Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Great Belgian Beer Run: Day Two - St. Sixtus Abbey

Jet lag effects some people differently than others. For my traveling partners and I, it manifested itsself in us all waking up at 3am. Since we had been up for well over thirty hours straight the day before, I figured we all would have hauled in more that the five hours or so of sleep that we did. We took our time getting around for the day as we had a few hours to kill before we could get started on our beer adventure of the day: the beers of Westvleteren. St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren produces some of the most highly sought after beer in the world. They produce a 6, 8, and 12, or a Blonde, a Dubbel, and a Dark Strong. To add to the mystique of their beers, they are label-less and can only be defined by their different color caps.

These beers are not distributed (this will soon change), as the goal of the monks of the Abbey is to sustain their cost of living, not to generate as much profit as possible. The 12 has taken on mythic proportions for hardcore beer lovers as 'The Best Beer in the World'. Also, it was the original goal of The Great Belgian Beer Run.

 Train stop near our hotel.
Diegem: Home base

We left our hotel after a delicious (and over priced) breakfast. It was a ten minute walk to the nearest train station. We all had empty packs on in expectation of bringing back large volumes of Trappist beer from the day's travels. The train stop was, as usual at that of day, sparsely populated. When our train came, we boarded, en route to a small town outside Westvleteren, a place called Poperinge. Train travel was definitely one of the interesting parts of our travel abroad. It is convenient, fairly comfortable, and not very expensive. We spent close to ten hours of our time in Belgium on the trains, I much preferred that to the concept of us driving unable to read the french signs. Yikes.

 Keeping it real on the train.
I loved view from my train seat. I don't know why it is so fascinating to watch the urban landscape meld into country side, but it is. The further we moved away from Brussels the wetter our surroundings became. The water table must have been high, as the further west we moved, cemeteries began to show above ground vaults. Each adorned with simple to elaborate, but always prominent crosses. The small towns we sped past looked so much like the rural sprawl I grew up with, but with some exceptions. All roofs are pitched much steeper than home. Most house's downspouts are recessed into the line of the homes. Several homes that looked like they belonged in subdivisions here in the US, still had pens for livestock in the backyard.

To stay consistent with our theme, when we arrived in Poperinge, we wandered about the downtown area trying to figure out how to get to Westvleteren. The typical method during the summer months is to rent a bike and ride out to the Abbey. We were of course traveling out of season. Back home in Michigan, temperatures were well below freezing. That day in Poperinge in was a near balmy 45 degrees. Lou encouraged us to take bikes anyway. He figured it would make for a more memorable experience, and a better story. You be the judge.

We rented our bicycles from a friendly man in his mid forties. His shop rented out bikes frequently, but not usually at this time of year. He drew us a crude map:
How could we go wrong?
He stressed many times that we needed to have the bikes back by 6pm. He said too many times he has had to wait until late in the night for people to find their way back into town with his bike after they over indulged at the Abbey. We assured him we knew what we were doing.

We figured that we should take our bikes back over to a local cafe, for a quick beverage break before hitting the Abbey.
It was just a small little place, probably not more than ten tables within. I love the fact that you can walk into a place like this and order a beer like this:
Add to that, the fact that every beer we drank in Belgium was properly poured into the appropriate glassware, this really is Beer Nerd Heaven. After some Prior 8 refreshment, we headed out perched atop our bikes, bound for Westvleteren.

Three guys who definitely don't look like tourist.

The ride out to the Abbey was not particularly difficult. It was windy, and we didn't really know for sure where we were going, but once again the kind people of Belgium helped us out again. We asked a young man who was also on bike if he knew if we were on the right road to St. Sixtus. His english was poor, but he pointed us onward before he pedaled on ahead of us. It ended up that he was showing us the way. At the point where our paths diverged, he waited for us to catch up, and he pointed us down the road to the Abbey.
The ride is several miles, but due to our excitement, it seemed to be much longer than that. We passed hop fields that lay dormant and large plots of brussel sprouts that were not too far removed from harvest. The wind blew strong, but the majority of the trip was downhill, a fact that was lost on me at the time. Finally we arrived at St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren.
 Gates to heavenly beer

Post bike ride face of anticipation

The Abbey is not where beer pilgrims purchase their beer. Across the street from the Abbey is a building that looks a bit like one of the newer fancy turnpike rest stops (no offense intended), this is the In de Vrede Cafe. We parked our bikes and walked in with great excitement and anticipation. Soon after finding our own table and sitting, our server came over to take our orders. We figured we should progress numerically, so we requested three number 6's, and two plates, one of cheese, and the other of their pate. The next three hours are one of those 'all-time beer experiences.'
 Westvleteren 6

Westvleteren's beers deserve the hype. The 6 was light, crisp, and flavorful. All elements were in balance. Their beers do not beat you over the brain with phenols, alcohol, or cloying sweetness (take note american brewers of the style). The 6 was subtle and direct: firm pilsner/crackerlike malt as it's base, punchy herbal and spicy hops up to a medium-low level both in aroma and bitterness, and a gentle suggestion of banana and clove. The medium to high carbonation is not stinging on the palate, but rather it creates a pillowy softness that helps to put this beer on another level.

Case with four 6's, and one each 8, 12, and Westvleteren chalice
It paired wonderfully with the pate and cheese, the pate tasting like a blend of smooth fatty smoked meat and hints of black pepper. The cheese was buttery and smooth, with a gentle nuttiness that suits all the beers that Vrede has to offer.

Westvleteren 8 is the finest strong ale I have ever tried, belgian or otherwise. It was aromatically superior to the St. Bernardus Prior 8 that we had all drank hours before.
Westvleteren 8
Big dark brown sugar aromas wafted up off of it's two fingers of gauzy off white head. With the mild spice of the phenols, it almost took on a warm molasses cookie aroma. No hop aroma, simply a malt showcase with a touch of alcohol, but by no means hot fusel alcohol, like in spirits. High carbonation fills the mouth and creates a soft, silky mouthfeel for the beer. It sports flavors of plum, rummy burnt sugar, and a medium-low hop bitterness and flavor (spicy, herbal) that really drives home its splendid balance.

Westvleteren 12 is capped with a large meringue-like tan head that stuck around to the bottom of the glass. Magnificent lacing on the glass. Visually it is majestic.

Westvleteren 12
The malt profile starts with a breadiness that is taken over by dark fruit (fig) and burnt sugar (this is a good thing, think dark caramel). I assume that we were drinking fresh examples of these beers being that we were drinking them from the source, that being said, the alcohol was pronounced in both aroma and flavor. It is still not boozy hot, but we were probably not drinking this beer at it's peak. Remember this is a 11+% abv beer. I found the alcohol almost port-like, as it fills the sinuses with alcohol that can be perceived with exhaling. The alcohol bitterness contributes to the hop bitterness. I cannot wait to try this beer after some proper cellaring.

We loaded up on beer, chocolate, and other Westvleteren swag and tried to figure out how we would handle it all while on our bike ride back. We all had around 30-40 lbs. of beer and goodies strapped into our packs as we started the ride home.

This was where I realized that the majority of the trip back would be uphill. We struggled though high winds, aching shoulders, and a uncooperative bike chain to get back to the bike store just short of 6pm. We stopped back into the Poussecafe for a little dinner and our final beer of the day.

After that, all that was left was trying to catch up on a few z's on our way back to the hotel. A wonderful end to day two. Poperinge is especially beautiful at night, by the way.

Drink good beer with good people!

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