shop Belmont Station. This is a tale of my quest for the elusive Trappist beer, one who's mystical legend has grown, and who's elusive flavors are considered to be the best in the world. This is the tale to obtain and quaff the beer of beers, Westvleteren.
Up until last year sometime, I had never heard of Westvleteren. Being a beer geek, I was very familiar of the other, more easily obtained trappist beers, but the "Westy" was only drawn to my attention because of the beer website BeerAdvocate, which put the Westvleteren 12 (the 12 being an abbreviated specific gravity reading, which makes the beer about 10.2%ABV) at its number one spot of best beers in the world. Trappist beers are very special, brewed by monks who put their heart and soul into these fine ales, and many are considered works of art. Certainly, of the beers widely available, they are all considered some of the best in the world. Most of the monasteries have signed distribution deals to get their beers to as wide a market as possible, but not the Westy. You can only obtain their beers (they brew the aforementioned 12, an 8, and a Blond Ale) at the monastery in western Belgium, and on the receipt they state very plainly that these beers are not for sale, and are for personal use only. Because of the beer websites and the rarity of these beers, a furor has been created. There are reports of mile long lines of cars at the monastery, people selling cases of the beers on Ebay for $200 (they cost $50 at the monastery), and many companies trying to distribute the beers. But the monks have stuck to their guns. They only brew enough beer to maintain the monastery and lead their peaceful existence withing it's walls. Their beers have no labels, and are very un-fancy in the packaging, the monks letting their craft speak for itself.
Because of the crazy demand for these beers, the monks have set up a phone reservation system. I was in the area last November, and I figured I would just be able to stop by the monastery and pick up some beers. No way. You have to call the monk hot line, which will tell you when to call back to reserve the beer. Then you call back on the day and time they said on the first message, and reserve the beer by giving your name or car plate number. They will tell you when you can pick up the beers. Then you show up, load up to 3 cases of the beer, and that's it! So its kind of a complicated system, and there is only one beer available at a time, based on the season (the strong 12 in the winter, the 8 in the fall and spring, and the blond during the summer).
My friend Tyson and I had planned a trip to Amsterdam April 1-6, 2007 and I was going to do my DAMNEST to get me some Westys when we are there, even though its a 4 hour drive from the canal-crazed city. So, two weeks prior to our departure, I called the hot line. The message is in dutch and french, but if you know the secret (thanks random internet site!) you can push "3" and the message is in broken english. The message said for reservations for the 12 (yes! that's the one I want! LUCKY.), call between 9am-12 noon on March 26. I was giddy with delight. I read on the net that the monks only have 1 phone line, and the amount of people calling can sometimes make the wait 2 hours to get through. So, on the 26th, 9am Belgium time was midnight our time and I hit the phone right at 12:00. After 1/2 hour of busy signals, I pulled out my cell phone and tried 2 phones at once! Felt like a gangsta mob bookie taking numbers. After another 30 minutes of two phone action, I got a ring!!!!!!! I was shaking, so nervous. Mr. Monk picked up...Me:"do you speak english?"..."yes"..."can I reserve 3 crates of the 12"..."ok, whats your car registration number?"..."well, I will be in a rental car. Can I give you my name? Nick Wusz....W-U-S-Z"...."ok, what day will you come?"..."oh, is April 4 ok?"..."yes. You will be here fourteen fifteen hours."..."so fourteen fifteen? Two fifteen on April 4?"...."yes"...."ok, thank you!"...."bye". That's it. THEY HAVE BEEN RESERVED. Oh, so happy. It was 1am and I was full on awake and felt so much closer to my dream of quaffing this elusive elixir.
Reality = (How the hell do we get these beers back home) + (How the hell do we get out there)? It's weird to think about planning for something 10 days away, 10,000 miles away, so that you can get to a certain destination at 2:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon.
