BrewViewing TRAPPIST WESVLETEREN 8 was a very welcome 17-year reunion of sorts. My friend Doug got married to his fiancée Kim in the Spring of 1999. Fortunately for them, they traveled throughout most of Europe for their honeymoon.
One of the countries Doug and Kim did visit was Belgium. I had advised him if he was going there, to attempt to bring back some Trappist Westvleteren beer. 17 years ago, bringing beer back through US customs was not as stringent as it is today.
He did have success bringing back a six pack of Trappist Westvleteren 12 (in the older, green six-pack container) purchased at the retail shop at IN DE VREDE café (we’ll mention them later in this BrewView.) I remember the beer being truly sublime- simply Heaven in a glass! Doug did mention that the people of Belgium were very friendly and hospitable, which made their stay very enjoyable.
When I first joined RateBeer.com in 2006, the Trappist Westvleteren 12 beer was the first that I rated, going back on my memory from 7 years prior:
From that great moment in 1999, I would not experience the pleasure of drinking another Trappist Westvleteren beer for another 17 years.
In November 2015, my business communication with Stu Stuart of Belgian Beer Me! Beer Tours was one that resulted in several excellent beers from Belgium sent to our office. I received a private message from Stu on Facebook stating: “I am going to send you some great beers from Belgium… here’s a hint on one of them:”
I immediately recognized that this picture was taken at in In de Vrede café and those were Westvleteren Trappist glasses! I became very stoked that I was going to have the opportunity to taste another “12” again in the near future!
When the shipment arrived, I was surprised to see not the 12, but the “8”! Stu’s note said, “I decided to send you the very rare and coveted Trappist Westvleteren 8. Many beer drinkers in Belgium say it is as good, if not better than the 12.”
ABOUT SINT-SIXTUSABDIJ WESTVLETEREN
In the winter of 1814, Victoor Jan-Baptist (married to the widow of J.F. Lebbe / Poperinge) removed himself to the forests of Sint-Sixtus to settle for rest of his life as a hermit. Only a few hundred meters from his new surroundings, were two monastic communities already established centuries earlier: From 1260 to 1355 the so-called ‘sisters of the home of Saint Sixtus’ and from 1615 to 1784 a community of the Birgittijnerorde monks.
When the Prior of the newly founded monastery of Catsberg with a few of his monks in the summer of 1831 establishes himself in the hermitage, a new Cistercian monastery is born. The early years of this cisterciënzerstichting (1831 – 1836) were difficult. Yet there was a steady growth of the community. There were 23 members in 1835 and 52 in 1875.
Twice, the community of monks was sent to create new monasteries and to increase their presence. In July 1850, monks from the abbey came to the village of Forges to found another monastery (Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont / Chimay). With no real “modern” equipment available to perform this monumental task of clearing the undeveloped land and perform major landscaping, the brothers of St. Sixtus endured a hard road. However, since a monk does all of his work for the Glory of GOD, I believe this is what spoke to their spirit, and helped them complete the task- (Philippians 4:13).
After the French Revolution in 1803, a group of 20 Cistercian monks from La Trappe sent by Father Augustine de Lastrange, wanted to escape European persecution and hostility in the hopes of establishing a Trappist monastery in America. For eleven years these Trappists struggled financially to settle, and eventually returned to France after Napoloeon’s defeat. By GOD’s divine intervention, one monk, Father Vincent de Paul merle (1768-1853) stayed behind to in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1815. In 1825, he founded the abbey of Petit Clairvaux.
Up until 1857, the abbey struggled to expand its member base due to the fact that the overall challenges of life at that time in America paired with the stringent Trappist way of life were not especially appealing to members of secular society. The fathers of Petit Clairvaux appealed to the abbeys in France for support to build their base, but were unsuccessful.
In 1857, the Sint Sixtus abbey responded to the appeal of Father Xavier Kaiser (1785-1862). The next 5 years saw the abbey of Sint Sixtus sending a total of 18 monks to help with the struggling Petit Clairvaux monastery. The Flemish monks helped with the development of the land, and to assist with the overall needs. In this period of time, the Westvleteren monks helped brew the first batches of beer there. In the years 1858-1860 helped to breathe new life to Petit Clarvaux, now known as Trappist Spencer in Spencer, Massachusetts.
THE WORLD WAR YEARS
During the World Wars, the abbey housed in (and around the abbey) hundreds of refugees and almost 40,000 allied soldiers.
The Second World War turned out for the abbey, an economically and politically precarious time. There was a lot of human suffering as a result from various battles that the soldiers endured, and the abbey had to deal with.
