2005 | REGIONAL | INTERNATIONAL
I visited the sixth and final Trappist abbey in Belgium that
brews beer, Sint-Sixtus Trappistenabdij (universally known
as Westvleteren) on December 6, 2004. This is St-Niklaas day
in Belgium and other countries. On that day children are given
presents, like at Christmas here. My gift from the monks:
a brewery tour, which was very difficult to arrange! The monks
(29 of them) at Sint-Sixtus almost never allow brewery visits.
|Inside Trappist Westvleteren.
Photo by Chuck Cook.
The Abbey of Sint-Sixtus is located in far West Flanders,
not far from the hop fields of Poperinge and the World War
I memorials of Ieper. It is an area steeped in history and
tradition, with flat lands and friendly people.
The first record of monastic life in the area of the present-day
abbey dates to the early ninth century. It is probable that
an abbey, St. Bertinus, was built not far from the present
abbey around A.D. 806. Later, nuns lived near the site from
at least as early as 1260, at the house of Sint-Sixtus of
Westvleteren. Records indicate they were gone by 1355.
In 1630, the lands where the present abbey stands were given
to Birgittan monks, who lived there until 1784. When they
were forced to leave, the buildings were demolished. Trappist
monks first came from the Catsberg monastery in nearby France
to inhabit the site in 1831. Later, monks from Sint-Sixtus
founded Abbaye de Scourmont (Chimay) in 1850. Also, some of
the monks went to America from 1858 on and founded the present-day
St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. (this abbey produces
excellent jams and preserves, available in some U.S. specialty
The abbey was never occupied by the Germans in WWI as all
the other Belgian Trappist abbeys with breweries were, and
over 400,000 allied soldiers lived and were cared for in the
area during that time, at the abbey hospital and grounds.
WWII was tough on the area and on the abbey; very little
brewing occurred, and the roads and buildings fell into disrepair.
After the war, brewing continued, but on a smaller scale than
The first record of brewing by the Trappists at Westvleteren
dates to 1839. In 1931, the monks began selling beer to the
general public; before then, it was only available to guests
and friends of the abbey. The first beers offered were the
4, 6 and 8 degree brews. A 12 degree beer was soon created.
At that point the beer was 12% abv. However, the beer was
difficult to brew, since the high alcohol level often killed
the yeasts. After WWII it was decided to reduce the abv to
11% so as to lessen the difficulty of brewing it.
The beers of today are the Blond (green cap, 5.8% abv), Acht/8
(blue cap, 8%) and Twaalf/12 (yellow cap, 10.2%). The 8 is
no longer referred to as “Extra,” nor is the 12
referred to as “Abt.” The 4 degree Dubbel, formerly
the monks' table beer, and the dark 6 (6.2%) were both canceled
when the new Blond was introduced in 1999.
The Westvleteren beers have no labels and use only crown
caps for identification. This may not always be the case,
as new European Union labeling laws and bureaucratic attention
may someday force the monks to use labels. For now, the crown
caps list the legal information required — the alcohol
content and “best by” usage date.
There were several reasons for replacing the two beers with
the Blond. The monks did not want to increase production or
have five different beers in their lineup. Also, they built
a new tasting cafe in 1999, In de Vrede (“In the Peace”),
after tearing down the old cafe of the same name. The new
Blond was created at the same time as the new cafe: a big
event, celebrated with a new beer. There was also a demand
for a lighter beer in the summer.
The Blond has a very fine, earthy, slightly citrusy hop aroma,
with some breadiness and a dry finish. It is a fine session
beer, worthy of the Westvleteren name. The Blond is also the
monks' table brew — one they can have with lunch if
they so choose. It represents 15% of the total production
at Westvleteren, which stands now at about 4,750 hectoliters
per year. Hop pellets are used for bittering and in the boil,
and white liquid sugar is added as an adjunct.
All three Westvleteren beers begin from the exact same malts:
Pale and Pilsner malts are used, from Dingemans Maltery in
Stabroek. Westvleteren has its own malt mill (silo). Sint-Sixtus
is the only Trappist brewery to use the same grains for both
blond and dark beers. Dark liquid sugar is added to the 8
and 12. Brother Joris, the monk in charge of the brewery,
declined to say where the coloring comes from in the dark
beers. However, Jef Van den Steen states in his book Trappist:
The Beer and the Monks that all of the coloring in the 8 and
12 comes from dark burnt caramelized sugar (dark candi sugar).
