Food, Beer, and Travel

a dump from the mind of Jon Piper

Posts Tagged ‘St. Sixtus’

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.

Posted in Beer, Travel | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Westvleteren 12

Posted by jwpiper on January 1, 2009

Out comes the Westvleteren 12 after hearing its named maligned in my previous post, Westvleteren 8. Same procedure as the 8, a 330ml bottle at cellar temperature split between Westvleteren chalice glasses. The date printed clearly on the bottle is 13.08.11, which corresponds to a dramatic pickup on one of my last visits to Belgium. Being only 4 months old, I’ll call this one relatively fresh.

Appearance
5
A more vigorous head builds upon pouring – about 2.5cm after pouring half a bottle. The head is slightly more tan than the 8. The beer color is also darker brown, but with caramel-amber notes around the edges.
Smell
5
The smell is dramatically different than the 8. Much, much more rich fruity aromas with caramel undertones. I also get some cherries and pears. Amazing.
Taste
5
Wow – the debate is settled. They are different beers, but fresh Westvleteren 12 is better and much more complex than 2 year old Westvleteren 8. There is so much going on here, much of which I doubt I can identify. Again, figs and raisins; caramel and dark sugars. A hint of chocolate in the finish. Much more hops than in the 8 with a flowery sweet profile. The bitterness is there in the perfect amount to balance the powerful malts. The finish also carries yeasty notes that are hard to name with everything else that’s going on. The flavor lasts for about 20-30 minutes after the last sip.
Mouthfeel
5
Very smooth and silky feel. The carbonation is incredibly soft, but present. My wife calls is velvety. This is a pinnacle and makes all other 5’s I’ve given seem like 4.5’s for the moment. There is an alcohol warmth on the palate which the breath carries if it’s been a while since the last sip, but this is dominated with the complex flavors.
Drinkability
5
This beer is even easier to drink than the 8. I’ve sat at In de Vrede for hours enjoying this brew, entirely paralyzed from ordering the blond or the 8.
Overall
5
So, if the 8 is incredible, it’s tough to conjure to a word for this beer. Definitely the best beer I’ve ever had. I wanted it to be hype the first time I went, but this beer has a way of surprising me with how good it is every time I drink it. One of the most transcendent of man’s concoctions.
Price
€36/24-bottle case (€1.5/330ml) + travel to and from the abbey and the pain and hassle of checking a couple of cases. An incredible value if you’re in Belgium.

For the record, this is the first beer I’ve given all 5/5 ratings. And this is after 3 years of drinking the beer – not a fluke and not hype as far as I’m concerned.

Posted in Beer, Beer Review | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Westvleteren 8

Posted by jwpiper on January 1, 2009

Now, had I been smart about this, I would have recorded an independent review each time I drank this beer from purchase time on, but I wasn’t. I was inspired by a Trappist Dubbel (Westmalle and Westvleteren) tasting we had at the Pirozzi’s last night. I only got a few sips of the Westy 8, and it left me yearning for more. And since I’ve never recorded a complete review for this beer, I thought I should remedy that. My wife and I will share a 330ml bottle just below cellar temperature split between Westvleteren chalice glasses. The cap indicates, with a faded 20.12.09, that it’s just over 2 years old.

Appearance
5
Not 100% opaque dark brown pour with a hint of caramel and amber. 165ml pour builds a 1.5cm head which turns to the prototypical lace. Each sip leaves some lace on the back of the glass – playing with which is half the fun of drinking these beers… ok, maybe not.
Smell
5
Smells like caramel and mollasses, and raisins, and dates, and figs. Very rich aroma which invites you to take a sip. A swirl generates mustier and yeasty smells.
Taste
4.5
The taste is incredible. A very powerful combination of the smell. The yeast is more prominent on the flavor profile than the aroma and contributes sweet biscuity flavors. This is definitely a rich, sweet beer, but there is just a hint of bitterness which balances. At times there’s just a hint of alcohol warmth. Further into the glass, the hops come forward and carry some acidic flavors which adds to the complexity of this offering. The finish carries all the flavors: rich, sweet, tart, and yeasty. Last night, when drinking this immediately after Westmalle Dubbel, I was ready to give this a 5, but tonight with more focus and a cleaner palate, I’m pinning it at a 4.5 – closer to a 4.75. Many times when drinking this beer with a year or more of age on it, I thought it has to be better than Westveleteren 12. Tonight, I can imagine otherwise. The flavors are not as rich, dark fruity, sweet, or chocolatey.
Mouthfeel
5
The mouthfeel is perfect – smooth, effervescent, still quite carbonated, thick but not sticky.
Drinkability
5
I could drink this non-stop. Less alcohol than the Westvleteren 12, and as such easier drinking. Not quite as inviting as the 12, but this is a sipper which keeps me sipping. Again, this is one of those beers which you sip out of respect not necessity.
Overall
4.8
Umm, incredible. Thinner than the 12. More complex than I remember a fresh 8 being.
Price
€30/24-bottle case (€1.25/330ml) + travel to and from the abbey and the pain and hassle of checking a couple of cases. A definite value.

We’ll see if a 12 pops out of the cellar for a comparison. To end my internal debate once and for all: is an aged Westvleteren 8 better than a fresh Westvleteren 12?

Posted in Beer, Beer Review | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »