It was our last night in Europe and, coming off a two-week odyssey through the most unique beer cities in Germany, we were a bit run down. Still, the daily drudgery loomed, literally, over the horizon and the twisty streets of Amsterdam still beckoned. Thus, my brewer friend Bruce and I found ourselves at an intersection of canal and cobblestone, looking dubiously at Cafe De Spuyt, and its sign claiming to offer “100 Beeren.”
To say the place was a magical wonderland would be a stretch, but it was cozy, age-worn and empty, save for the friendly proprietor. And this guy understood beer. His bookshelf contained works by Michael Jackson, Pete Brown, Garrett Oliver, Martyn Cornell, you name it. And he talked the talk as well. We had a lively, informed discussion about the American craft scene that really showed me how seriously Europeans are taking it.
Oh, and there were 100 beeren, colorfully labeled, from across The Netherlands and around the world.
The one that caught my eye, however, was the one with no fancy label, indeed no label at all. It was a plain brown bottle, with a simple cap, that came from the next country over. It actually took a minute to sink in. I was looking at the Holy Grail.
The placid fields around Poperinge, Belgium, belie the turmoil this land and its inhabitants endured 95 years ago. Back then, they were stump-riddled mud pits, blasted uneven by artillery and scarred by trenches slashed through to the Ypres battlefield. They certainly still dig up the odd explosive shell, but the earth here is level again. Farmers tend their crops. The villages are small and sleepy. The place is peaceful enough to have an abbey, where monks of the Trappist order pray and live a life of quiet faithful deprivation. They support themselves with what goods they can produce. The monks bake bread, which I hear is delicious, but they’re best known for the beer they brew. The abbey is called St. Sixtus, and it’s in the town of Vleteren.
The monks of St. Sixtus are a bit more hardcore than those of the other Trappist abbeys, who’d long been profiting from the enormous regard in which beer lovers held their ale. Distribution chains are in place for Joe Hophead to wander into beer stores all over the USA and walk out with a bottle of Orval or Rochefort. But the monks in Vleteren never got comfortable with mass worldwide distribution and an income stream that could potentially bring them into moral conflict with their code of a simple life and support of a modest abbey. They prefer to keep it close to home. If you want their beer, Westvleteren, you go to them.
They brew a light-alcohol Blonde, the Westvleteren 8, and, more rarely, the strong Westvleteren 12, considered one of the finest beers in the world by pretty much all beer lovers, many of whom had yet to try it. To buy it legitimately, you have to win something of a telephone lottery, then drive to the brewery and pick up your two cases maximum.
We found an easier method was to blindly stumble into a randomly selected beer bar in Amsterdam.
Does the Westvleteren 12 live up to its hype? In many ways, yes. It’s a deep, syrupy brew rife with plum and raisin character, carrying just enough of that Belgian funk to let you know what you’re drinking is special. However, it isn’t so many light years ahead of other excellent Trappist quads, such as Rochefort 10, that it justifies the trek to Flanders’ fields. It’s the scarcity that makes Westy 12 such a treasured brew, but it’s no fault of the abbey that the rest of the world is beer crazy.
The monk/brewers are not playing a marketing game of hard-to-get, they’re brewing from a simple ideal, with a simple purpose, and remain perfectly happy to follow a simple business model that seems tragically missing from today’s commerce ethos: They brew enough Westvleteren to support the abbey, and there are enough local people to make this possible. That is all they need.
I wonder if that would still work over here?
EDIT: Some changes occurred since the piece was written. Even Westvleteren is feeling the pinch and needs to inrease their revenue stream in order to maintain and upgrade the brewery. They have reached a deal with Massachusetts-based importer/distributor Shelton Brothers to import 7760 special gift packs containing 6 bottles of Westvleteren 12 and two glasses. At this point it’s unclear whether this is recurring or a one-time thing.