These classic strong ales
are among the most coveted and talked about in the world
Hop extracts are used for bittering in the 8 and 12, and
then hop pellets are used in the boil. All hops are locally
grown in the region of Poperinge. Three hop varieties are
used, but as to which ones, that is a secret of the brewery.
Brewing takes place about 70 days per year, and brew size
is 34 hectoliters. There are two brew-kettles, so 68 hectoliters
will be produced on a brewing day. Brewing begins at 9:00
a.m. and usually finishes about 5:00 p.m. A bottling day takes
place for every two brewing days.
Five monks work in the brewery, and an additional five help
on bottling days. Brother Jos (Joseph), a young-looking monk,
is the new brewer. There are three secular workers; one is
a truck driver, and two help with other manual labors. Westvleteren
is the only Trappist abbey where beer is still brewed solely
by monks.Westvleteren and Westmalle have cooperated closely
in the past and continue to do so. Both breweries currently
are phasing in new bottles that have “Trappistenbier”
on the bottle neck so that they may be used interchangeably
by them or any of the Trappist breweries. Westvleteren’s
old bottles came from Eastern Europe, and obtaining more is
not an option. The full changeover to the new bottles will
take a few years as the old bottles are not returned, are
broken or become unusable, etc.
Open fermenters are used for primary fermentation. There
are six of them, with two having a 68-hectoliter capacity
and four having a 34-hectoliter capacity. One monk is in charge
of the fermentation and manually adds the yeast, which is
from Westmalle (used since the new brewhouse was installed
at Sint-Sixtus in 1989). These open fermenters limit Westvleteren’s
Concerning the 8 and the 12: These classic strong ales are
among the most coveted and talked about in the world of beer,
partly due to their high quality and also due to their rarity.
Westvleteren sells its beer at the abbey gates only by the
case (though one can buy individual bottles or six-packs at
the In de Vrede Cafe across the street, which the monks own).
One can call the “beer phone” to learn if beer
is available at the abbey drive-through area.
The monks limit each car to a maximum of five cases of beer:
no more than three cases of the Blond or five cases of the
8 or 12, or some combination of the three beers. It would
be unusual to find all three beers available at the same time,
or even two of the three. The beers are in such demand that
a batch can easily be gone in a day or two upon release. A
single buyer could wipe out an entire day's supply, so the
restrictions allow more people to have access to the brews.
On average, about 70–75 percent of total production
is sold at the abbey gates, while about 25–30 percent
is sold at the cafe. However, demand for beer at the cafe
is much higher in summer. This creates beer shortages at the
abbey gates and long lines when beer is available, which was
much talked about in the summer of 2004.
The 8 is a medium- to dark brown–colored beer with
notes of chocolate, licorice and sweet malt. It pours with
a fine head and leaves a substantial “Belgian lace”
in the glass. It is hard to classify; perhaps it is a dubbel
or a dark tripel. Primary fermentation takes four to seven
days at 82 degrees Fahrenheit (the same as the 12). Lagering
time is four to eight weeks. The 8 represents about 35 percent
of the brewery’s production.
The 12 is one of the world’s most sought-after brews.
The beer is medium to dark brown in color and pours with a
fine tan head. The 12 has been referred to as a barley wine
or a quadrupel. Perhaps it is both! I have had the pleasure
of tasting bottles within the last couple of years dating
to 1975. Quite a pleasure, as the 12 certainly qualifies as
a top beer to lay in your cellar for many years.
Notes of raisins, fruits, brown sugar and caramel are present.
Mouthfeel is creamy and elegant, with noticeable alcohol.
The 12 uses the same Westmalle yeast for bottle-conditioning
as for primary fermentation, as with the Blond and 8. The
reason that the 12 used to be 11% abv and is now 10.2% is
that the Westmalle yeast is more difficult to brew to high
alcohols than the Westvleteren yeast of years ago. The 12
makes up about 50 percent of the brewery’s production.
