an article about the visit I made to the St Sixtus Monastery at Westvleteren in West Flanders. St Sixtus Monastery is the smallest of the 10 Trappist Monastery Breweries, with an output of just under 4,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons, a year, but its beers are amongst the most sought after.
I was in Belgium for the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference, but didn’t actually set foot inside the abbey or even get much of a glimpse of the place. To say that the monastery, hidden behind its high brick wall, is rather secretive would be an understatement, but the world-class beers brewed by the monks can be enjoyed at the modern and spacious café, located just across from the abbey.
The café is known as In de Vrede, and not only can you drink the beer by the glass there, but you can also buy limited quantities of bottles to take home with you at the integral shop, (maximum of two six-packs per person). Those wishing to buy more have to do so at the monastery gate, and that is a much more fraught experience. Not only are you limited to just one case per car, but your order must be reserved at least 60 days in advance.
Determined drinkers do manage to place an order 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.
RateBeer.com ranked 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.
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.
Despite this reticence, things are about to change at St Sixtus Abbey because, in a bid to stop the thriving black market in this most sought after of beers, the holy fathers have been forced to go digital. Because of its credence and ranking amongst the top beers in the world, Westvleteren 12, which has been brewed since 1838, is a highly sought after beer. The brothers sell a crate of 24 bottles for £40 at the brewery gate, and insist the beers should only be sold to private individuals and not businesses.
Things came to a head last year, when a Dutch supermarket chain placed 7,000 bottles on sale priced at £9 a bottle. The chain received a stern rebuke from the monks, although at the same time it prompted the holy fathers to abandon their complicated phone ordering system, described above, in favour of an online shop.
The new system allows orders to be placed at anytime, and the software has been programmed to give first-time buyers an advantage over regular customers. Every beer and every shopper will be given an online code, which means customers can be linked to the beers they buy.
The beers must still be picked up from the abbey, and no customer can return until 60 days after their last purchase. This ruling was also enforced under the old system, as the monks demanded the registration number of their visitors' cars.
2015 article that a work colleague has a Belgian friend who visits England quite regularly. In the past he has brought over various Flemish beers for me, so now, given the new digital system, I am tempted to order a case of Westvleteren 12 and get him to deliver it next time he comes over.
Finally, I wish to express my solidarity with the monks of St Sixtus Monastery, along with my contempt for sites, such as RateBeer, which created this un-holy mess in the first place. They have turned the world of beer drinking into little more than a glorified, "list-ticking exercise", rather than what it should be – the appreciation and enjoyment of good beer.
No self-respecting beer lover needs a ranking site to tell them what to drink; especially as such a forum can be open to manipulation. Why not make your own mind up? Don’t follow the crowd; do some proper research of your own. Get out there and try these beers for yourself. Even better, try and visit some of the places where they are produced, and experience how better these world classic beers taste on their home turf.