April 4, Amsterdam. I am prepared for this driving adventure, and have been looking forward to this day since we arrived. Taking a break from our Amsterdamming, doin a European road trip, short but sweet. Back home, I had procured the appropriate google maps, reserved the car in Amsterdam, and plotted out a path so that we can visit two other monasteries (La Trappe, and Westmalle) in addition to Westvleteren. It is essential that we are not late (don't want to piss a monk off!), so we got to the car rental place in the Dam's suburbs right when they opened at 8. For some dumb ass reason I didn't bring my passport for the car rental, and we were millimeters from being rejected the rental car, but good ol Tyson came through with his passport and flight information, which the guy wanted for some reason. PHEW. Close one. We drove away with our little Volkswagen Fox.
Driving South from Amsterdam, towards Tilburg, we noticed right away some differences between US driving and European driving.... these people know how to drive! There is a sense of respect and politeness when drivers use the slow lane for driving and the other two lanes for passing only. Very cool. This allows some very fast driving, which is fine, because there will be no one lingering in the fast lane. Our lil Fox is smooth and very easy to drive. Handled well on the small, one lane roads. We loved how on the small roads there was no signage telling you to drive slow, or the road narrows, or you cannot pass here. Felt good to sort out the road with the other drivers. More rules = less freedom.
We arrived at La Trappe monastery in Koeningshoven (Schaapskooi) at 10:30am, just when the shop and cafe opened. As we would learn throughout the day, the monks put these monasteries in beautiful, tranquil areas in the countryside. The castle-like walls of the monastery beckoned to us, but the only areas of the grounds opened to visitors are the cafe and the little monastery shop, selling religious stuff and BEER! We had an early morning quadruple(11%ABV) in the cafe, hit the store for some glassware, beer, and cheese, and spoke to the monk about our quest for Westvleteren. He was impressed.
Travelling south west through the north of Belgium, we passed some amazing countryside and cities that yearned to be explored, but it was not to be this day...we had a mission to complete! We descended upon the area of Poperinge and Ieper, in eastern Belgium, around 1:30pm and quickly realized that our maps sucked hard. Leaving the freeway, and using the written part of the Google map, we managed to wind our way into the countryside, amongst un-planted hop fields, where we started to see signs for the abbey.
...and the village of Westvleteren!
Seriously, if you weren't looking for this place, you would never know you were here. It's so strange (yet appropriate) that the worlds best beer comes from someplace so out of the way, and so beautiful. After a few more turns on some curvy country roads, we arrived at the monastery. 1400 hours. 2pm. Amazing.
The next part happened very quickly. There were around 6 cars waiting in front of a gate that led to a circular driveway, which passed by a small warehouse, where the beer is loaded into your car. Soon after 2pm, the gate was opened by a monk and the cars started filing in. We were overcome with excitement as the monk loaded up each car with cases of the 12 and slowly we moved car by car until it was our turn. I started getting panicky and nervous that maybe my name wasn't on the list. I saw the monk look at our car registration number and not find it on his paper, but he quickly saw my name on there when I told him who I was. Tyson drove the Fox into position, three cases of 12 were loaded into our little car, and we paid (30 euro per case + 10 euro deposit for crate and bottles) and we drove out of the driveway.
Did that actually happen? Oh man, that was short, sweet, and efficient. No BS from the monks...all business. Hard to believe that we actually drove to the mecca of beers and obtained the nectar of the gods, straight from the source. The only bummer of this day was that the cafe was closed. At the cafe, you can buy up to six bottles of each of the beers (at a higher price), have some food, take in the scenery, and drink some Westy's. What the hell! Closed until April 6 for spring break, I guess. Have another reason to go back now!
We pulled the Fox into the parking lot of the cafe and basked in the glory of OUR crates of Westy. Felt like pirates with their loot. Some people who didn't know all the rules with obtaining the beer and just showed up, attempted to buy some of our beers from us. "Sorry" is all we can say. Suckers. haha Using our glasses obtained at La Trappe (I know, not the official Westvleteren glass, but it will do for now), we poured ourselves a Westvleteren 12, right outside the monastery. Can it get any better than this? Lets just say, after al the hype, this beer did not dissapoint. It's flavors reach to the cosmos, with hints of nutmeg, plum and a very subtle alcohol taste(hard to do with a 10.2% beer!). It has a taste of wood and smoke, and a perfect carbonation and the after taste is as good as the first milli second it hits the tongue. Truly an amazing beer, and definitely the best I have ever had. This journey was so worth it. THANK YOU BEER GODS!!!!
