Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Best Beer in the World?

Westvleteren 12 - Best beer in the world?
In terms of beer production, the St Sixtus Monastery at Westvleteren in West Flanders is the smallest of the 10 Trappist Monastery Breweries, with an output of just under 4,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons, a year.  Contrast this with Chimay, the largest and probably best-known Trappist brewery, which produces about 3.2 million gallons a year, and you get some idea of the differences in scale between the two establishments.

Three brews are produced at St Sixtus - Westvleteren Blonde (green cap), 5.8% ABV, Westvleteren 8 (blue cap) 8% ABV and Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap) 10.2% ABV. The latter is by far the best known and most renowned beer brewed at the abbey.

Back in August, whilst in Belgium for the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference, I was fortunate to visit Westvleteren. I didn’t get to see the brewery; no-one ever does as St Sixtus is the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of  breweries. But if you think the monks occasionally hide "golden tickets" in amongst their packs of beer, then think again! The closest anyone gets is to either visit the modern and spacious In de Vrede café, located just across from the abbey in the Donkerstraat 13, or to try their luck at the drive-thru pick-up gate.

In de Vrede- Westvleteren
I would strongly recommend the former, as at In de Vrede not only can you drink the beer by the glass, but you can also buy limited quantities of bottles to take home with you at the café shop, (maximum of two six-packs per person). Or at least you can normally, but on that hot, late August Sunday, when we called by, In de Vrede was packed out with thirsty customers and was not doing carry-outs. After speaking to other beer lovers on my return to the UK, I discovered you will have much better luck mid-week, when the café is usually much quieter.

Attempting to buy your beer at the monastery gate though is a much more fraught experience, as not only are you limited to just one case per car, but your order must be reserved at least 60 days in advance. You do this by calling the brewery over the "beer phone"; a dedicated number which is supposed to put you through to the brewery. However, when the phone system was first introduced, the call volume was so high that the local exchange crashed, forcing the monks to switch to a national high-capacity number. This has made little difference and at peak times as many as 85,000 calls are made per hour. It is reckoned that  only around 200 callers get through during the two-to-three-hour window when orders may be placed.

Determined drinkers do get through though as on most afternoons, a line of cars forms outside the monastery walls at a pick-up point for the latest coveted batch. Drivers stay in their cars as staff check registration plates, load the single crate and then take the credit card payments.

So what is it about Westvleteren beer which makes it so hard to get hold of, and why are supplies so limited? The situation dates back to 2005 when the beer-information website rated Westvleteren 12° as the best beer in the world. The monks at Saint Sixtus who brew this dark, quadrupel-style beer were not at all pleased by the ensuing publicity, despite this award being an achievement that most brewers can only dream of. The problem is they are not in the business of brewing beer in order to win awards; neither are they in it for the money. They brew beer only in sufficient quantities to support themselves and their abbey.
Awaiting the thirsty hordes - glasses at In de Vrede

As you can imagine, a beer which few people had heard of suddenly rocketed in popularity. One day, a few dozen people were drinking the beer; the next, there was a huge line of cars queuing up at the abbey gate to buy it. Stories began to appear about the abbey's stocks of Westvleteren 12 starting to run low, so to counter this situation the monks were forced to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer. In a rare interview one of them explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite the clear demand for the beer, adding "We make the beer to live”, he said, “but we do not live for beer.”

In 2015 Westvleteren 12 is again on RateBeer's list of the best beers in the world. The monks of St Sixtus remain detached, as much as possible, from the ongoing publicity, and continue to decline requests for either interviews or visits. However, it’s probably fair to say that the abbey is secretly proud of the title. Brother Godfried, who is in charge of the brewery, reportedly told a news agency, "It's good to know our customers appreciate what we make."

Westvleteren is part of Vleteren; a small rural town in West Flanders, close to the French border.  Situated in an agricultural region known as the hop country of Belgium, it also consists of other small villages such as Oostvleteren and Woesten. The combined population is around 3,600 inhabitants.

Hidden behind a high wall - Sint Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren
The St Sixtus monastery was founded in 1831 by Trappist monks from the Catsberg monastery in France. In 1838 a brewery was added at Westvleteren, to brew beer primarily for the monks own consumption. The brewery was ‘modernized’ in 1871 and brewing continued apace; even surviving both World Wars. In 1931, the abbey began selling beer to the general public; having only served beer to guests and visitors up until that time. During the 1930’s the monks even used trucks to distribute their beer!

Things came to an abrupt end at the end of the Second World War when Gerardus, the Abbot at the head of the monastery, decided to downsize the Sint-Sixtus brewing operation. He believed that brewing was taking up too much of the monks’ energy and was beginning to interfere with their true spiritual calling. According to the Abbot brewing beer on a commercial scale was not part of that calling

In 1946, deal was struck with the owner of a local cheese factory in nearby Watou, to brew the beers. To assist with the start-up of the new brewery, the Brewmaster from St Sixtus became a partner in the new set-up and brought with him the recipes, the expertise and, most important of all the St Sixtus yeast.

