To begin at the beginning
First of all I need to acknowledge that this article is way off the topic of food from scratch, but thankfully that doesn’t matter because this blog lacks direction anyway and is only read by my mother and some random guy from from Bulgaria called Doncho. Hi Doncho! Anyway back to the blog…
What is the best beer in the world? One of life’s big questions and apparently one to which the answer is not subjective. I’ve always appreciated a good pint but over the last year I have reached lederhosen levels of enthusiasm. During my efforts to educate myself on all things beery there was one particular brew that kept cropping up over and over again, the fabled Westvleteren XII. On every beer rating website there it was in the top ten if not actually snagging the number one spot.
Some further research informed me that the taste of this boozy brown abbey brew is not its only remarkable feature. It is perhaps equally famous for being impossible to obtain. Never one to turn down a challenge I became determined to get my hands on a bottle of Belgium’s most fabled beverage and document the voyage for my devoted fans (all two of them).
Westvleteren XII is brewed by the elusive Cistercian monks of Sint-Sixtus abbey, Belgium. The brothers are keen to stress that they are not commercial brewers, they are only to interesting in creating sufficient product to remain in a comfortable state of poverty. Westv. XII is therefore only available to individuals at the monastery itself. The beer monks strongly discourage customers from selling on their bottles and request that enthusiasts do not buy beer sold on without their permission. If you do not wish to invoke the wrath of the beer monks a road trip to Belgium is your only option.
Before embarking on a jolly to Flanders you need to book a pick-up slot. This beer is only available by appointment. Slots can be claimed a week in advance via ‘the beer line’, a single dedicated phone line to the monastery which is only manned during limited time-frames on specific days. Details of the call and collection windows are buried deep within the abbey’s website. Navigating the labyrinth of webpages is perhaps the most complicated part of the process, akin to Theseus searching out the Minotaur. Callers who do alight on the right page are likely to be ringing for over an hour, may not get through at all, and are not guaranteed to receive their preferred time slot. And if a disappointing punter tries pleading with the monks via another channel of communication? Forget it:
‘There’s no sense in trying to contact our beer sales outlet or the brewery – in any way at all – if you don’t succeed in placing a reservation. Any such attempts will receive no response.’
–The sassy brother who runs the webpage
Making the call
It was the Wednesday morning prior to the beer tour and I had taken two hours off work to reach out to the monks. What better way to spend my TOIL? I was two bagels down and had been mindlessly pressing redial for over an hour. I admit that I was starting to flag. Then on the 687th time of ringing, as I waited for the beep the busy line I heard instead the sound of a monk at the end of the phone.
‘Hello is this the beer monastery?’
‘Yes you have reached the beer monastery. How can we help you?”
Larking about in Belgium
I didn’t much fancy a solo alcoholic mission to the Flemish wilds so I enlisted some company. Thankfully the company came with a car and some formidable organisational skills. I was able to drift carefree around the fields of Flanders, hunting cheese, munching fries and frequenting numerous waffle shops without having to plan a single thing. I was also able to sample a whole lot of beer.
We pulled up to the Sint-Sixtus monastery on the final day of our beer tour in eager anticipation. There we were met by what was essentially a holy mcdonalds drive through, where cars queued around a field to reach a man in a garage with a whole lot of beer. The guy two cars in front of us hadn’t booked in advance and was summarily dismissed. What a noob!! We all exchanged smug glances and felt disproportionately pleased with our ability to dial a phone number. Thankfully our collection went off without a hitch and we drove away the proud possessors of 48 bottles of Westvleteren XII.
The moment of truth
Some people say that the journey is more important than the destination. These people are wrong. Having put so much effort into acquiring it, I will be sorely disappointed if this beer sucks. Unfortunately my expectations are now impossibly high and as my old pal Pliny says.
An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.
There’s only one way to find out if Pliny is right on this one. it’s time to crack open a bottle and investigate! I have also invited a glamorous assistant to aid me in my taste test.
The cap is off and a faint aroma of malty sweetness pervades the air as my assistant pours the smooth mahogany liquid into the glass. We wait for the froth to settle with a quiet solemnity that would make the monks proud.
My comments: Oh wow, that’s heavenly good!! So rich, so complex, soooo silky. Notes of caramel, cocoa and plum are washing around my tongue, mingling with the hoppy overtones in a beautiful cacophony.
My assistant’s comments: I like monk beer. You can taste the monk. It’s intense and fruity like my men. (All direct quotes).
My verdict: Best beer I’ve ever had 10/10.
My assistant’s verdict: I’m more of an IPA gal.
Pliny the Elder’s verdict: An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.