We left the monastery behind. You gotta respect these monks...the brew they produce is a piece of art and they let the flavor speak for itself. I sure appreciate their hard work. One last look at beer mecca as we drive away.
Tyson and I headed to Poperinge for some lunch and some of those other Trappist beers, toured some WWI cemeteries and headed back onto the highway as twilight ensued. The area around Ieper and Westvleteren is spectacular....hop fields, farms, estates, greenery--seemed like a great time of year to be out here. The grass was long and wavy and sun was shining. Hard to imagine that 500,000 soldiers from WWI are buried out here. There must have been beautiful days like this during those long battles. Crazy.
Our next destination was the monetary of Westmalle, located near the dutch border, just east of Antwerp. Another beautiful setting, especially amongst the light of twilight...the shadows of the trees and the birds chirping made for a glorious, romantic setting. Tried to hold hands with Tyson, but he wouldn't go for it. Ha! Again, the monastery is closed to the public, but we had some Belgian food (MEAT) and some Westmalle Tripels (also the Trip-Trap, Westmalle dubbel and tripel mixed) at the cafe across the street. Great beers and great food. Three monasteries in one day is quite an achievement, and we were tired. Only four more to visit someday.
We made it back to Amsterdam by 11pm with our precious cargo safely in the back. we couldn't drop the Fox off at the rental place outside of business hours, so we nervously approached Amsterdam central. Luckily, being so late, it was not a big deal at all, and we miraculously found a parking spot right outside our apartment. The task at hand soon became "how are we going to get these beers back to the US!!!?!?!?!" I had borrowed a large, hard Samsonite suitcase from my mom and bought a roll of bubble tape. I fit 48 beers into that suitcase! Tyson fit 24 beers into his roll case, packing all the precious nectar in his dirty underwear. My bag (and his) were super heavy. I could barely lift it, and rolling it was brutal on my back. THIS IS FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL MANKIND. Before leaving The Dam, we both bought Westvleteren glasses at the local beer shop to make it all official. So my two check-in bags were crazy packed with beers, souvenirs, knick knacks, and beer glasses. Both very heavy and very fragile. I also had one of the wooden crates as my carry-on, which got some interesting looks. Tyson took a crate as well, and we left one behind. Lets just say I approached the check in counter at Schipol airport with trepidation and nervousness. To my disbelief, the lady at the desk didn't even glance at the digital scale read off, when it said 40kg (88lbs) for my big bag abd 25kg (56lbs) for my other bag. PHEW. Big relief. LUCKY. I had them put Fragile stickers on both of the bags. Let's just hope my bubble wrap holds...would be quite a tragedy if I get back with 2 beers instead of 2 cases.
I put alot of faith in luck with these bags, and hope the Baggage Handling God was on my side. Flew Amsterdam to London to San Francisco. In SF I had to go through customs and I couldn't find anything on their little form that I needed to declare, so I didn't declare anything. I picked up my bags (no leaking!) and headed through the green customs line swiftly and surely...no problem! As soon as I got through, I opened the little case--no moisture. Nice. I opened the big case...oops something has broken or leaked, but not bad. Maybe one bottle, I thought. Forget it...I latched the bags back up and checked them in for my final flight from SF to Portland.
Portland, Oregon. My large bag approached me along the luggage conveyor. Just beyond it, along with a strange, dank, beer-y smell, a puddle. Oh I didn't want to look! Once home, I surveyed the damage. Looks like two bottles broke completely, and around eight leaked about half of their contents. Must have been some heavy pressure(or un-proper bottle cappage) to cause leakage like this. But that leaves 38 bottles of pure liquid heaven safe and secure. Not bad! The only casualty is my moms suitcase, which even after a good scrubbing and air-out, still smells like the best beer in the world.
Now it's four days later, and the beers are storing cool and dry in my basement. This beer gets better with time, so I hope I can be patient enough and disciplined enough to let a few bottles age for at least 2 years. Damn, what an adventure. My Westy tastes so much better knowing what we had to do to obtain and bring back a bunch of bottles. I guess I am officially a beer geek now.
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And then read the writing of the other three finalists: