"The Best Beer in the World"
We took off from Brussels mid morning - just after ten - through the Flanders countryside. The terrain flattened; without obstruction, the scope of view extended until the morning haze drowned everything out. Canals joined patches of hardwood forests as the only delineation between the tilled and sprouting fields. The scene fit comfortably onto canvas, colors seeming to carry the texture of brush strokes and signature of a Flemish painter. Just outside the frame, we approached the nexus of beer mystery: Westvleteren Brewery at St. Sixtus Abbey. Turning off the main route, we wound down a narrow country road, paved by asphalt below and dirt deposited by tractor tires above. The path divided a contrast: to the left a green field of flax waiting to bloom pastel blue in the passing Spring; to the right, brown scalloped rows anticipating shoots later in the season. Over the flax to the West, I could see the first hill since the Ardennes, but besides that, all was flat.
Driving past the inconspicuous monastic gates, we parked the car and walked through the automatic glass doors of the cafe across the street. The juxtaposition of ancient stone walls alongside metallic and glass shine cracked me up. The Belgians certainly make the best beer in the world, but their attention to ambiance inside the pub falls short of the drink-all-day, hardwood shade on a Bavarian biergarten or the cozy warmth beside a peaty stove inside a Kerry County Pub. We walked through the modern and casual dining room to the sunny patio. Somehow, the weather continued to hold out for us: a flood of warm light seemed to batter the Spring into an early Summer. With the shade densely occupied, we slid into a sunny bench beside a long wooden picnic table.
Getting a Westvleteren beer isn’t the easiest task, and you have two reliable options. The first, call and wait in line at the abbey for a case. Supply varies; calling ahead is a must. The second, visit the cafe across the street for a glass or a six pack. We opted for the six pack and glass - mostly because we had no where to put a case of beer in our backpacks. Sitting down I looked across the street at the flax fields waving in the wind, glowing a golden green; the breeze gently cooled everything and farther off shook the deciduous trees budding yellow-green pollen, breaking up the pleasant monotony of the landscape.
We ordered a glass of the 12 (Trappist Quad) and the blonde. Beer Advocate rated the Westvleteren 12 as the “Best Beer in the World” - a title I found ridiculous. Beer styles vary beyond comparison. How can you select a winner between a Westvleteren 12, Westmalle Triple, St. Georgen Brau Weiss, Pilsner Urquell, Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, and Three Floyds Zombie Dust? However, if Beer Advocate said it’s the best I had to believe that it was worth the detour. The Westvleteren 12 arrived: hazelnut-brown in color with a thin head (not sure how long it had been sitting around). Sediment moved throughout the liquid (they pour all the contents of the bottle into the glass at the cafe). I let it warm under the sun to open up the aroma and flavor: dates, dark malt, hints of banana, and anise in the bouquet; the mouthfeel was surprisingly light and effervescent with heavy flavors of roasted dates and figs, licorice, and chocolate cake; the finish was predominately (and pleasantly) dry, with hints of malty sweetness. The blond arrived, also hazy, but with a rich, thick head, and slightly darker blonde than average. Yeast, sourdough, and subtle banana esters constituted the bouquet followed by a perfect floral dryness and light sweetness carrying banana notes; the finish was dry but balanced with lingering citrus and bread notes. To complete the trio we ordered the 8, a lower gravity bruin beer. The color appeared a darker brown than the 12, with frothy head and good lace. The nose was very malty and reminded me of wort just after the mash; the mouthfeel was surprisingly effervescent as well, carrying flavors of dry grapes and licorice. The finish was mild and dry. We sipped and aerated the beers, chatting about our luck with the weather so far. I adjusted my sunglasses as a lonely cloud shifted in front of the sun. Wandering inside before departing for Bruges, I bought a six pack of the 12, intending to transport some of the heraldic brew across the Atlantic to spread the Good News.
In Bruges: canals ran under arched stone bridges and between cobblestone and brick streets; clean, brick-lined alleys snaked the straight lines of the houses in pleasant inconsistency; the rooflines shared a bricked stair-step pattern climbing to the apex. Most everything was in brick, and a single brick carried all the colors of the city - white, red, black, gray, bits of yellow, hints of blue, and occasionally green from the moss. Worn out from the drive and growing flocks of synchronized selfie-sticks moving as amoebas adorned with iPhone topped spires, we retreated to a park for a nap. Languid as a gypsy I fell into a deep sleep among white flowers dotting the grassy patch. Waking up thirsty, we walked around the corner to Half Moon Brewery and ordered a Bruges Zot Blonde and a Seasonal Wild Ale. Walled in by brick restored to decrepitude and sitting on wiry iron chairs with quadrants of alternating cobble, brick, and flagstone below, we watched the light slowly shift up on the brick as the sun descended in the sky. Both the Zot’s zesty, sourdough, dryness and the Wild Ale’s tart, farmhouse, funkiness added their sensory details to the evening. Temporarily shielded from the frenzied, amateur documentarians behind the patio’s brocade, we enjoyed our beers until the light ascended above the brick walls.