Food, Beer, and Travel

a dump from the mind of Jon Piper

Westvleteren – St. Sixtus

Posted by jwpiper on February 10, 2009

Every trip I take to Belgium involves a stop in Westvleteren at In de Vrede at the very least and a stop St. Sixtusabdij to pickup a couple of cases of the monk’s brew in the best case.

Having successfully transported several cases of the great elixir over the last several years, I figured I’d share my now tried and true method as well as some of the stumbling blocks I’ve met along the way.

First is reserving the beer. The availability of each type of beer is announced on this page. This is a recent addition which augments the old way of calling in and navigating the phone message system to determine the same information. Indeed, even with the phone system, the English translation is a relatively recent and welcome addition. After you’ve determined what beer they’ll have and that you’ll be available to pick it up, you have to call back at the specified time to reserve the beer. The number is on this page. They have one line open between the hours of 09:15-12:00 (which is 03:15-06:00 EST), so it can take several hours or commonly several days to get through. Once you’ve connected, you must give a vehicle registration to associate the order with. More recently, when originally it took pleading and explaining, it has become much easier to just give them a name. Now they even store this information. In fact – the brother in charge of the reservations seems to remember me quite vividly at this point, laughing at me and my antics on my last call.

Once the beer is reserved, you’re given a time slot to pick up the beer. Even if you get through on the first day, a lot of the slots fill up. The system is clearly designed to accommodate locals and not a more broad audience like the beer has attained. Getting to the abbey is also not the easiest thing. For this, I strongly recommend driving. This may be obvious since you’ll be transporting 2-3 cases of beer, but my first visit was via train and taxi/bus. It was a pain and took forever and wouldn’t be easy to get beers back, so I won’t even describe the process. It’s a beautiful country drive whether coming from Lille, France or Brussels or Antwerp. Fitting in some of the picturesque old towns, like Ghent or Brugges is also recommended on the way to or fro. Once you get to the abbey, there’s a circle drive which leads to the building where you can pickup the beer. You give your registration number or your name and phone number and they’ll check their list, give you the beer, and take you inside to pay.

So now you have the beer. The last question is what’s the cheapest, safest, easiest way to get it home? After trying several transport strategies including a suitcase with a specially created foam insert, I’ve settled on Brouwerij Bosteels plastic crates. These will either have Tripel Karmeliet or Kwak labels on them. If you pick them up from a distributor, they’ll run you €2.10, but I’ve also gotten them for free at a supermarket. Other crates will also work, but be sure they’ll fit all the bottles before you risk it. Every neighborhood in Belgium has a day when used cardboard boxes will litter the streets (it’s called garbage day); I like to grab a healthy looking box, buy a box cutter and some tape, and make a top for each of the crates. This approach will also allow you to save some money on the Westvleteren wooden crates which would be entirely useless for safe shipping. These run €9.60, which ends up being more than 20% of the overall cost if you don’t return them.

Flying the beers back can also be an adventure. Give yourself plenty of time to check the beers in. Depending on what airline rep you get, they are fairly likely to have no idea what to do with you, even when you talk them through it because you have much more experience with it than they. They may even be adamant that you can’t fly with the beer. Stick to your guns and wait them out, insisting that they go through the proper channels to find the proper protocols. Now, clearing customs can also be interesting. I always declare the beer and the true value, and that’s never the problem. From experience, I will be taping the whole crate (or at least the holes and labels, so at US customs they won’t wonder about the liquids or amount of beer. Using the uncloaked crates has gotten me two stops at border control and one bottle stolen by a airline baggage person.

So, that’s what I do. It’s not too much of a hassle and if you’ve got the time and will be in or around Belgium anyway, I’d say it’s 100% worth it to pick up some Westvleteren 12 or Westvleteren 8.

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12 Responses to “Westvleteren – St. Sixtus”

  1. Thom said

    Hey, Jon. Thanks for the insight from a US traveler. My GF and I are planning a trip to Belgium this summer and to be truthful, a trip to the Westvleteren brewery and a case of the “12” is the only thing that I have told her is a MUST DO. Everything else is negotiable!

