My Journey to Belgium to Buy Westvleteren

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I'm not sure if this is the right place to post this in or not, but f*ck it here goes!

Recently my wife and I had the pleasure of purchasing some Westvleteren 12 and Blonde while on vacation in Belgium, so I thought I would share my experience. Perhaps this will be useful for you if you ever find yourself in a similar position!

First a bit of background: I wasn’t even aware of Westvleteren until we started planning our trip. We decided that we wanted to try to visit one of the Trappist breweries while we were in Belgium, and through that process I discovered the St. Sixtus abbey. The fact that they did not sell their beer commercially outside of the abbey hooked me instantly. “I MUST HAVE IT” was all I could think.

Figuring out how to make that happen was a bit trickier. The St. Sixtus/Westvleteren website had decent English translations available, but I still really wasn’t understanding the process based on what they had written up. I was able to find some pretty good descriptions of what the actual process was on some other message boards, and through that we pieced together our best estimation of what we needed to do.

So anyway, I’m writing all of this here to try to get everything about the process down in one account.

TWO OPTIONS TO BUY THE BEER

There are two ways to purchase beer from the abbey. The first is to reserve 1-2 cases ahead of time by calling the abbey the week before you want to pick up the beer. The second is to just go to the abbey’s visitor center and buy whatever they have in stock in the store. The biggest drawback of just going to the visitor center without a reservation is that you won’t know which of the 3 styles (Blonde, 8, or 12) they will have when you get there - if they have any in stock at all.

Bearing this in mind, we decided to call ahead to reserve a case, so we would be guaranteed to at least have something after we went through the effort of getting to the abbey from Brussels.

RESERVING THE BEER AHEAD OF TIME

The basics of the process are this: a week before you want to pick up the beer, call the abbey to reserve the beer. They will suggest a pick up date and time, though you can offer your own date and time to pick up (and in our case they accepted our date and time). Now let’s go into the details a bit more:
  • The only day we could pick up the beer was Wednesday, May 8. With this in mind, we knew we would have to call sometime early in the week of April 29 to make the reservation.
  • The weekend before Monday, April 29, we checked this webpage. This is the page that the abbey updates constantly (I think daily?) with information on what is available to reserve this week in order to be picked up next week.
  • In our week, you could only call the abbey’s beer hotline (dial this number exactly: +32 70 21 00 45) to make reservations on Monday, April 29 from 9 am - 12 pm, or Tuesday from 9 am - 12 pm. The webpage also tells you what styles are available to reserve. In our case, the 12 was the only one available.
  • Based on what we had read online about reservations, we knew that the phone line would be extremely busy and that they might run out of stock before the reservation time slots had closed. So we decided to start calling right at 9 am on Monday, April 29 (the first time slot available that week). IMPORTANT: this of course was 9 am in Belgium, which meant 3 am EST for us.
  • We woke up a few minutes before 3 am and started calling right at 3. Be prepared that it is going to take you a while to get through, as the abbey only has 1 phone line. It is also important to be aware of the different sounds you will hear when you call. If you hear a traditional, old school busy signal, you have not gotten through and you can hang up. If you hear woman speaking Dutch (or Flemish more accurately?), followed by a different tone, stay on the line until it goes dead after the woman speaks again - or a monk answers the phone.
  • After hitting redial on our cell phones for about 2 straight hours, my wife finally got through! The monk who answered spoke very good English. We told him we wanted to pick up one case on Wednesday, May 8. He initially offered a pick up time of 1 pm, but he allowed us to pick up at 3 pm when we offered that instead. He then asked us for our license plate number. We explained that we would be in a rental car, so he asked for our names and phone number instead. At that point it was all done!
GETTING TO THE ABBEY

We arrived at the Bruxelles-Midi train station from Paris on that Wednesday morning. Some rental car companies do have cars available at this station (I think I remember seeing Hertz, Avis, and Sixt), but we ended up renting from Enterprise, which was about a 10 minute taxi ride away from the train station. We rented through them because they were the only one that would allow us to pick up in Brussels and return to a different drop off outside Bruges. Also, the location of the Enterprise lot is basically right next to a highway, so you can completely avoid city driving if that is a concern for you.

Remember to make sure to swing by AAA (if you are American) before you go drive in Europe so you can get an international drivers license!


Getting to the abbey from Brussels is a 1.5-2 hour drive, depending on traffic. It was a very easy drive, most of it being on Interstate-type highway, with the last little bit being on a smaller highway, then some country roads the last couple of miles before the abbey. It can get a bit tricky at the end, so make sure you have navigation either on your phone or in the car.

From the direction we came, the abbey was on the left, and the visitors center (known as In De Vrede) was on the right.

IN DE VREDE

In De Vrede is a restaurant, small shop, and small museum. When you walk in, the shop is immediately on your left. There will be signs telling you which beers they have available for purchase that day. On the day we went, they had six packs of the Blonde and 12. We knew we had a case of the 12 already reserved and waiting for us across the street at the abbey, so we bought 2 six packs of the Blonde. A few minutes later we decided to get a six pack of the 12 as well, because why the hell not!