The Blond, 8 and 12 all undergo a period of warm conditioning
at 79 degrees Fahrenheit after bottling: eight days for the
Blond, 10 days for the 8, and 10–12 days for the 12.
An interesting note is that the Belgian tax man with authority
over Westvleteren has a key to enter the monastery, the brewery
and the tax-records room at any time he wants.
A delicate subject for the monks is the resale of their beers.
Brother Joris told me, “Everyone who buys beer from
the abbey gates receives a simple bill showing the price paid,
with the sales condition printed on it that the beer may not
be resold.” However, the reselling obviously goes on,
as many of the top beer cafes and shops in Belgium have the
Westvleteren beers for sale. I have it on good authority that
some very highly placed politicians enjoy being able to have
a Westvleteren at their local specialty cafe. However, Brother
Joris also said, “We are working on this problem.”
The monks consider their beers’ importation into the
United States a bigger problem. It is not that they don’t
want us to enjoy their fine beers; it is the method by which
the beers get here that is of concern. The monks enjoy a serene,
peaceful life of prayer and work. They brew beer only to have
the money to support themselves, their abbey and charitable
works. (Regarding charity and providing jobs in the area,
the wooden crates used for storing beer are handmade by local
people who would otherwise likely not have jobs.)
The monks have found that the current production level is
enough to meet their needs. They are not profit-driven and
do not want to produce more unless necessary. Any additional
brewing would take time away from their lives of devotion
to finding God.
When their beers are sent to the United States and other
places around the world against their wishes, thus becoming
more widely known, there is always increased pressure on the
monks to brew more beer and to increase prices to make the
beer more exclusive — not to mention interruptions such
as phone calls, faxes, e-mails, people knocking on the door,
etc. These are very unwanted distractions for the monks. In
fact, they would like it to be known that they do not wish
to receive visitors to the brewery or hear requests for increased
production. Anneke Benoit, secretary of the International
Trappist Union, told me, “I have to turn away so many
people each year and tell them the same thing: 'No' to a visit
or other suggestions.” Until recently, Ms. Benoit helped
run the Claustrum, a museum of monastic life at the Sint-Sixtus
Abbey, with interactive videos, historical items, a history
of monastic life in the area and, for beer lovers, a video
of the monks brewing at Sint-Sixtus.
Another problem the monks have with their beers being imported
into the United States against their wishes is price. In Belgium,
it has been a long tradition and is a valued principle that
beer, whether pils or Trappist ale or anything in between,
be affordable to rich, poor and middle class alike. The monks
are aware that their brews bring from about $6 to $20 a bottle
here in the States, which they realize few could afford on
a regular basis. This is against their beliefs.
A third problem involves various legal concerns. The monks
are aware of the overactive use of lawsuits in this country
and are worried they might be held accountable for something
relating to their beer being available in the States, despite
the fact that they oppose its importation and have nothing
to do with it. The bottom line is that the monks want to stop
the unauthorized importation of their beer into this country.
The In de Vrede Cafe, completed in 1999, is the place to
taste the Westvleteren brews and take home a few souvenirs.
The cafe offers sandwiches, soups and Trappist cheeses from
the nearby Belval and Catsberg monasteries in France (the
Belval cheese is washed with Westvleteren beer!), as well
as warm and cold drinks. Of course, the real attraction is
the beers from across the street. The Blond is offered at
2.3 euro, the 8 for 2.8 euro and the 12 for 3.2 euro.
The little shop inside the cafe offers the brews to-go as
well: Blond, 8 and 12 cost 1.15, 1.45 and 1.65 euros, respectively.
There are also beer coasters, T-shirts (new ones as of 2004,
and very nice), Trappist yeast tablets, cheese, books, postcards
made by Trappist nuns, gift sets (with two Blonds, one 8,
one 12 and a Westvleteren chalice) and more.
For more information on the abbey and brewery, see sintsixtus.be.
For more information on the cafe, see indevrede.be.
A visit to the In de Vrede Cafe in the shadow of the Sint-Sixtus
Trappist Abbey is a modern-day pilgrimage for any serious
lover of Belgian beer!
Chuck Cook is a freelance writer living in
Richmond, Va. His passions are beer and travel, and he has
written for various beer publications. He can be reached via
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.