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APR/MAY 2005 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL

Trappist Westvleteren
By Chuck Cook

 

I visited the sixth and final Trappist abbey in Belgium that brews beer, Sint-Sixtus Trappistenabdij (universally known as Westvleteren) on December 6, 2004. This is St-Niklaas day in Belgium and other countries. On that day children are given presents, like at Christmas here. My gift from the monks: a brewery tour, which was very difficult to arrange! The monks (29 of them) at Sint-Sixtus almost never allow brewery visits.

Trappist Westvleteren. Photo by Chuck Cook.

The Abbey of Sint-Sixtus is located in far West Flanders, not far from the hop fields of Poperinge and the World War I memorials of Ieper. It is an area steeped in history and tradition, with flat lands and friendly people.

The first record of monastic life in the area of the present-day abbey dates to the early ninth century. It is probable that an abbey, St. Bertinus, was built not far from the present abbey around A.D. 806. Later, nuns lived near the site from at least as early as 1260, at the house of Sint-Sixtus of Westvleteren. Records indicate they were gone by 1355.

In 1630, the lands where the present abbey stands were given to Birgittan monks, who lived there until 1784. When they were forced to leave, the buildings were demolished. Trappist monks first came from the Catsberg monastery in nearby France to inhabit the site in 1831. Later, monks from Sint-Sixtus founded Abbaye de Scourmont (Chimay) in 1850. Also, some of the monks went to America from 1858 on and founded the present-day St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. (this abbey produces excellent jams and preserves, available in some U.S. specialty stores).

The abbey was never occupied by the Germans in WWI as all the other Belgian Trappist abbeys with breweries were, and over 400,000 allied soldiers lived and were cared for in the area during that time, at the abbey hospital and grounds.

WWII was tough on the area and on the abbey; very little brewing occurred, and the roads and buildings fell into disrepair. After the war, brewing continued, but on a smaller scale than before.
The first record of brewing by the Trappists at Westvleteren dates to 1839. In 1931, the monks began selling beer to the general public; before then, it was only available to guests and friends of the abbey. The first beers offered were the 4, 6 and 8 degree brews. A 12 degree beer was soon created. At that point the beer was 12% abv. However, the beer was difficult to brew, since the high alcohol level often killed the yeasts. After WWII it was decided to reduce the abv to 11% so as to lessen the difficulty of brewing it.

The beers of today are the Blond (green cap, 5.8% abv), Acht/8 (blue cap, 8%) and Twaalf/12 (yellow cap, 10.2%). The 8 is no longer referred to as “Extra,” nor is the 12 referred to as “Abt.” The 4 degree Dubbel, formerly the monks' table beer, and the dark 6 (6.2%) were both canceled when the new Blond was introduced in 1999.

These classic strong ales are among the most coveted and talked about in the world of beer.

The Westvleteren beers have no labels and use only crown caps for identification. This may not always be the case, as new European Union labeling laws and bureaucratic attention may someday force the monks to use labels. For now, the crown caps list the legal information required — the alcohol content and “best by” usage date.

There were several reasons for replacing the two beers with the Blond. The monks did not want to increase production or have five different beers in their lineup. Also, they built a new tasting cafe in 1999, In de Vrede (“In the Peace”), after tearing down the old cafe of the same name. The new Blond was created at the same time as the new cafe: a big event, celebrated with a new beer. There was also a demand for a lighter beer in the summer.

The Blond has a very fine, earthy, slightly citrusy hop aroma, with some breadiness and a dry finish. It is a fine session beer, worthy of the Westvleteren name. The Blond is also the monks' table brew — one they can have with lunch if they so choose. It represents 15% of the total production at Westvleteren, which stands now at about 4,750 hectoliters per year. Hop pellets are used for bittering and in the boil, and white liquid sugar is added as an adjunct.

All three Westvleteren beers begin from the exact same malts: Pale and Pilsner malts are used, from Dingemans Maltery in Stabroek. Westvleteren has its own malt mill (silo). Sint-Sixtus is the only Trappist brewery to use the same grains for both blond and dark beers. Dark liquid sugar is added to the 8 and 12. Brother Joris, the monk in charge of the brewery, declined to say where the coloring comes from in the dark beers. However, Jef Van den Steen states in his book Trappist: The Beer and the Monks that all of the coloring in the 8 and 12 comes from dark burnt caramelized sugar (dark candi sugar).