You should buy whatever you want from the store as soon as you get there, because the line can get a bit long, and you want to make sure they don’t run out of the six packs. In addition to the beer, you can purchase other stuff made at the abbey and in the surrounding area (I highly recommend the speculoos cookies).

The restaurant has really tasty cafe fare, including cheese and pate they also make at the abbey. We got a couple of abbey cheese sandwiches, as well as a couple of the 8’s. The restaurant always has each of the 3 styles to purchase and drink with your meal, so that was great that we could try the 8 since it wasn’t available to buy in the store.

In the back of In De Vrede is a small museum called the Claustrum. There you can learn a bit about the daily ritual of the monks, as well as some info about the brewery. If you are a Dutch/Flemish speaker, there is a lot to learn here because there are videos and other interactive pieces. For English speakers though, there is only a small brochure that explains the basics, but doesn’t give as much detail as the Dutch parts. Still, it is definitely worth walking through here since you are not allowed into the abbey proper (don’t expect a tour like you could get at most breweries in the States!).

Outside of In De Vrede, there are a lot of walking trails (many of which take you through hop fields), so if you have some time to kill, go explore!

PICKING UP THE RESERVED BEER


After we finished at In De Vrede, we got back in the car to go pick up the beer we reserved. When leaving the parking lot, turn left. After driving for a few seconds, you will see what looks like a garage at the end of a loop road on the right. I think the sign pointing toward this is labeled “bierverkoop” or something similar. Depending on what time you arrive, there will probably be a line of cars here waiting for their turn.

When you get to the front of the line, you’ll see a monk standing behind a stack of the iconic Westvleteren wooden crates. He’ll ask you for your license plate (or he’ll just look at it to confirm). This is when I told him that it was a rental, and gave him our name and phone number. He confirmed us on the list, grabbed the case, took my money, then we were back on our way.

All in all, it was a bit anticlimactic! After all the work reserving the beer and arranging to pick it up, it was over so fast! But man oh man was it worth it.

The 12 is easily one of the best 2 beers I’ve ever had. The flavor is so rich, and it is dangerously smooth for a beer clocking in at over 10%. The Blonde is an incredibly tasty and refreshing Trappist single. We ended up walking away with 30 12’s and 12 Blondes. And after a lot of careful packing, we brought 36 back with us to New York!

Since this was probably a once in a lifetime event for us, and since they suggest letting the 12s age for 1-2 years for the flavors to really become complex, we will be stashing most of them and opening them at different intervals over the next couple of years or so.

I can’t recommend doing this highly enough. Even if you are unable to reserve the beer ahead of time, the trip to In De Vrede and the surrounding area is worth it on its own. It’s not as complicated as it sounds - just adequately plan everything ahead of time and you will be fine. I hope this might help some people who want to do this!

And here are a few pictures we took!
 
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OP
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Thank you!
That's a really good story about your Westy XII expedition.

So you ordered 3 cases of XII and 1 of the Blonde?
So the week we went, the only thing available to reserve was the 12. We could have reserved up to 2 cases of that, but we only reserved one. In the gift shop at the visitors center, we were also able to buy 2 six packs of the Blonde and 1 six pack of the 12. You can't reserve from the gift shop, and they don't even guarantee they will have anything in stock. But they had the Blonde and the 12 the day we went.

You can however always drink each of the 3 beers in their cafe.
 
OP
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I just returned from there. Bought all of mine (6, 8, 12) at the gift shop, , as well as some of their delicious cheese. I found that the 8 was my favorite.
The 8 was really delicious, I was really bummed they didn't have any in the gift shop the day we were there. I think I slightly preferred the 12, although that may just be me rationalizing the fact that it's the one I was able to bring home!
 

Northern_Brewer

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I think there's this mystique grown up around Westvleteren just because of the whole "trying to phone a monk at 3am" thing if you want to get the wooden crates of 24, but the reality is that if you go to the gift shop on spec then you should be able to use your 2x box of 6 bottles/person maximum allowance on something, and normally you'll be able to get 12 amongst that - they know that's the one people are excited about and seem to brew the smaller beers primarily for yeast harvesting. And you can at least have a bottle of any of the others from the bar (bearing in mind the 0.5 mg/ml drink driving limit in Belgium!). So if there's two of you then you can probably come away with two-dozen 12's and have half a bottle each of 6 and 8 without any early-morning phone calls or any other planning.

It may be different if you go there on a Saturday or on a holiday, but the advantage of touristing is that you can do these things whilst the locals are at work. And if you do strike out, then they're widely available on the grey market in Bruges and elsewhere for €11/bottle or so (compared to €2.something from the monastery) - at least when I went a couple of years ago.

