The wife and I had started planning a trip to Europe as a second wedding anniversary gift to ourselves. My wife gets really excited about vacation planning and this trip was no different. The vacation package we selected would allow us the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in Paris, France and Barcelona, Spain. Both cities are full of wonderful experiences and opportunities for fun and unique excursions. That’s when something popped into my brain. I remember the moment perfectly, we were sitting on the small balcony of our condo sipping beers and doing some research on what we would want to do on our trip. I was looking at maps of France to see what kind of day trips would be possible from Paris. I had pretty big desire to visit Normandy and a few other sites from World War 2 if I could plan things correctly. I shrunk the map down to get a better feel for just how far away things were and then I noticed that Belgium was close by. Really close. Trappist beers immediately popped in my mind. That’s when I used my trademark question of, “What do you think of this brilliant idea?”
That’s also the story of how I proposed to my wife. OK, not really.
A few months fly by and the next thing you know we are travelling by car through the beautiful country side on Belgium. We are using some of our limited time in the country to explore a couple of the rare trappist monasteries that have helped Belgium earn its world wide acclaim for fantastic brews. Trappist beers are some of the oldest and most unique beers you can find. Monks have been making beer for hundreds of years and they have gotten pretty damn good at it. We are fortunate enough to live in a day and age where these beers, most of them at least, make it to store shelves in America. Having the opportunity to get the beer straight from the source is a whole new experience unto itself. But what is a trappist beer? Let me hit the major points for you.
The International Trappist Association exists to protect the quality of products and ensure that no one else tries to infringe upon the name. The criteria for being an official trappist brewery is as follows.
- Beer must be brewed in the wall of the monastery by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
- The Brewery is of secondary importance when held up to a monastic way of life.
- The Brewery is not for profit. It exists to cover the living expenditures and maintenance of the facilities. All profits are donated to charity.
- Trappist breweries are constantly monitored for high quality standards.
There are ten active trappist breweries/monasteries in the world and six are in Belgium: Orval, Chimay, Westmalle, Achel, Rochefort, and Westvleteren. We had just enough time to visit two. First up was…
Something that we learned really quickly was that the monks don’t really want to bother with American’s who are on beer hunts. Sometime in the last decade or so all the Belgium trappist monasteries have opened cafes to sell their beers and in some cases, their cheeses, to all amateur beer hunters so as not to disturb the monks. I can appreciate that I suppose. Although you do have some reign to walk to grounds of the monastery, you will not be getting into the brewery, unless you happen to be more devious than I.
Westmalle is roughly an hour north of Brussels and as you get further away from the city you really get a feel for the beauty and serenity of the countryside and all it has to offer. Just after you pass through the town of Westmalle, the land opens up with farmland all around and you’ll see the Café Trappisten – 487 Antwerpsesteenweg, Westmalle 2390 Belgium. It’s a large café with sizable parking and a ton of bike racks. I would later learn that there is a bike & beer route than is very popular in the warmer months of the year.
The café itself is nice enough, though there is a fair amount of disappointment in my heart at not even being able to see the site where the beers are made. Just about every beer that is produced by the monks at Westmalle is available to here in the States. With the exception of the half/half which is a delightful blend of their abby dubbel and trippel with very nice results. Which I suppose someone could make on their own at home with two bottles, but I will admit to typically not being too crazy about blending beers on my own. Personal preference I suppose. We stayed long enough to grab a quick lunch and a slice of authentic trappist cheese to go along with our beers. Everything was delicious with little to complain about but I did have a slightly hollow feeling that I was simply at a restaurant and not an actual brewery. Perhaps life in San Diego has spoiled me that way.
Our next destination would take us to the western side of the country, a land full of hops fields and fresh beers at your finger tips. Our next stop was the legendary Sint Sixtus Monastery, home of Westvletern XII, home of one of the greatest beers in the world.
The monastery of Sint Sixtus has long been frustrating beer drinkers around the world with their extremely limited distribution and insanely complicated methods for procuring a case of their mythological XII quad style ale. If you are in the mood to try and get a case, there is a hotline you can call and if you manage to get through, which is no easy feet, you can possibly get a case of the beers. However, if you are of a slightly more impatient nature, like me, you can simply walk across the street and go to their café, Café In de vred – 13 Donkerstraat, Westvleteren 8640 Belgium.
Both the café and the monastery are in a somewhat remote area of the country side. Surrounded by farms and hops fields, it does make for rather striking scenery and the sunsets are simply marvelous. One of the best parts about a visit to the café is that it eliminates the difficulty of getting any one of the three elusive beers made at Westvleteren. You can simply grab a table and order whatever is on hand for the day. The other incredible convenience afforded by the café is that you can easily purchase six-packs to take home with you, not only of XII, but also of VIII aka Bruin and the Blonde. These six packs are sold at the start of the day and each day offers something different. It’s sort of a luck of the draw system, but all three beers are super tasty and well worth the effort. As I mentioned, this system may be a little odd, but it is so much simpler than dealing with a phone that may or may not be answered when you call.
While we were not hungry enough to sample any of the meals at the café, my wife was really excited to try their cheese and it blew the cheese from Westmalle. Also of note was that the prices for the rare and elusive beers were ridiculously low. What better excuse do you need to go and stock up on one of the top rated beers in the world?
While two out of six isn’t exactly a great batting average, it’s still good enough to be on Padres. Orvel, Chimay, and Rochefort are all on the southeastern side of the country and will have to wait for my next visit along with Achel which is more northeast than we were able to make. So while I still have four on my list, it’s good to save a few things to help make sure it’s not too long before my next visit.
Wow! I still have one more post to go to recap our time in Belgium and it’s going to rock your socks off!