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Dreaming of drinking the best beer in the world, Westvleteren 12? The only legal way to buy Westvleteren beer is at the abbey itself. Keep reading for information about the Westvleteren trappist beers, how to buy Westveleteren beer legally, and what it’s like going to the Westvleteren Brewery.
- Why Westvleteren beer is so special and exclusive
- The history of Westvleteren monastery and Westvleteren trappist beer
- About the three Westvleteren trappist beers
- Is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world?
- How to get to the Westvleteren Brewery
- Visiting the Westvleteren Brewery Cafe (In De Vrede)
- How to buy Westvleteren beer with a car rental
- Our experience visiting Westvleteren
- How to buy Westvleteren beer with your own car
- Where to stay near Westvleteren
Why Westvleteren beer is so special and exclusive
Westvleteren 12 has earned the moniker “best beer in the world”, But in addition to its exquisite taste, the beer from the Westvleteren monastery is infamously difficult to get a hold of, making it also one of the most exclusive beers in the world. Similarly, the trappist Westvleteren beer has received universal praise. It is undoubtedly considered the best quadrupel available and, without controversy, is also frequently cited as the best Belgium beer while others call it the best beer in the world.
The beer is brewed by monks at the Sint-Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, in West Flanders, Belgium. Unlike other monasteries, Sint-Sixtus places has no commercial aspirations with their beer. They make and sell just enough to sustain their way of life.
As such, they do not advertise it, export it, or produce large quantities. They don’t even put a label on the bottle. (The exception to this is a recent and uncharacteristic promotion of the beer in North America, where a limited quantity was exported. Those bottles have XII inscribed on them. There is fervent debate if the recipe was changed for this promotion in the beer community).
The lack of information provided by the brewery makes the process of acquiring this beer seem formidable… Therefore, a gray market has appeared, selling the Westvleteren 12 in semi-legal circumstances and with high mark ups. The monks condemn this practice and claim that it is illegal and prosecutable.
So if one decides to get this beer legally, how hard is it really? The secret is the tasting room adjacent to the monastery. While it is mentioned frequently on the internet, due to the monk’s antipathy toward advertising, there is a lack of information about it. Thankfully, if you manage to get yourself there, trying all of the Westvleteren beers, and bringing some home, is very simple. (Note: Why reward someone who is selling a bottle worth about 4 euros for 15-25 euros per bottle!? You pay 23 for six Westvleteren 12 beers if you go to the Westvleteren monastery.)
The history of Westvleteren monastery & Westvleteren trappist beer
Westvleteren abbey is one of the six Belgian abbeys that make Trappist Beer. The other five Belgian trappist beers are made at Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle.
Westvleteren is the only one of these monasteries that still retains its original brewing kit made of copper. During World War II, the others came under German control and the metal was use to refurbish weapons and machinery as well as to make ammunition. Westvleteren came under Allied control due to its proximity to Ypres. It was used as a makeshift hospital and the brewing kit was left intact.
For a significant portion of the 20th century, the Westvleteren monks contracted out their brewing. Another brewery, St. Bernardus, was founded for this purpose and used the Westvleteren ingredients and know-how to make their beer. However, in 1992, this ended because it was decided that only Trappist monks should brew trappist beers.
St. Bernadus still exists and uses the recipes from the time they brewed Westvleteren beer to make their own beer, St. Bernardus 12. Some claim that this beer is identical to Westvleteren 12, but most agree that it is a distinct beer in the same style.
We tried both beers side by side and agreed with the conclusion. (We felt that the taste of Westvleteren 12 is much fuller compared to the St. Bernadus 12 although both are delicious!)
About Westvleteren Trappist Beer
Westvleteren brews three different beers: Westvleteren Blond, Westvleteren 8 (a dubbel), and Westvleteren 12. The first two are actually even more exclusive than the Westvleteren 12 due to the simple fact that they have less of a grey market presence because they don’t have the reputation of the Westvleteren 12. However, all three are available for tasting and purchase at the Westvleteren tasting room.
The Westvleteren Blonde is identified by its green cap and is 5.6% alcohol. The Westvleteren 8 has a blue cap and has an 8% ABV. The Westvleteren 12 is distinguished by its yellow cap and is the heaviest, at 10.2% ABV.
The caps contain all of the information about the beer, including the sell-by date stamped on the cap. Both the 8 and 12 can be aged, and many prefer it this way. The Westvletern monks do not recommend refrigerating their beers. Rather, these beers should be cooled in a cellar environment.
Is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world?