    I know you don’t know me from Adam, but as plans start to come into fruition and the date grows near, do you mind if I pick your brain some more on the shipping process. That’s my biggest fear: getting those precious bottles home!

    Thanks for posting this blog.

    Thom

  2. jwpiper said

    Thom, sorry for my delay in responding. I’d be happy to help you out. I didn’t ship the bottles, though, as that’s quite expensive from Belgium. Instead I flew with them as checked luggage. The key is to buy plastic crates to hold the beers (I get the 24-bottle crates which hold Tripel Karmeliet or Kwak), cut som cardboard boxes as tops, and tape them on. If you want to get real fancy, and maximize the amount of beer you bring back, I can give you some real tricks of the trade to bring your total weight up to the luggage limits without running the risk of breaking bottles.

  3. Thom said

    Thanks, Jon! I was hoping you’d get back to me. For some reason I didn’t get an email that you posted a reply, so it’s by luck that I check your site again today!

    Sorry for twisting my words around in my first post. I fully intend on getting the bottle back here as checked baggage. I, too, have heard that it’s WAY to expensive to ship a case back here to the US.

    And yes, as the time grows near, I will be looking for pointers on bringing the weight down while keeping that precious cargo in tact!

    Prior to getting home, though, what’s your best tip for making reservations? I know my dates of arrival and departure already (July 20-26), so how far in advance should I start looking at the web page for a call date? Also, did you find that some hours are better than others to get through?

    Can you tell I’m excited about this? Ever since my first sip of Chimay and learning about the one Trappist beer that couldn’t be obtain in the US, I’ve been on a quest to get a hold of some Westvleteren – without spending an arm and a leg to obtaining it on the gray market! Thus, your insight has been invaluable. Thanks again for your help!

    Thom

  4. jwpiper said

    Thom,

    Here’s the deal:
    1) They post about 3 weeks ahead their schedule (first link in the post). Be prepared that they may not have the 12 available while you’re there – it happens. It’s happened to me several times. And now the last several times all they’ve had is the 12 and I’ve been itching for the 8 (a deliciously underrated beer).
    2) You’re a bit fortunate that you’ll be there over 2 weeks – often they have no beer one week or will switch which beer is available over the weekend. It’s unpredictable. But this gives you your best chance of getting the beer you want while you’re there.
    3) Find out what airline you’ll be taking and what their baggage limitations are. Usually you can take 50 lbs for free and you can pay for up to 100 lbs. This would change if you’re an Elite flyer of flying first class (usually free to the maximum weight) or if you’re flying an airline like Continental (max weight 70 lbs). Once you figure all this out, let me know and I’ll tell you exactly how many beers you can take per piece of luggage and the best way to pack them up (as well as where to go to do so). When in doubt, call the airline.
    4) Fortunately, there are two of you traveling, so that normally means 4 50+ lbs bags depending on how light you pack (my wife and I always carry our clothes, etc on). This is more beer than you’ll be able to get from the abbey anyway.
    5) As far as calling to reserve – my mind is that you never want to risk it. If anything, I’ve found that the second or third day are easier to get through on, but I’d feel like a putz if I couldn’t get through on the last possible day. So I generally start the process on the first day and don’t stop till I get through. With the 6 hour difference from EST and a 09:30-12:00 call window, you’re guaranteed to feel it the next day. But then again, the next day you’ll know you’ll be getting Westvleteren 8 or 12 and the adrenaline will carry you through.

    Just post on here when you’ve got some more info or are closer to the trip.

    • Thom said

      Hey, Jon! My Belgium trip is only a month away and I’m getting excited (and anxious)! I’ve been checking the Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren website regularly for the past week and I’m a bit confused. As of today, reservations are being accepted through tomorrow, then there is nothing for the rest of June and the first few days of July. Likewise, there are posted pickup times from now until the beginning of July. Am I correct in assuming that the reservation times posted are for the pickup times that are also posted? In other words, they are not taking reservations now for the dates I will be there in a month, right?

      Hey, so do you have any suggestions for “must sees” while we’re over there? Specifically for Bruges, Antwerp or Brussels? So far the itinerary is pretty flexible based on when/if I get a reservation for the Westvleteren. Regardless of whether that happens, those are the major cities we are planning on hitting.