For many years, the Watou brewery produced and marketed the beers under the names "Trappist Westvleteren" or "St Sixtus". Beer also continued to be brewed at the abbey to cater to the needs of individuals buying it at the gates as well as three local cafés connected to Sint-Sixtus. This was done to continue providing beer for their own consumption as well as to keep the tradition alive within the monastery walls.

The contract with Watou was renewed in 1962 when the Abbey gave them a second license; this time spanning a 30 year period. This agreement ended in 1992, primarily due to changing laws and regulations which stated that in order to be labelled a Trappist, the beer actually had to be made (mainly) by real Trappist monks at a working Trappist monastery. That same year, the abbey opened its new brewery to replace the older equipment. In 1992 that license came to an end and the production was completely taken over by Sint-Sixtus again.

St Sixtus brews about 70 days a year, starting at around 9 a.m. and finishing at approximately 5 p.m. The brewery currently employs three secular workers for various manual labour tasks; however, the primary brewing is done by the monks only. It is the only Trappist brewery where the monks still do all of the brewing. Of the 26 Cistercians who reside at the abbey, five monks run the brewery, with an additional five who assist during bottling.

As soon as the Watou Brewery got over the loss of the Westvleteren beers they started to produce and market their own line of abbey-styled beers, under the name, St. Bernardus. One of the beers they came up with was St. Bernardus Abt 12. Many claim this to be the same beer as Westvleteren 12, as St. Bernardus had the recipe and almost 50 years of experience and, more importantly, knew how to brew it.

Special edition - Oak aged St Bernardus Abt 12
Others dispute this, claiming that if you compare the two side by side, you will certainly find similarities but they are clearly different beers. I have tasted both, but not at the same time, so I don’t consider myself qualified to judge. In addition both beers are bottle-conditioned, with a five year shelf life, so there are bound to be subtle differences anyway, depending on age, storage conditions etc.

What I do know is I have a half dozen bottles of St. Bernardus Abt 12 sat in my cupboard. The beer is easy to come by in Belgium and also closer to home. A work colleague has a Belgian friend who visits England quite regularly, so I always get him to bring me a case over with him.

It was interesting that whilst in Belgium we met the Managing Director of the St Bernardus Brewery. He, of course, was adamant the beers are the same, but then he would say that, wouldn’t he? Unlike St Sixtus, St. Bernardus is open to visitors and offers a wide selection of speciality beers including St. Bernardus Tripel, Prior 8, White, Pater and Christmas Ale plus the lesser known 'Grottenbier' and 'Watou Tripel'.

A few of the St Bernardus beers
So after all the publicity and hype surrounding Westvleteren 12, and the controversy surrounding St Bernardus Brewery’s claim that their St. Bernardus Abt 12  is the same beer, which one is better and is either of them the best beer in the world?

I have drunk quite a few bottles of St. Bernardus Abt 12, but only one bottle of Westvleteren 12, so am unable to answer the first question. Both beers are very good, but at 10% ABV they are not the sort of beers you drink every day. This leads me on to the second question, and here I would argue there is no singular “best beer in the world”.

The reason of course is beer is such a diverse drink, with a myriad of different styles and strengths, that there are in fact dozens of “best beers in the world”. The choice of beer depends on many things and is influenced by location, climate, company and occasion, so whilst a nice cool Pilsner is to be enjoyed whilst sitting out at a pavement café on a hot summer’s day, a cool, well-hopped pint of traditional English bitter is equally appreciated after a long walk to a traditional country pub. Conversely, the two aforementioned Abbey beers are best enjoyed sat in front of a roaring log fire on a cold winter’s night.

In this respect rating sites such as RateBeer have not only done a disservice to the holy brothers of St Sixtus Abbey, but they have turned the world of beer drinking into little more than a "list-ticking exercise", rather than what it should be – the appreciation and enjoyment of beer. It is one thing for writers and beer aficionados to recommend certain beers, but to select beers of different styles, tastes and strengths, and then try and rank them in a table of “best in the world” is sheer hypocrisy and self-indulgence of the worst kind.

Are people so shallow minded and herd-like that they need ranking sites to tell them what to drink? Make your own minds up people. Don’t rely on rating sites; especially as they can leave themselves open to manipulation. Don’t follow the crowd; do some proper research of your own. Get out there and try these beers for yourselves. Even better, try and visit some of the places which produce the world’s classic beers and experience how better they taste on home turf. You know it makes sense!


Birkonian said...

The beers are very different. The St. Bernardus beers have a signature candy sugar, slightly chalky taste. For many years I wasn't sure about this but now appreciate them as classic brews.
Westvleteren beers don't have this flavour, they are more classically malty although not excessively so. The appeal of the 12 is that it lacks the harsh alcohol taste that often replaces flavour in very strong beers. Note that it has dropped over 1 degree in strength in the last decade or so.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for sharing this, Birkonian. I do remember reading somewhere that St Bernardus use their own well-water, whilst St Sixtus use the local municipal supply. From what you say about the chalky taste of the former, the writer of that piece may well have got his facts the wrong way round.

I will make a point of buying a few bottles of Westvleteren 12 the next time I am in Belgium. Failing that, I’ll see if my Belgian acquaintance can pick some up for me.