Hop extracts are used for bittering in the 8 and 12, and then hop pellets are used in the boil. All hops are locally grown in the region of Poperinge. Three hop varieties are used, but as to which ones, that is a secret of the brewery.

The Westvleteren brewery. Photo by Chuck Cook.

Brewing takes place about 70 days per year, and brew size is 34 hectoliters. There are two brew-kettles, so 68 hectoliters will be produced on a brewing day. Brewing begins at 9:00 a.m. and usually finishes about 5:00 p.m. A bottling day takes place for every two brewing days.

Five monks work in the brewery, and an additional five help on bottling days. Brother Jos (Joseph), a young-looking monk, is the new brewer. There are three secular workers; one is a truck driver, and two help with other manual labors. Westvleteren is the only Trappist abbey where beer is still brewed solely by monks.Westvleteren and Westmalle have cooperated closely in the past and continue to do so. Both breweries currently are phasing in new bottles that have “Trappistenbier” on the bottle neck so that they may be used interchangeably by them or any of the Trappist breweries. Westvleteren’s old bottles came from Eastern Europe, and obtaining more is not an option. The full changeover to the new bottles will take a few years as the old bottles are not returned, are broken or become unusable, etc.

Open fermenters are used for primary fermentation. There are six of them, with two having a 68-hectoliter capacity and four having a 34-hectoliter capacity. One monk is in charge of the fermentation and manually adds the yeast, which is from Westmalle (used since the new brewhouse was installed at Sint-Sixtus in 1989). These open fermenters limit Westvleteren’s brewing capacity.
Concerning the 8 and the 12: These classic strong ales are among the most coveted and talked about in the world of beer, partly due to their high quality and also due to their rarity. Westvleteren sells its beer at the abbey gates only by the case (though one can buy individual bottles or six-packs at the In de Vrede Cafe across the street, which the monks own). One can call the “beer phone” to learn if beer is available at the abbey drive-through area.

The monks limit each car to a maximum of five cases of beer: no more than three cases of the Blond or five cases of the 8 or 12, or some combination of the three beers. It would be unusual to find all three beers available at the same time, or even two of the three.

The beers are in such demand that a batch can easily be gone in a day or two upon release. A single buyer could wipe out an entire day's supply, so the restrictions allow more people to have access to the brews.

On average, about 70–75 percent of total production is sold at the abbey gates, while about 25–30 percent is sold at the cafe. However, demand for beer at the cafe is much higher in summer. This creates beer shortages at the abbey gates and long lines when beer is available, which was much talked about in the summer of 2004.

The 8 is a medium- to dark brown–colored beer with notes of chocolate, licorice and sweet malt. It pours with a fine head and leaves a substantial “Belgian lace” in the glass. It is hard to classify; perhaps it is a dubbel or a dark tripel. Primary fermentation takes four to seven days at 82 degrees Fahrenheit (the same as the 12). Lagering time is four to eight weeks. The 8 represents about 35 percent of the brewery’s production.

The 12 is one of the world’s most sought-after brews. The beer is medium to dark brown in color and pours with a fine tan head. The 12 has been referred to as a barley wine or a quadrupel. Perhaps it is both! I have had the pleasure of tasting bottles within the last couple of years dating to 1975. Quite a pleasure, as the 12 certainly qualifies as a top beer to lay in your cellar for many years.

Notes of raisins, fruits, brown sugar and caramel are present. Mouthfeel is creamy and elegant, with noticeable alcohol. The 12 uses the same Westmalle yeast for bottle-conditioning as for primary fermentation, as with the Blond and 8. The reason that the 12 used to be 11% abv and is now 10.2% is that the Westmalle yeast is more difficult to brew to high alcohols than the Westvleteren yeast of years ago. The 12 makes up about 50 percent of the brewery’s production.