      We arrive in Brussels on Monday, July 20 and we leave on Sunday, July 26. We’re using Brussels as home base since we are flying in and out of there. We also know that we will be in that city Monday and Tuesday of the trip. Tuesday is Belgium’s Independence Day and we figured the festivities would be best there. Another option, though, is Antwerp on that day.

      We are definitely doing an over night trip to Amsterdam some date after that Tuesday. Bruges (and Antwerp) will be squeezed in there either before or after that Amsterdam trip. With luck I’ll get a Saturday pickup date for the Westvleteren. That looks like the best day given that the only times for pick up are in the afternoon, so trips to other tourist destinations are limited by a late afternoon beer run.

      Incidentally, we will have a car, so hopefully getting around will be a lot easier/flexible.

      Oh, and thanks again for being so helpful on this adventure!

      Talk to you soon.

      Thom

      • jwpiper said

        Thom,

        That’s correct, they only take reservations a couple/few weeks in advance. Looks like the calendar will likely cycle over just in time for you. Also, you’re fairly likely to be in line for the 12 since the 8 is what’s available right now.

        Have a look at the posts under the Belgium tag for places: https://foodbeertravel.wordpress.com/tag/belgium/
        Keep your eye on this over the next couple of weeks I have some more places to add.

        Cantillon in Brussels is a must stop – you’ve never done a brewery tour like this one – much less crowded on weekdays. In ‘t Spinnekopke in Brussels is an excellent stop for cuisine a la bier. Kulminator in Antwerp has the best beer selection (particularly cellared beer) you may ever see. Bruges is an excellent town for just strolling around.

        If you’re driving, brush up a bit on the traffic signs, they’re a bit different than in the states. I still don’t quite get them, but I find driving in Belgium fairly intuitive, though the cadence is different than most places in the US. Also, *definitely* get a GPS (call your rental company and reserve one or if you can’t there’s a place next to the rental car stations in the airport which rents cell phones and GPSs) – the country roads of Belgium can get a bit confusing. Heck, the city roads can too until you know your way around.

        Cheers,
        Jon

  5. Thom said

    Well… no luck on the first try this morning, Jon. Even with two phones on speed dial, all I got were busy signals. Doing it all over again tomorrow morning. I’ll be a tired puppy by the time tomorrow night rolls around!

    • jwpiper said

      Yeah, it’s taken me up to 3 days to get through. My record was 17 minutes on the first day, but that’s the exception to the rule. Keep trying!

      • Thom said

        Well, I got through 10 minutes ago! The good news is, I can go to sleep. The bad news is, I have less than an idea situation. Apparently, ALL the time slots were filled up during the time are there. The gentlemen said he had nothing until July 29th (we leave on the 26th). His suggestion… take the 29th time slot, drive out on the 25th, which is a Saturday, and pretty much beg the brothers to let me have a case! Of course I’m going to do it, assuming the gf doesn’t put the kibosh on this little whim of mine.

        Let the journey begin!

        I’ll drop you a line in a couple of days – once I’ve gotten some rest – to talk about getting it home. Flying Continental and they have the lower weight limits.

        Ttys…

        Thom

      • jwpiper said

        Yes, this is not uncommon for me. With enough contrition on your part, the monks are likely to reluctantly allow you your allotment. Just keep track of the day and time you were *supposed* to pick up the beer and the phone number you used to call in. Then they can check their sheets for your name/phone number. Again, this is their discretion, but hopefully you’ll have success.

        I, too, always fly Continental. With as much flying as I do, I get more weight allowed, so I’m able to check about 1.5 cases of beer per checked bag. I’m pretty sure you’ll be under the 50 lb free limit with one case (I think 24 500ml bottles comes in just at 50 lbs). Don’t plan on packing the bottles in with your normal luggage. Definitely follow my suggestion of picking up wither Kwak or Karmeliet crates and taping cardboard on top to secure the bottles. This is much, much safer (for both the beer and your clothes) than trying to wrap the bottles in your normal luggage. Also, the crates weigh less than normal luggage, so 1 crate works as a checked bag but the same beer won’t necessarily come in under weight in a suitcase.

        By the way… if your girlfriend kiboshes this, I think it’s time for you to reevaluate your relationship!

