Visiting the Trappists
Sint-Sixtusabdij Westvleteren is one of the renowned Trappist breweries of Belgium and arguably makes one of the world’s most famous and sought after beers, the elusive Westvleteren XII. The only way to get it is from the Abbey, the black market, or from a few places in Belgium that sell it (I’m not sure if they’re strictly on the up and up, but sometimes you just plonk down the Euros and buy one). Westvleteren’s rarity along with the amazing quality of the product have made it a legendary beer and one of the most desired beer destinations to visit.
I had planned a day and half in the Poperinge vicinity of West Flanders on my most recent trip to Belgium and how could I be in the area and not stop by the famous Westvleteren? I’ve been inside 4 Trappist breweries, but unfortunately I didn’t have an invite for Westvleteren, although I hope to get one someday. This time, I’d have to be satisfied with a visit to their cafe, In De Vrede.
To get to In De Vrede & Westvleteren, you have to wind your way down some small, rural roads. It’s only about 10 minutes north of Poperinge but be careful your GPS doesn’t route you down a one lane farm road. Fortunately, I didn’t run into any other vehicles or tractors. On the way out, the GPS still wanted to run me down the smallest road possible so I just hit the regular road and forced it to reroute.
A Little History
This West Flemish farmland has hosted Catholic monks since the days when it belonged to the Carolingian Dynasty and Charlemagne in the 9th century CE. Over the centuries, monasteries have come and gone until the 19th century when monks, once again fleeing French secularism, joined a hermit who was already living on the spot to start the Trappist Abbey of Sint Sixtus. Monks from Mont des Cats, which is just across the French border of the newly independent Belgium had been hopping the border whenever things got too hot for the church in revolution minded France, once again sent out monks to start a new monastery in case Mont des Cats had to be abandoned. In 1831, Westvleteren joined the ranks of Trappist abbeys in the newly formed nation of Belgium. 7 years later, a brewery was installed within the walls of the fledgling monastery. 100 years after the abbey’s founding, the first beer was sold to the public.
After the violent interruptions of two World Wars, the monks decided to license their name and recipes to the nearby cheese factory of St. Bernardus (You can read more about the relationship between St. Bernardus and Sint Sixtus here). St. Bernardus would function as the commercial arm of Westvleteren and the monks would only brew beer for their own needs. This lasted for 44 years until Westvleteren pulled back its license to protect its products as Trappist under the new rules of the International Trappist Association.
Since then, Westvleteren’s fame has only grown as craft beer has become more and more popular throughout the beer drinking world. This coupled with the internet and beer blogs has catapulted Westvleteren XII into the very highest echelon of “White Whales.” For those not familiar with the term; it’s a super rare, hard to find, highly desired beer that craft beer “enthusiasts” chase after like Captain Ahab after Moby Dick. This status lead to a feeding frenzy in December of 2012 when the abbey released a special 6-pack to help raise a large amount of funds. Most stores sold out in minutes.
There are a few of those bottle still making the rounds out there in the beer trading realm. You can tell because of the large block letter XII; normally, Westvleteren bottles are unadorned except for the cap which provides the information about which beer is inside. While the XII gets the lion’s share of the buzz, the 8 has a small but fierce following. At 8% ABV, the 8 is a lighter, less intense version of the XII. But don’t let this fool you, the Westvleteren 8 is just as flavorful and wonderful in its own way. The final beer they brew is a very nice blond ale weighing in at 5.8% ABV. Personally, I think the blond is a delightful patersbier with a nice hop kick that is entirely underrated when compared to Westvleteren XII or 8.
The Cafe – In De Vrede
All three beers are available at Westvleteren’s cafe, In De Vrede. Thousands of visitors pour into the cafe throughout the year to taste these highly sought after beers. The cafe also has a nice food selection featuring sandwiches, desserts, ice cream, and abbey cheese and pate/terrine. I ordered the cheese and terrine because at the super inexpensive price they were listed under; I assumed they’d be small servings. They were not. They were, however, tasty. I thought the cheese was solid, but felt the abdijpate was quite excellent.
In addition to a cafe, there’s a gift shop that sells Westvleteren’s beer. They don’t always have all 3 varieties available to sell, although they do in the bar for consumption. On the day I was there, they only had the Blond and the XII. Additionally they have a variety of other monastic made gifts, not all of which are made at Westvleteren. The cafe is very clean and shiny and feels very new. It’s definitely geared to towards serving tourists a few beers and some food and not for hanging out in for extended periods.
Another feature of In De Vrede is the Claustrum; an information center and museum dedicated to providing guests a look inside Westvleteren Abbey. This is the only way visitors will get a look inside since Sint Sixtus is as renowned for its reclusiveness as much as its beer. Once you’ve had some beer, visited the museum, and purchased your gifts; you can take a walk through the surrounding countryside by accessing one of the walk maps In De Vrede’s website has on it. I didn’t have time to take one of these walks, but did find the start of one. It looked quite nice and pastoral.
Westvleteren and In De Vrede are a very short trip from Poperinge and Ypres. The area is riddled with fun activities for the beer fan and general tourist alike: breweries, restaurants, walks, historical sites, and war memorials. Currently, there are a lot of goings on because of the 100th anniversary of World War I. This last fall, there were dignitaries from all over visiting the area to mark the start of World War I.
Whether you’re fan of beer or history or great food, you can do a lot worse than visit West Flanders. And if you do go, you’ll definitely want to plan some time for In De Vrede and Westvleteren’s famous beers. Take your time and savor the flavor of monastic beers and cheese, then take a leisurely stroll through the countryside. Go and experience a little piece of the tranquility that brought the monks to this bucolic locale in the first place.
You can find more information and resources for your trip to West Flanders here:
Visit Flanders: The Official Tourism Board of Flanders. I’d also like to extend a special Thank You to the folks at Visit Flanders for their support during my trip!
Visit Ieper/Ypres: The Official Tourism Site for Ypres/Ieper