A short story about beer, monks, friendships and memory.
I was born and raised in France. I lived there until I graduated from high school and moved to the United States for college.
Despite having been introduced to wine at an early age, I never had a single sip of beer until I became a college student in Colorado. It was the roughest of introductions. I can’t quite remember what my first beer was — probably Bud Light, unless it was Keystone Light, Natural Ice or another micturate of the sort.
I was repulsed by the taste of the beers my classmates chose to drink. I remember wondering how such a vile beverage could have persisted throughout history. This thought prompted me to search Google for “good beer”, curious to find out whether such a thing existed. Quickly I found the online community RateBeer, and began learning more about the emerging community of craft beer enthusiasts, and the deliciously diverse beer culture across the world, particularly in Belgium. I enlisted two of my best friends as drinking partners, Nick from my high-school days and Garrett, whom I met in Colorado. They became like-minded adventurers in this bold exploration of “good beer”.
During my college years in Colorado, I spent summers back home with my family in France. Unlike Americans, French people learn to drink before they learn to drive. I took advantage of my summers to pass the grueling French driving exams and received my license shortly after my 20th birthday, in 2006. By that time I had become familiar with many of Belgium’s beers, and particularly fascinated with Westvleteren, the trappist abbey that had been making since 1838 what is widely considered the world’s best beer.
An interesting aspect of Westvleteren’s beers is that they are only sold at the brewery for a very small profit, just enough to maintain the operations of the monastery. In 2006, a case of 24 bottles of Westvleteren beer only cost around 30 euros, just a little over $1 a bottle. It seemed amazing to me that one could purchase the world’s best beer for such a price, and inspired me to pursue it fervently.
At the time, the legend of Westvleteren had already spread to beer geeks across the world, among whom it is affectionately called “westy”. For this tiny brewery in the middle of the Belgian countryside, the onslaught of international beer aficionados had already overwhelmed their capacity. In response, the monks created what they called the “beer phone”, a number you could call to get information about the status of the latest batch. When calling you would typically be greeted by an answering machine repeating in Flemish and French that the brewery currently had no beer available. For weeks I called the number twice a day checking in on the status, until finally I heard a different message: “tomorrow Westvleteren 12 will be available for pickup”. I had to go.
Driving four hours from Paris to the village of Westvleteren was the first road trip I ever undertook. In fact, I had not yet received my official driver’s license card only the provisional paper slip provided after successfully passing the driving exam. Undeterred, I set out early the next morning, leaving at dawn to arrive at the monastery by 9AM.
Westvleteren is located near the French border not far from the city of Lille. It is between the fields of hops that surround the nearby village of Poperinge and the battlefields of Ypres where nearly 1 million people died in the trench warfare of World War 1.
It was a peaceful morning. I drove through the fields and down the unpaved roads that lead to the brewery. Finally I came to a stop at the end of a long line of cars that were inching towards the monastery. There I was, sitting in a traffic jam, in the middle of the sleepy Belgian countryside. Up ahead I could see the abbey, a mundane stone building.
From what I could tell, most of the people in line were locals who had made a short drive to their neighborhood brewery.
As I slowly made my way onto the pebbled driveway, I began to make sense of the abbey’s drive-through system. After the long wait it all happened very quickly. A monk in robes approached my car asking how many cases I’d like. I asked for two (the maximum), and opened the trunk. The monk loaded up two cases while I walked up to a cash register and paid for the beers with a second monk.
And that was it.
I was carrying 48 bottles of Westvleteren 12 in my car, brewed on the 24th of May 2006.
Upon my return to France I reviewed the beer on Ratebeer:
There’s nothing supernatural about beer. You might say the monks of St. Sixtus harbor a metaphysical relationship through this beer, yet in itself it is but the sum of a very tangible — though nonetheless complex — brewing process. I suppose that may seem obvious, but I only fully understood the implications after drinking the Westvleteren 12. In some way I have always believed that one day I would drink a beer that couldn’t be described in comparative terms, a beer that in the words of Hegel would aufheben. The reverie can never be utterly anulled, but certainly dimmed as it has by the disillusion of drinking such a strong candidate. Don’t get me wrong, the Westvleteren Abt is an exceptional brew, but the fact that I can pinpoint its shifting nuances with precision leaves me with a sense of control that could not exist in my utopian nectar.
Westvleteren is no epigone and their Abt warrants careful scrutiny, beginning with its beautiful black velvet robe that radiates a clear crimson hue in the light. The praline pillow-like head evolves gracefully and slips through the lips with a delicate creamy touch. Wondrous scents of banana and dark sugars are immediately apparent. Rich caramel and molasses develop and with each sniff appears a refining shade: chocolate, coffee, fig, plum, red wine, licorice. The complexity is ever increasing and builds a rustic profile highlighted by hints of dust, soil, wood and apple that evolve with warming to reveal buttery raspberries, cinnamon, honey and progressively sweeter and fruitier tonalities. The first sip is equally enticing and coats the tongue in a slightly burnt chocolate bitterness that slowly unveils a sweet pear flavor, not unlike a bite of Poire Belle-Hélène. A soupçon of black pepper enhances the nutty coffee and dark malts which gradually smoothen to reveal raisins and cherries. The finish is surprisingly hoppy, far more than most Belgian brewers allow, but this touch is not unwelcome and adds a certain identity to an almost excessively well balanced beer. My specimen was just a few weeks old, but I’ll be aging the rest of my bottles to observe this beer’s evolution. Perhaps its maturation will yield what I so deeply pursue.
Over the past decade, at least twice a year, I have clinked glasses of this beer with a handful of my best friends. My good friend Nicholas McInnes has seen it evolve every year including on its tenth anniversary this past May when we shared a cyber “westy” over Skype.
I believe the Westvleteren 12 is best had at about 3-5 years of age, but its flavor continues to amaze me even a decade after brewing. Unlike its peers such as Rochefort 10 and St Bernardus Abt, Westvleteren’s take is much hoppier when it is fresh. As the hops mellow, those meld with the dark fruity flavors in a way that achieves unparalleled balance. I plan to continue drinking and sharing the last few bottles slowly over the next decade or two.
As delicious as the beer is, the most treasured aspect of it for me is that it provides a form of time travel. When I bought these two cases ten years ago, I had no concept of where I would be at age 30. To be honest I hadn’t even thought that far in the future. Each bottle I share is filled with memories and wonderment about where things will go next.
That’s why when I went back to France this past summer I leapt at the chance to go back to Westvleteren, this time together with Nick, to begin the next decade of my life. Here we are September 5th 2016:
Unfortunately we were a bit late in planning our reservations and were not able to pick up more cases of Westvleteren. I hope to do that soon. However we weren’t going to come back from Belgium without beer and made run at an incredible Costco-esque beer warehouse called Vanuxeem where we stocked up for the next 10 years of ageable Belgian brews.
I’ll be sure to report back in another 10.