Maybe. Both my husband and I loved it despite having drastically different tastes in beer. The Westvleteren 12 is a quadrupel beer. Like all quadtrupels, the Westvleteren 12 is dark, sweet, and smooth with a low hop profile. These beers can taste fruity while having overtones of chocolate and caramel. It’s certainly a unique beer that is full, smooth, and worth trying.
Getting to the Westvleteren Brewery
Westvleteren is an easy day trip from Antwerp or Brussels and the drive from Brussels to Westvleteren is only 1.5 hours without traffic each way. I’d recommend sticking around to see more of the region as you’ll also find affordable hotels in West Flanders. You’ll need a car.
Once you get close to Ypres, you’ll be driving on one lane roads through rural Belgium until you reach Westvleteren. If you’re not used to country driving, go slowly and let people pass. You might need to pull off to the side of the road to let cars on the other side pass.
Visiting the Westvleteren Brewery in Westvleteren
It’s actually not possible to visit the Westvleteren abbey or the Westvleteren brewery. I had read online that it was possible to stay overnight at the abbey if you speak Dutch and are willing to be silent, however my husband called to clarify only to be told that this is reserved for pilgrims and monks/nuns. They’re quite serious about this, so do not expect to be allowed to stay with them. We did not interact with any monks.
As a member of the public, you can visit In de Vrede, their cafeteria that is open to the public, or Het Claustrum, which is open daily in the afternoon for prayers. Beyond this, keep your expectations low for interacting with monks.
How to buy Westvleteren beer with a car rental
As a visitor to the area who does not have their own car, you might be forced to visit the Westvleteren brewery through the secondary channel. I was very concerned that this wouldn’t work, but buying our Westvleteren beer legally was far easier than I expected beyond getting there. So, if you’re dedicated enough to tasting the Westvleteren 12, it’s mostly the matter of getting there.
The cafeteria of the Westvleteren Brewery is operated by non-monks, however it’s open between 10am and 9pm generally most days. In de Vrede is closed on Thursdays typically although you should check their calendar for opening hours as they close sporadically on Fridays as well as 2-3 weeks at a time. The service was a bit, slow, but the food was great.
You can order all three beers, including the blonde, 8, and 12 from the bottle at In de Vrede, Westvleteren’s cafe. We also got sandwiches, which included abbey cheese (paterskaas) produced by a nearby convent. I’d recommend getting there early to ensure that there’s enough beer. (Note: the Westvleteren beers might not be from the current year. We ended up with Westvleteren beers made in 2017.)
Our experience visiting Westvleteren
We arrived on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Westvleteren. There’s free parking outside of their cafe although you might need to look around for a spot. It was around lunch time and we immediately got in line for our Westvleteren 12 beers.
Both of us were able to get two six packs of Westvleteren 12 in a paper box for 23 euros each (no discount for buying in bulk). We saw people with more beer (up to 24 Westvleteren 12 beers), but this is highly dependent on availability.
How to buy Westvleteren beer IF you have your own car
If you have your own car, you can check the official website to see their availability of beers for that day. You’ll need to call to give your name and your license plate. Do not expect to get through on the first try. You can only pick up beer and/or reserve beer every sixty days. The same car cannot pick up the beer for that period and you cannot call from an anonymous number. You must agree not to resell the beer, otherwise you will be banned.
They are very serious about the process, so if you do not follow it, you are not getting your beer. Most important, this is not possible with a car rental unless you know the license plate at the time of your reservation. They will only allow you to pick up the beer inside if the license plate matches.
The cost of a crate of Westvleteren beer is much cheaper this way than in the Vrede, but it’s also more complicated to get it. For a crate (24 beers) with Westvleteren 12, expect to pay ~45 euros, not including the 15 euro deposit for the crate/empty bottles (60 euros). The 8 and the blond trappist Westvleteren beers are slightly cheaper.
Where to stay near Westvleteren
Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) is the best city to stay in near Westvleteren. This beautiful historic Belgian city has a lot to offer in terms of accommodation as well as attractions. Beyond seeing the Yorkshire trench, there’s not too much by Westvleteren beyond heading west towards France (Dunkirk). For easy access to Ypres after a day seeing the trenches and visiting Westvleteren, consider staying at the 3* boutique hotel Hotel New Regina.
For something closer to Westvleteren, consider staying in Poperinge at a cozy B&B, De Zevende Zon,which is only 4km from Westvleteren. If you have big plans to drink plenty of Westvleteren 12, you can walk back afterwards. (Don’t drink and drive!) You’ll also find nice boutique hotels (Hotel Amfora) in Poperinge.