        You’re getting me excited to get back to Belgium. I think I’ll be there again in a month or so. I’ll be doing the same thing you are right now. Though, I’ll be hoping for the 8 to be available as I already have a considerable amount of the 12.

  6. Thom said

    Hey, Jon! Boy am I psyched! I’m all packed up and currently drinking a bottle of the Unibroue Quatre-Centieme. Not quite a Belgium, but a good substitute. The little woman is upstairs stressing out over what shoes to pack so I thought I’d sit around, surf the web and watch a little of “Le Tour”.

    So our itinerary goes something like this:

    Monday: Brussels (and hopefully a trip to Cantillon)

    Tuesday: Not sure what we’re doing on this day because it’s their Independence Day, so we don’t know what to expect as far as things being open or closed. If I get a chance, I’m hopping in the car and visiting “The Muur”, which is this epically steep climb in Belgium’s most prestigious bike race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders. This is probably the day we’ll get to Antwerp, which means a stop at Kulminator.

    Wednesday: Off to Amsterdam

    Thursday: Back from Amsterdam. We’ll bum around Brussels once we get back in the evening.

    Friday: Bruges!

    Saturday: Ypres and Westvleteren

    We are picking up our car at the airport in Brussels and I have updated my TomTom to include all of Western Europe. Hopefully, driving will be a non-issue. I’ve driven in France armed only with a map and limited French and I’ve driven in Germany with the aid of a native, so hopefully the GPS will treat me right.

    Anyway, I’d like to thank you again for all your help. I have packing tape and a Sharpie in the bag, so all I have to do it have a little luck with the Westvleteren.

    Take care and I’ll be sure to give you an update when I get home.

    Thom

  7. Thom said

    Mission accomplished! After waking up at 3:00am two mornings in a row in an attempt to get a reservation; after getting the reservation for a date three days AFTER our return to the US, after driving 2 hours out to the country-side and practically begging a monk to give me beer even though it was not my scheduled pick up day; I got it! One case of Westvleteren’s finest, the # 12.

    AND! Due to no small part by you, I was able to get that precious cargo home safely. After a futile attempt to get a Kwak crate at a store in Gent (the clerk was no so friendly to me), I ended up picking up a Karmeliet crate at Kulminator. The wife/co-owner was great and I ended up tasting an aged #8 while I was there (yum!)

    When I went to pick up the Westvleteren, the monk ended up being really cool. I exaggerate when I say I practically begged. Once he verified I had “A” date, even though it wasn’t that day’s date, he had no problem at all giving me the case. He was even quite the comedian.

    So as he wheels it to the car, I tell him that I don’t need the wooden crate because that will do me no good for the plane ride home. I open the trunk and show him that I have an alternative option (the Karmeliet crate) and tell him I’d like to just put the bottles in that right away. He looks behind me and sees that there are 5 cars lined up to pick up their beer so he says, “Why don’t you drive around the corner and do this, then bring the crate back to me.” No problem; around the corner I go, well out of his line of sight.

    As I’m loading up the Karmeliet crate with my girlfriend, I look at her and say, “Honey, I never paid for the beer!” We immediately joked about that Ikea commercial where the woman comes running out of the store towards her car, screaming at her husband, “Start the car! Start the car!” because she thinks Ikea has undercharged her.

    When I walked the crate back to the brother, he just smiled at me and said, “I forgot to charge you,” while at the same time I say, “I never paid!” we laughed and he thanked me for coming back and said, “Sometimes it’s good to trust people.” So true, my friend… so true!

    Again, Jon, many thanks for your help. I truly would have had a MUCH more difficult time pulling this off without your help. I’m indebted to you, my cyberspace friend and I hope I can repay you some day.

    Be sure to keep posting good stuff on this blog, as I, and I’m sure others, find it to be a wealth of information.

    Thanks again!

    Thom

    PS – No need to get rid of my girlfriend. She rocks for letting me follow this folly and was totally cool about it. And, after visiting the Cantillon brewery and tasting the gueuze, she finally found a classic Belgian style beer she liked. She was never a fan of the sweeter, stronger beers like I am.

    PPS – THANK GOD FOR GPS!

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