The period after the Second World War was very decisive for the community. The former Abbot Dom Gerardus Deleye (abbot from 1941 to 1968) made the fundamental decision in 1945 to reduce the growing brewery to smaller proportions. In 1946, they decided to license out the brewing duties to Brouwerij Sint Bernardus for commercial sales of the monastery’s beers. (You can hear my conversation with Marco Passarella (Sales Manager of Brouwerij Sint Bernardus) about this here.)
CURRENT BREWING EFFORTS
In 1989, the licensing agreement with Sint Bernardus came to an end when Sint Sixtus installed a new, state-of-the-art brewing system. In terms of brewing capacity, the abbey limits itself to only 6,000 hectoliters, making it one of the smallest of all the Trappist breweries, in terms of total output. Recently, the abbey received a major face lift with new renovations that were desperately needed. (You can view more about that in the video below.) In 2012, the Westvleteren beers were available in the USA, Canadian, and Belgian markets for an extremely brief period in order to help fund the renovation project. Word got out about the select retail outlets that were going to carry the coveted Trappist Westvleteren 12 degustation box (6 bottles with two glasses). We tried ourselves to get our hands on one, but it was too late. The December 12, 2012 release date sold out all stock in a matter of minutes!
IMPORTANT NOTE: There are only 2 OFFICIAL locations to purchase the Sint-Sixtus beers…
1. Through special arrangements directly with the abbey (click here for details in Dutch)
2. From the retail shop “in the shadow of the abbey” at IN DE VREDE café just down the road from the abbey.
They are not available through any retail outlet in the United States.
THE DEBATE: WHICH IS THE MORE AUTHENTIC VERSION OF THE FAMOUS “12”? – AS ARTICULATED BY MARCO PASSARELLA OF BROUWERIJ SINT BERNARDUS
When I interviewed Sales Manager of the Brouwerij Sint Bernardus in October 2015, Marco Passarella brought up a very interesting fact: When the Sint Sixtus abbey came to them to commercialize their beers in 1946, Marco mentioned that the brothers brought their brewing know-how, but more importantly, the recipes.
From 1946 – 1989, Brouwerij Sint Bernardus brewed the beers for the abbey. When the licensing agreement came to an end, the brewery was able to retain the original recipes handed down to them by the monks.
Here’s where the debate comes in: Marco stated that Brouwerij Sint Bernardus (and it’s world class Abt 12 beer) is still brewed according to the original Sint Sixtus recipe- including the original yeast strain. The only difference is the water source that St. Bernardus uses versus the source that Sint Sixtus currently uses. So, is the beer brewed at Sint Sixtus (by the monks themselves at the monastery) the genuine article, even though they do not use their own yeast (they use yeast from Westmalle) or is the Sint Bernardus Abt 12 that is brewed to the original recipe, the real deal? As with all Belgian beers, the one ingredient that separates them from all other beers in the world are the unique yeast strains. Our opinion is that HUGE respect must be given to Sint Sixtus for providing the original recipe, but respect must also be given to Sint Bernardus for continuing to brew the masterpiece to this day. We’ll leave it for you to decide… (Listen to our interview with Marco Passarella here.)
WHERE TO ENJOY THE TRAPPIST WESTVLETEREN BEERS
“In the Shadow of the Sint Sixtus Abbey”, (just about 200 feet down the road) is In de Vrede (In the Peace). The visitor’s center hosts the only café on the globe where you can taste the “Best Beer in the World”: they are the only ones authorized to serve the famous Westvleteren Trappist beer. The beer is brewed with the utmost care, using 100% natural ingredients, in the local Sint-Sixtus abbey. You’re more than welcome here to savor this exclusive, divine drink, either inside their modern, spacious cafeteria, or while enjoying the sun on their green terrace.
Combine the beer with a tasty sandwich, a delicious fresh, farm-made ice cream, Mazarine cake (with cinnamon, butter and ice cream) or a piece of hommelpaptaart (hop porridge cake). Or why not try their “Coupe In de Vrede”: delicious ice cream with Westvleteren Trappist beer! If you’re bringing the kids, they’ll surely have fun on their modern and safe outdoor games. And don’t forget to buy some Trappist beer, abbey cheese or pâté, kruydekoecke (gingerbread), hennepot (chicken in gelatine) or one of their many other local specialties (if available), so that you can enjoy the taste of the “Westhoek”, their region, at home too. By the way: if you plan to come in group, they recommend making an appointment and reserving some space. That’s the best way to guarantee that you’ll find a cozy corner to indulge in their beer and that they’ll be fully at your service. (Source: In de Vrede)
BEER STYLE AND COMMERICAL DESCRIPTION
Style category: Belgian Trappist Dubbel
Sporting a blue bottle cap, the Westvleteren 8 has achieved real cult status, just like its Westvleteren Abt 12 counterpart. The beer has a tanned, amber red-brown colouring and is topped by a lovely, large, lacy head. It has a sweet fragrance, boasting a variety of fruity aromas. Westvleteren 8 feels full and sweet in the mouth, you can almost taste the malt, including the chaff of the barley. A surprising hint of bitterness is noticeable at the end and the aftertaste lingers.