But personally, having done repeated blind tastings between the big three of Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10 and St Bernardus Abt, I would honestly rather have Rochefort 10 which is widely available in supermarkets there. It's a minority opinion, but I'm not the only one.

Their brewery is pretty new as it dates from 1992 when the Trappists insisted that Trappist beers had to be brewed at the monastery so I'm not sure it would be particularly interesting to visit - if you visit one brewery around there it should be De Dolle outside Diksmuide, about halfway between Poperinge and Bruges. Although the company only dates from the 1980s, it uses a 19th century brewery which would give the average US brewery safety guy a heart attack!!!!

Poperinge is a nice place to stay - it's the centre of the (small) Belgian hop industry and has a lot of WWI history too. St Bernardus who used to brew for Westvleteren are also not far away and they do do tours.
 

mirthfuldragon

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they're widely available on the grey market in Bruges and elsewhere for €11/bottle or so (compared to €2.something from the monastery) - at least when I went a couple of years ago.
The Bottle Shop in Bruges has the #6 and #8 for €10 a bottle and XII for €12.50. Cambrinus nearby is slightly more expensive, with pricey food, and is totally worth it if you can get a table. Also, being happily tipsy in Belgium at 4pm is a wonderful way to spend a day, and just one day in Beligum (Zeebrugge, on a cruise) is a shame.

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I think there's this mystique grown up around Westvleteren just because of the whole "trying to phone a monk at 3am" thing if you want to get the wooden crates of 24, but the reality is that if you go to the gift shop on spec then you should be able to use your 2x box of 6 bottles/person maximum allowance on something, and normally you'll be able to get 12 amongst that - they know that's the one people are excited about and seem to brew the smaller beers primarily for yeast harvesting. And you can at least have a bottle of any of the others from the bar (bearing in mind the 0.5 mg/ml drink driving limit in Belgium!). So if there's two of you then you can probably come away with two-dozen 12's and have half a bottle each of 6 and 8 without any early-morning phone calls or any other planning.

It may be different if you go there on a Saturday or on a holiday, but the advantage of touristing is that you can do these things whilst the locals are at work. And if you do strike out, then they're widely available on the grey market in Bruges and elsewhere for €11/bottle or so (compared to €2.something from the monastery) - at least when I went a couple of years ago.

But personally, having done repeated blind tastings between the big three of Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10 and St Bernardus Abt, I would honestly rather have Rochefort 10 which is widely available in supermarkets there. It's a minority opinion, but I'm not the only one.

Their brewery is pretty new as it dates from 1992 when the Trappists insisted that Trappist beers had to be brewed at the monastery so I'm not sure it would be particularly interesting to visit - if you visit one brewery around there it should be De Dolle outside Diksmuide, about halfway between Poperinge and Bruges. Although the company only dates from the 1980s, it uses a 19th century brewery which would give the average US brewery safety guy a heart attack!!!!

Poperinge is a nice place to stay - it's the centre of the (small) Belgian hop industry and has a lot of WWI history too. St Bernardus who used to brew for Westvleteren are also not far away and they do do tours.
I'm not quite sure what the point of your post is? I wrote this thing up explicitly for people who want the experience of going to the abbey to purchase the beer, because I had trouble getting good info on the process and wanted to share what I had learned. That's fine if you don't think the process is worth it, but hopefully someone can find my guide useful in the future.
 

Big Monk

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But personally, having done repeated blind tastings between the big three of Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10 and St Bernardus Abt, I would honestly rather have Rochefort 10 which is widely available in supermarkets there. It's a minority opinion, but I'm not the only one.
Agreed. Having tasted the range of Westvleteren beers at various stages of aging, I have to say I don’t know what the fuss is all about.

My grocery store here in the states has Chimay Grande Reserve, Rochefort 8 and 10 and St. B Abt 12. I was not able to definitely select Westy 12 over St. B in a blind test on a number of occasions.
 

Denny

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The 8 was really delicious, I was really bummed they didn't have any in the gift shop the day we were there. I think I slightly preferred the 12, although that may just be me rationalizing the fact that it's the one I was able to bring home!
To me the 12 had thinner body and less flavor...but not much! FWIW, I think I still prefer Rochefort to Westy.
 

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The Bottle Shop in Bruges has the #6 and #8 for €10 a bottle and XII for €12.50. Cambrinus nearby is slightly more expensive, with pricey food, and is totally worth it if you can get a table. Also, being happily tipsy in Belgium at 4pm is a wonderful way to spend a day, and just one day in Beligum (Zeebrugge, on a cruise) is a shame.

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I was disappointed with the quality of the beers from the Bottle Shop. All stored warm and many on shelves in full sunlight.
 

myelo

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Cool story RedFlag, thanks for posting. I want to do this some day.

It's looks like the Brothers just changed the process. They now have an online store where you reserve your beer to pick up at the abbey. I think they are trying to stop all the unauthorized resales by markets and individuals.
 
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