We try the famous (have you heard of it?) Westvleteren Trappist Beer and report back with our findings. Is it really the best beer in the world?
While I was home in Michigan for the holidays and furiously pounding out term papers (hence the absence), Belgium’s culinary delights were featured not once, but twice in prominent English news sources. One of them infinitely increased my insecurity.
I suffer from this syndrome that I didn’t know was a thing until I heard someone say it: FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out.
Belgian beer: the best in the world?
My intense case of FOMO is about Westvletern, the best beer in the world (although this year it was bested and is currently number two. Big difference, I know).
Westvleteren is a small, sleepy village nestled among fields of Brussels sprouts, leeks and hops in West Flanders. Its closest neighbors are the calm towns of Poperinge and Ypres (pronounced ‘eee-per’). Poperinge, besides being known as ‘Pops’ by British soldiers, is the center of hops production in Belgium.
As you drive alongside the town’s small roads during autumn, you pass by an innumerable amount of highly strung lines covered with thick, green vines. Eventually they’ll be trimmed from their heights, taking on the shape of cured tobacco and left to dry out in the number of hoop houses dotting the farmland.
Ypres is less bucolic but still charming. The city had the sad fate of being caught between a salient of trenches in World War I and was completely annihilated. At the end of the war, the tallest structure in the city only came up to a person’s knees.
The city has slowly recovered and has been entirely refurbished to look like it did pre-World War I, thanks to reparations from Germany (who, by the way, just paid the city its last installment for the rebuilding a few years ago)**. Because of this, the town has been able to continue a medieval tradition of throwing cats from the top of the town’s main bell tower in a biannual festival. Thanks to the rebuilding, the festival still has that medieval feel to it, except now they throw plush cat toys instead of real cats.
And so it goes that near these two towns sits a monastery, full of monks quietly caught in prayer. To support their spiritual pursuits, they only brew enough for commercial sale to cover their living expenses.
Westvleteren: the most Belgian of beers
When the Westvleteren 12 was named the best beer in the world a few years ago by RateBeer.com, the monks were flooded with requests from the US to Japan to purchase their brew. The requests haven’t really stopped since then. Yet despite the continued clamoring for their product, the monks have stayed true to their style of brewing and the physical constraints of the monastery’s facilities. Their production volume has stayed at a minimum and they only produce as much as they need to for supporting their lifestyle. The scarcity of the beer has turned acquiring it into a quest not unlike the search for the Holy Grail.
In a way, the monks make Westvleteren the most Belgian of beers. They embody the spirit of Belgium by quietly and modestly plugging away, doing work that sustains a lifestyle of small indulgence, and being totally shocked and embarrassed when recognized for the high quality of the product produced.
I like that. I like when someone, or a group of people, pull together to make a simple, honest product and then, when it turns out to be good, aren’t bowled over by success.
A distant cousin to whiskey
At the same time though, I don’t really like this famed beer, the Westvleteren 12. Hence my FOMO. I’ve tried several times to have that ‘A-ha!’ moment when drinking it, but it’s only been this year that I’ve come to accept that it’s a beer, and a good one, but not the beer. At least not for me – and that’s ok. I’m working through my case of FOMO. But when you tell people who are into beer facts that you don’t like Westvleteren, they look at you like you like you’ve kidnapped a baby. Their baby.
The Westvleteren 12 is a brown so murky that it’s impossible to see through and has a sweet smell that hits you immediately upon pouring. The sweet scent manifests itself in a flavor that nods its head in the direction of cough syrup or throat lozenges with a slight burn of alcohol at the finish. You definitely know that this is a strong beer. But strength doesn’t automatically mean a depth of flavor. I find its taste to be relatively one-dimensional compared to other Belgian beers.
There’s a mellow undertone of smoked peat and an ever so slight grain-like quality to it as well, like an intensely heavy loaf of rye bread. And when you blend that smokiness with the tang of the burning aftertaste, it feels like a long-lost distant cousin to whiskey. This is why I think so many people like it. The problem is that I strongly dislike whiskey.
Even though I’m not its number one fan, I do recognize the qualities that make the beer good and I would never claim it as a write-off. It’s no bottle of Wild Irish Rose or a handle of homemade gin. I can see its appeal to people and every time I’m in the area, I will continue to have a sit down at In De Vrede, the only cafe known to sell the beer. It’s located across the street from the monastery and in the middle of a field, so it’s clearly there for one purpose – to serve the beer. And in typical, quirky Belgian style, there’s a fantastic playground immediately outside the cafe’s entrance.
So would I qualify it as the best beer in the world? No, it’s not even close a runner-up. When it comes time for me to leave Belgium, I won’t spend my nights wistfully thinking of the times I had with Westvleteren. There are too many others in the arsenal of Belgian beers that will keep me up when I’m gone.
For those of you who are interested in visiting Westvleteren (and I highly suggest you do. The area is beautiful in that quiet, European pastoral sort of way), Joe Stange, a former American expat who used to live in Belgium, wrote up a nice ditty about car-free directions here. Also, give In De Vrede a call before you head over to make sure they’re open. I’ve definitely tried to go there a couple of times when they’ve been on holiday. (Despite their website, they do generally speak English.)
**If you do find yourself in the Ypres area with a car and an interest in history, I strongly suggest checking out Hill 62. It’s one of the few remaining fully intact World War I trenches and the site is run from an old farmer’s former house. The farmer and his family collected all of the shrapnel and other bits and bobs found around his land after the War. My American perspective always finds it intensely interesting and numbing. In general, Americans are never taught much about the Great War and this is a very in-your-face lesson about modern European history. This sort of face-to-face interaction with history is something Belgium excels at when it wants to.