“It is from Westvleteren.”
It looked to us like the snow pack on the trails was substantial, at least four feet deep. Evergreen conifers blanketed the mountainsides and framed the white snow. Every day that we were in the Rocky Mountain National Park the skies were brilliantly blue. The air was clean and fresh. We had enjoyed a get-away in Estes Park, Colorado for a few days with Jim and Rosalyn from Del Mar, California. After our final day of snowshoeing at Emerald Lake, about a four-mile trek out and back toward Flattop Mountain, we returned to town. Carole and Rosalyn were interested in looking at several shops on Elkhorn Avenue. Jim and I decided to sit down at Poppy’s Pizza and Grill for a beverage. It was late afternoon. We knew of the pizzeria because the evening before we ate dinner across the courtyard at Mama Rosa’s, a casual but elegant Italian Restaurant. Rob and Julie Pieper own them both.
At Poppy’s we were instantly impressed with the extensive beer menu. So, it occurred to us that our best option was to order flights, which we did. Of course there were numerous options from a local brewery in Estes Park. But there was more. Along with Fat Tire, Oscar Blues, or Guinness Stout, the Pieper’s also offered a Hefeweisen from Germany, several porters from England, and more. Jim and I made our selections, six each. Only one of our samples was the same. We both spotted a St. Bernardus Abt-12 from Belgium. And we had the same reaction. This quadrupel was medium to dark, sort of a mahogany color, rich and malty, potent, and sweet. Of our samples we agreed it was the best by far. In fact, I wondered if it were the best beer I had ever tasted.
Right from our table at Poppy’s we called Coaltrain Wine & Spirits back in Colorado Springs, an inimitable and award-winning establishment. Even though we had never heard of St. Bernardus Abt-12, the owner Jim Little said of course he knew it and in fact had a dozen 750 ml bottles in stock. Based on our Internet search, he was the only one in Colorado who had it at the time.
After returning to the Springs we bought several bottles, one of which we gave to our friend Chuck who is also somewhat of a beer connoisseur. As winter gave way to spring each of us agreed that indeed this was one of the best beers we had ever enjoyed.
Six months passed. Carole and I traveled to Belgium to visit my brother Ken, a medical doctor with a specialty in endocrinology. The Global Medical Director for Becton-Dickenson, he has lived and worked in Belgium for over twenty years. However, he had not heard of St. Bernardus Abt-12 although he and Fabienne each had extensive wine collections from all over the world in their cellars.
As always he was the consummate host with impressive knowledge of the local area, including history, architecture, and customs. One day we toured the Grand Place in Brussels to see the guildhalls that lined the square, each with a different look and each dedicated to a different artisan. After lunch we left the central square and happened by a local liquor store. I suggested to Ken that I stop in to ask about St. Bernardus Abt-12. Of course they had it. Asking where it was brewed, I was told, “It is from Westvleteren.”
At dinner that evening I recounted the incident to Ken and Faby. They were well aware of Westvleteren, a place of which I had never heard. Ken told the story about the Trappist breweries in Belgium and elsewhere. There are eleven monasteries that brew and sell an authentic Trappist product. Six are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, and the United States. One of the six in Belgium is Westvleteren. A Trappist beer must meet the following criteria:
- It must be brewed by monks within the walls of the monastery.
- The brewery is secondary to the ministry of the monastery.
- The enterprise is not for profit but is carried out to sustain the life and ministry of the monastery.
- The quality of the beer must be inimitable.
The Westvleteren brewery was started in the early 1800s at the Abbey of St. Sixtus in the far west. It is in the Flanders region of West Belgium where Flemish is spoken rather than French. Today their beers are not brewed for normal commercial distribution. From among the Trappist breweries, Westvleteren distributes only a small quantity of beer annually. Buyers must call on the “beer phone”…in advance. Sales are limited to one case per person each sixty days. It can only be purchased at the gates of the monastery. You drive up by car. This requirement began in 1945.
Interestingly, in 2012 when St. Sixtus needed a new roof, cases were shipped to the United States for limited distribution. Carefully selected stores were chosen. Coaltrain in Colorado Springs was one of them. Jim Little received 36 “brick” packs of Westvleteren 12. He told me they sold in 15 minutes.
Each year one or more of the Westvleteren beers ranks as the number one beer in the world. Generally, it is Westvleteren 12.
That same summer we left Belgium and spent a week in Paris, France. It was there that I learned more. Even though the St. Sixtus monastery ceased selling commercially to the public toward the end of World War II, the recipes were made available to a nearby abbey in West Flanders that had originally only produced cheese to support the abbey ministry. For thirty years, from 1962 until 1992, the nearby abbey brewed and sold St. Sixtus Trappist beer under a license agreement. What was that abbey? It was the Refuge Notre Dame of St. Bernard. St. Bernardus Abt-12 is Westvleteren 12. “It is from Westvleteren.”
So, little did we know that winter in Estes Park that we were drinking a world-renowned beer, the same recipe as Westvleteren 12, but marketed commercially through a different abbey. In fact, Poppy’s Pizza and Grill in Estes Park also has quite a selection of Trappist beers. In the summer of 2015 I told this story to Jim from Del Mar. We laughed as we enjoyed dinner together on a Friday evening waiting for the start of a Selasee concert in Colorado Springs. I have not had a chance to share the story with Chuck. The concert was great with perfect weather. It was not too hot and not too cool. No humidity in the high desert. The skies were blue and the air clean and fresh.
Written by Dr. Robert Strauss, Colorado Springs, Colorado, July 23, 2015