By all accounts, the good monks at the Sint Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren, Belgium produce some of the most heavenly brews on earth. And one of their beers, Westvleteren 12, is regarded by many who know way more about beer than me as the world’s finest. In fact, if you punch in ‘world’s best beer’ on everybody’s favorite search engine, these Trappist boys are the first non-listicle result that pops up.
To say the process of acquiring Westvleteren 12 is complicated is to understate the murkiness of the proceedings.
The monks aren’t in it for the money, so they don’t brew a ton of beer, and what they do brew, they don’t distribute to bars or stores. No, they choose to only sell crates directly to people at their abbey, with each person only allowed to purchase once every 60 days. This, inevitably, leads to a thriving black market in the beer, with bottles being sold with a wink-and-a-nod all over the world at jacked up prices; and a ton of people out there making some serious cash posing as innocent locals every two months.
But I digress.
It’s supposed to work like this: you call them ahead, they take down your details (including your license plate), then you show up at an agreed-upon time and pick up your suds.
That didn’t work out so well for me.
Ever since I found out I would be in their neck-of-the-woods, I started calling. For months. It was always busy. I could never get through. It was frustrating, I mean, what were these monks busy doing, praying?
So, I figured I would just show up and see what happens.
After swerving through several roundabouts in nearby Poperinge (a place so renowned for their beer hops, they have giant statues of them), playing a game of ‘Wait, Is This A One Way Street?’ in the maze-like town center, and badgering sidewalk-strolling Belgians for directions, we arrived at the legendary Sint Sixtus Abbey.
The cars ahead of us were full of black market beer barons, I mean genteel locals all exchanging pleasantries with a chipper man who had been assigned the task of dishing out the beer and, it must be noted, bore a striking resemblance to Steven Avery from Making A Murderer.
Everyone seemed so nice and friendly, that my confidence swelled.
“This is going to be easy”, I thought.
Our turn came, I pulled ahead, and the beer man grabbed his clipboard and, yeah, started scrutinizing our car and license plate like he was working a border crossing. I rolled down the window, and in my best Flemish (which is English, by the way) pleaded “we don’t have a reservation, sir, but we came all the way from England, and I called for months, and I have a sick dog at home whose dream is to taste Westvleteren 12”. Or something like that.
Being an American used to warm and cuddly customer service, I expected to hear him say:
“Well, you’re technically supposed to have a reservation, but since you came all this way and you seem nice, go ahead and take some beer, and you know what, don’t even worry about paying for it”.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. The monk beer man ended the dream right then and there on the spot. I was crushed. We had come all this way, we had come so close to sipping the nectar of the gods, only to be rejected and leave parched and with an empty trunk.
But then he told us we could buy the beer over at their cafe, In de Vrede, which we subsequently found out is the only place in the world where it is sold in a retail setting. We drove over, bought a twelve pack of Westvleteren 12, and headed for home with smiles on our faces.
Things officially became happily ever after though when we made it back home and I poured the first bottle. The mahogany-brown Westvleteren 12 flowed from its vessel like holy water, overflowing with toasty notes that tickled the nose and a creamy off-white head that pleased the eyes. As I finally sipped the sweet and smoky strong Belgian beer, I immediately knew what all the hype was about, and I was already starting to think about a return trip.
An earlier version of this post appeared on TravelPulse