Sunday, March 3, 2013

Drinking Westvleteren at In de Vrede (near Abbey St. Sixtus, Westvleteren, Belgium)

In de Vrede 

I had a bottle to Westvleteren 12 at the Locus Publicus in Delft in 2003 before I understood what I was drinking and Gloria didn't drink it that night for some reason.  We didn't have another opportunity until a December 2007 trip to the Netherlands.  Having had a sample a month earlier during a BJCP class, and now fully understanding what I was after, I was on a quest in Amsterdam to get each of the Westvleteren beers.  So I headed to the first bar on my list selling beer geek market Westvleteren, ordered a 12 and promptly lost it to my wife.  It's been one of her favorite beers since.  She's always had good taste.

Fast forward to Belgium 2012: a trip to In de Vrede to drink Westvleteren as close to the brewery as possible was a no brainer (no public tours of the abbey).  For those learning the background, Westvleteren is technically not sold off site except for the rarest of circumstances and has just recently been sold in the US for the first time in limited quantities   Buying the limited production of Westvleteren on the level takes a reservation and a trip. So, yes, the bottles I've had elsewhereas is true of nearly all beer geeksare quite illicit.  Since we were travelling light, I only bought a six pack besides what we drank on the pub.

We stayed at the Palace Hotel so that we could get an early start and be able to walk to bus stop.  To get to In de Vrede, an intrepid beer drinker can take the De Lijn Belbus 69.  A reservation can be made up to two weeks in advance, according to one website I read, but the official information said at least two hours in advance. The De Lijn representative, who spoke excellent English, said that it's a minimum two hour wait from the time a pick up call is made. When making a reservation to drink Westvleteren, the local name seems to simply be "the abbey." Saying anything else is superfluous.
Church across the street from the Belbus stop

In Poperinge, the bus stop is either at the train station or at the market downtown. We did the market downtown location that's just off the main square between the public bathrooms on one side of the road and a big church on the other. It showed up right on time. Several locals were on the bus and we were the only ones to get off at the abbey, which is conveniently the first stop. It's August now, so the hops are full and heavy on the vine as we see the town sign for the village of Westvleteren.  The bus stop is right outside of the abbey itself.  Head down the asphalt road beside the abbey, follow the large flags that say Westvleteren to the right, and stroll leisurely down a tree lined sidewalk to In de Vrede.

Belbus stop near the St. Sixtus Abbey
and In de Vrede
It is a beautiful day, so we sat in the bier garden in the back. Table service was fairly quick and it's whatever waiter is available.  From what I can tell, it's pay as you go so no one has to keep a tab. We paid cash for the convenience, so never tried a credit card.

Gloria, naturally, started with the Bruin 12, and I got a Blonde 6 to taste up the ladder. Unfortunately, it's the height of summer corn and hop crops here, so my allergies are acting up and my senses are not at their best for this bucket list adventure.  Imagining a visit to Westvleteren, I never considered that my hay fever that I tried to leave behind in Iowa would re-emerge in this very home-like part of Belgium.  Since a non-summer visit isn't an option, I resolve to have a fine day drinking world class beer between sniffles.

Our first round of Westy beers, as close as possible to on site
The Blonde 6 is a hazy orange with an off white lace down the side of the glass. Slight yeasty nose and spice over a base of a light malt. Not an assertive nose, but pleasant, especially when sipped; the spice is strong in the mouth with a yeasty supplement.

For lunch and a second round, we sat for about 15 minutes to get the attention of a waiter. I feel like I'm being rude asking for attention, but it's just my American sensibilities. The default in Europe is to assume that one wants to be left alone unless asked instead of a server asking when a customer is near the end of a glass.  After several weeks here, I've improved, but haven't mastered, my negotiation of this cultural dynamic.

Abbey St. Sixtus.  Walk past this closed
entrance and turn right to the pub. 
Our new friend, who we
cleverly named Westy
The Bruin 8 is similar to the 12 at first blush. Very similar but lighter all around: color, body and taste. So, on to the 12.  Incredible. The hints and tendencies of the 8 are in full bodied flavor for the 12. Exciting that it's so good. I had a secret fear that drinking on site might be disappointing but I should have known better. Thin brown head leaves an elegant lace, which has been light on pours of all three beers, that falls over an opaque, almost root beer colored body. Yeasty spice in the nose supported by fig, dark chocolate, overripe cherry and an almost sour earthiness that even our light summer breeze can't waft away. Taste has a slight yeast and carbonic bite. Sweet finish from a sugary center that balances the beer from front to back. Great beer that rightly deserves its reputation as one of the world's finest.

Cheese sandwiches for lunch--and my Westy.  
Lunch was very good but the only option for vegetarians is essentially a cheese sandwich with buttered bread. However, I'm pretty much happy with a big hunk of Gouda cheese. A very Belgian/Dutch lunch that was just fine to get us through the afternoon.

The bottles of Westvleteren to take home came into the gift shop and the word spread like wildfire through the pub. From my research, I thought it was supposed to be a mixed six pack, but, today at least, it seems to be all the same blueish cap.  Not sure what I will get when I make it to the front: Bruin 8 is the answer. Oh well that it's not the 12, but still pretty good.

Stack of Westvleteren 8 for sale today.
The quarter of cheese on the wheel went home
with us as well. 
Finally being frustrated by the table service, I started getting 12s from the bar myself to make more of our drinking time.  Being served on the patio, I didn't see any of our early glasses poured but confirmed later that everything is served from bottles and not on draft, something I hadn't thought about or seen in my research.  When we got a waiter to get us a mid-afternoon dessert, he suggested the Coupe "In de Vrede," which is ice cream made with the bier (though I didn't understand which one but guessing a bruin). Too much whip cream on top for my taste but the sprinkled malt (like the inside of a malted milk ball) made it worthwhile; the beer clearly shows up in the ice cream near the bottom. Pricey but fun to order and probably worth the price of admission for most beer geeks.

Overall, it's a grand stop.  Such a pleasant day with piles of cumulus clouds and endless Westvleteren. The only downside is that the patio is smoker friendly, so drifting smoke is also triggering my allergies. Gloria was happy with not only the beer but also an amorous stray cat who was begging for scraps for much of the afternoon until several patrons with dogs sat nearby and scared her away.

Our bus is coming at 16:55, which was probably a bit longer than we needed but we happily wiled away the hours.  The bus ride back continued on the rest of the 69 route and was an interesting driving tour of the region. Gloria saw another brewery on the route, so that may be an option to add to a visit.  Also in Poperinge, we saved the hop museum for another day.  One surprise at In de Vrede was the almost continuous stream of bicyclists stopping for a beer.  The pub is on a 43 km bicycle route through the hop fields called the Hoppeland Route, which is a day with a locally rented bike that I am dreaming about for the future.

End of the day beer infused ice cream before heading home. 
In the grand scheme, we pretty much devoted a day of our vacation to sitting at a bar in the middle of farm country that looks a lot like Sioux County Iowa with an inordinate amount of brick houses. But, then again, we don't understand folks who sit on a beach suntanning with overpriced umbrella drinks.  We decided that this is our day at the beach, a vacation of sitting around, connecting through the experience and drinking some pretty great beer in the process.
Belbus 69 returning us to Poperinge after a scenic drive.  The driver kindly waited while I took a picture.  But, I didn't get my finger out of the way in my rush.   To the right is where we had dinner, 't Smoske, which was some of the best frites of the trip and a fish sandwich that I still think about. Our opinion may have been influenced by beer hunger.   

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