The Blond, 8 and 12 all undergo a period of warm conditioning at 79 degrees Fahrenheit after bottling: eight days for the Blond, 10 days for the 8, and 10–12 days for the 12.

An interesting note is that the Belgian tax man with authority over Westvleteren has a key to enter the monastery, the brewery and the tax-records room at any time he wants.

The 12 is one of the world's most sought-after brews.

A delicate subject for the monks is the resale of their beers. Brother Joris told me, “Everyone who buys beer from the abbey gates receives a simple bill showing the price paid, with the sales condition printed on it that the beer may not be resold.” However, the reselling obviously goes on, as many of the top beer cafes and shops in Belgium have the Westvleteren beers for sale. I have it on good authority that some very highly placed politicians enjoy being able to have a Westvleteren at their local specialty cafe. However, Brother Joris also said, “We are working on this problem.”

The monks consider their beers’ importation into the United States a bigger problem. It is not that they don’t want us to enjoy their fine beers; it is the method by which the beers get here that is of concern. The monks enjoy a serene, peaceful life of prayer and work. They brew beer only to have the money to support themselves, their abbey and charitable works. (Regarding charity and providing jobs in the area, the wooden crates used for storing beer are handmade by local people who would otherwise likely not have jobs.)

The monks have found that the current production level is enough to meet their needs. They are not profit-driven and do not want to produce more unless necessary. Any additional brewing would take time away from their lives of devotion to finding God.

When their beers are sent to the United States and other places around the world against their wishes, thus becoming more widely known, there is always increased pressure on the monks to brew more beer and to increase prices to make the beer more exclusive — not to mention interruptions such as phone calls, faxes, e-mails, people knocking on the door, etc. These are very unwanted distractions for the monks. In fact, they would like it to be known that they do not wish to receive visitors to the brewery or hear requests for increased production. Anneke Benoit, secretary of the International Trappist Union, told me, “I have to turn away so many people each year and tell them the same thing: 'No' to a visit or other suggestions.” Until recently, Ms. Benoit helped run the Claustrum, a museum of monastic life at the Sint-Sixtus Abbey, with interactive videos, historical items, a history of monastic life in the area and, for beer lovers, a video of the monks brewing at Sint-Sixtus.

Another problem the monks have with their beers being imported into the United States against their wishes is price. In Belgium, it has been a long tradition and is a valued principle that beer, whether pils or Trappist ale or anything in between, be affordable to rich, poor and middle class alike. The monks are aware that their brews bring from about $6 to $20 a bottle here in the States, which they realize few could afford on a regular basis. This is against their beliefs.

A third problem involves various legal concerns. The monks are aware of the overactive use of lawsuits in this country and are worried they might be held accountable for something relating to their beer being available in the States, despite the fact that they oppose its importation and have nothing to do with it. The bottom line is that the monks want to stop the unauthorized importation of their beer into this country.

The In de Vrede Cafe, completed in 1999, is the place to taste the Westvleteren brews and take home a few souvenirs. The cafe offers sandwiches, soups and Trappist cheeses from the nearby Belval and Catsberg monasteries in France (the Belval cheese is washed with Westvleteren beer!), as well as warm and cold drinks. Of course, the real attraction is the beers from across the street. The Blond is offered at 2.3 euro, the 8 for 2.8 euro and the 12 for 3.2 euro.

The little shop inside the cafe offers the brews to-go as well: Blond, 8 and 12 cost 1.15, 1.45 and 1.65 euros, respectively. There are also beer coasters, T-shirts (new ones as of 2004, and very nice), Trappist yeast tablets, cheese, books, postcards made by Trappist nuns, gift sets (with two Blonds, one 8, one 12 and a Westvleteren chalice) and more.

For more information on the abbey and brewery, see sintsixtus.be. For more information on the cafe, see indevrede.be. A visit to the In de Vrede Cafe in the shadow of the Sint-Sixtus Trappist Abbey is a modern-day pilgrimage for any serious lover of Belgian beer!

Chuck Cook is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Va. His passions are beer and travel, and he has written for various beer publications. He can be reached via e-mail at chuck@beerandtravel.com.

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