Bottle date: February 7, 2015
Best by date: February 7, 2018
OUR BREWVIEW on Trappist Westvleteren 8
APPEARANCE / THE POUR:
8% ABV. Poured into a open-mouthed chalice and served at 58°F. We truly wanted to take our time with this one, and experience the flavor profile changes as the beer warmed up. The off-white colored head poured an easy 3- finger height, cotton ball density with large and small bubbles (we did ensure that it was a “Beer Clean” glass).
SRM value is between a 20-24 (Brown to Ruby Brown.) We did gently rouse up the yeast before pouring it to get the full flavors. The clarity was murky because of this. 7-8 minutes later, as the head collapsed, it left behind dense, spider patchy-like thickness on the sides of the glass. The meniscus is medium to slow rising, the rim color variation is in between an SRM value of 9-12 (Pale to medium amber.)
AROMA / BOUQUET:
Exceptional, classic Trappist Dubbel aromas of chocolate, raisins, treacle toffee, spicy cinnamon, burnt caramel, figs, dates. The spicy phenol bouquet is outstanding. Fantastic bready, Trappist yeast aromas round it out nicely.
Wow- listening to our tasting notes recording, we moaned and groaned with pleasure and delight- it was quite humorous to listen to, actually! The flavor profile is very similar to all the aromas / bouquet: rich in the bitter chocolate, (cacaõ) raisins, figs, dates. As the beer warmed up, it stated to develop smooth, marzipan flavors. Very heavy in the spicy taste phenols as well.
MOUTHFEEL / PALATE:
Full-bodied, it leaves behind a rich, dark baker’s chocolate, treacle toffee finish that lingers for a while. The mouthfeel while swallowing is like drinking down melted, rich chocolate ice cream.
FOOD PAIRING SUGGESTIONS:
While you can pair a wide variety of food dishes with this beer, we will suggest dishes off the menu from In de Vrede, and a few of our own!
APPETIZERS: Trappist , washed rind cheeses. Port salut, high quality Blue chesse, Stilton, Roquefort, Gouda. A well portioned Charcuterie platter would do nicely. Westvleteren pate from In de Vrede.
ENTRÈES: Moules-frites / Mosselen-friet, Waterzooi, Carbonade flamande. Dishes from In de Vrede: Smoked ham sandwich, Sandwich with abbey pâté, Sandwich with Bolle Beef (corned beef), Croque Monsieur (Grilled ham and cheese sandwich) Croque Monsieur “In de Vrede” (grilled ham, monk’s cheese and tomato).
DESSERTS: Excellent choices from In de Vrede: Hommelpaptaart with ice cream and whipped cream, Mazarinetaart with ice cream (spongy cake sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with a hot sauce of butter and ice cream). Plus their artisan ices would be excellent: Coupe In De Vrede with Trappist beer, Coupe Vanille, Coupe Dame Noire
Coupe Brésilienne, Coupe Banana Split.
We most certainly understand why Belgian beer enthusiasts seek out the Trappist Westvleteren beers. They are products of the utmost quality and character.
Being able to taste the highly coveted and rare Trappist Westvleteren 8 is like the stories you see on TV of High School girls writing to their favorite celebrity and actually convincing them to accompany them to the prom- super rare and cherished.
As mentioned before, there are only 2 OFFICIAL locations to get the Trappist Westvleteren beers, but you must make the trip to Belgium to get them… what else can we say? This is a MUST HAVE BEER- it goes in our top 50 of all time. World classic, seek this one out for sure. It is suggested that you buy as many as you can, and cellar them up to 3-5 years. However, after waiting 17 years to drink one, we did NOT want to hold out, so we gave in. It was sooooooo worth it!
Our sincerest thanks go out to:
Stu Stuart from Belgian Beer Me! Beer Tours for your generosity and kindness in sending us this great surprise, and allowing us to get reacquainted with a Trappist Westvleteren beer after 17 years! If you haven’t been on one of Stu’s great beer tours, you owe it to yourself to go!
Christopher Barnes of I Think About Beer.com for providing research material from your website!
Sint-Sixtusabdij Westvleteren for also providing research material for quotes, text, and the video used in this BrewView.
GORDON A. PONCE is the main driving force behind Belgian Beer Journal.com. Since 1983, Gordon recognized that beers from Belgium were special, set apart from the typical craft beer.
He views beers from Belgium (plus Belgian-style and Belgian Inspired beers from other countries) great examples of the brewer’s art. Gordon and his wife live in beautiful Northern California- a great place to enjoy Belgian beer! Ecclesiastes 8:15