My Journey to Belgium to Buy Westvleteren

Discussion in 'Belgium' started by RedFlagBrewing, Jun 6, 2019.

  1. RedFlagBrewing

    RedFlagBrewing Initiate (15) Jun 6, 2019 New York

    I'm not sure if this is the right place to post this in or not, but fuck it here goes!

    Recently my wife and I had the pleasure of purchasing some Westvleteren 12 and Blonde while on vacation in Belgium, so I thought I would share my experience. Perhaps this will be useful for you if you ever find yourself in a similar position!

    First a bit of background: I wasn’t even aware of Westvleteren until we started planning our trip. We decided that we wanted to try to visit one of the Trappist breweries while we were in Belgium, and through that process I discovered the St. Sixtus abbey. The fact that they did not sell their beer commercially outside of the abbey hooked me instantly. “I MUST HAVE IT” was all I could think.

    Figuring out how to make that happen was a bit trickier. The St. Sixtus/Westvleteren website had decent English translations available, but I still really wasn’t understanding the process based on what they had written up. I was able to find some pretty good descriptions of what the actual process was on some other message boards, and through that we pieced together our best estimation of what we needed to do.

    So anyway, I’m writing all of this here to try to get everything about the process down in one account.

    TWO OPTIONS TO BUY THE BEER

    There are two ways to purchase beer from the abbey. The first is to reserve 1-2 cases ahead of time by calling the abbey the week before you want to pick up the beer. The second is to just go to the abbey’s visitor center and buy whatever they have in stock in the store. The biggest drawback of just going to the visitor center without a reservation is that you won’t know which of the 3 styles (Blonde, 8, or 12) they will have when you get there - if they have any in stock at all.

    Bearing this in mind, we decided to call ahead to reserve a case, so we would be guaranteed to at least have something after we went through the effort of getting to the abbey from Brussels.

    RESERVING THE BEER AHEAD OF TIME

    The basics of the process are this: a week before you want to pick up the beer, call the abbey to reserve the beer. They will suggest a pick up date and time, though you can offer your own date and time to pick up (and in our case they accepted our date and time). Now let’s go into the details a bit more:
    • The only day we could pick up the beer was Wednesday, May 8. With this in mind, we knew we would have to call sometime early in the week of April 29 to make the reservation.
    • The weekend before Monday, April 29, we checked this webpage. This is the page that the abbey updates constantly (I think daily?) with information on what is available to reserve this week in order to be picked up next week.
    • In our week, you could only call the abbey’s beer hotline (dial this number exactly: +32 70 21 00 45) to make reservations on Monday, April 29 from 9 am - 12 pm, or Tuesday from 9 am - 12 pm. The webpage also tells you what styles are available to reserve. In our case, the 12 was the only one available.
    • Based on what we had read online about reservations, we knew that the phone line would be extremely busy and that they might run out of stock before the reservation time slots had closed. So we decided to start calling right at 9 am on Monday, April 29 (the first time slot available that week). IMPORTANT: this of course was 9 am in Belgium, which meant 3 am EST for us.
    • We woke up a few minutes before 3 am and started calling right at 3. Be prepared that it is going to take you a while to get through, as the abbey only has 1 phone line. It is also important to be aware of the different sounds you will hear when you call. If you hear a traditional, old school busy signal, you have not gotten through and you can hang up. If you hear woman speaking Dutch (or Flemish more accurately?), followed by a different tone, stay on the line until it goes dead after the woman speaks again - or a monk answers the phone.
    • After hitting redial on our cell phones for about 2 straight hours, my wife finally got through! The monk who answered spoke very good English. We told him we wanted to pick up one case on Wednesday, May 8. He initially offered a pick up time of 1 pm, but he allowed us to pick up at 3 pm when we offered that instead. He then asked us for our license plate number. We explained that we would be in a rental car, so he asked for our names and phone number instead. At that point it was all done!
    GETTING TO THE ABBEY

    We arrived at the Bruxelles-Midi train station from Paris on that Wednesday morning. Some rental car companies do have cars available at this station (I think I remember seeing Hertz, Avis, and Sixt), but we ended up renting from Enterprise, which was about a 10 minute taxi ride away from the train station. We rented through them because they were the only one that would allow us to pick up in Brussels and return to a different drop off outside Bruges. Also, the location of the Enterprise lot is basically right next to a highway, so you can completely avoid city driving if that is a concern for you.

    Remember to make sure to swing by AAA (if you are American) before you go drive in Europe so you can get an international drivers license!


    Getting to the abbey from Brussels is a 1.5-2 hour drive, depending on traffic. It was a very easy drive, most of it being on Interstate-type highway, with the last little bit being on a smaller highway, then some country roads the last couple of miles before the abbey. It can get a bit tricky at the end, so make sure you have navigation either on your phone or in the car.

    From the direction we came, the abbey was on the left, and the visitors center (known as In De Vrede) was on the right.

    IN DE VREDE

    In De Vrede is a restaurant, small shop, and small museum. When you walk in, the shop is immediately on your left. There will be signs telling you which beers they have available for purchase that day. On the day we went, they had six packs of the Blonde and 12. We knew we had a case of the 12 already reserved and waiting for us across the street at the abbey, so we bought 2 six packs of the Blonde. A few minutes later we decided to get a six pack of the 12 as well, because why the hell not!

    You should buy whatever you want from the store as soon as you get there, because the line can get a bit long, and you want to make sure they don’t run out of the six packs. In addition to the beer, you can purchase other stuff made at the abbey and in the surrounding area (I highly recommend the speculoos cookies).

    The restaurant has really tasty cafe fare, including cheese and pate they also make at the abbey. We got a couple of abbey cheese sandwiches, as well as a couple of the 8’s. The restaurant always has each of the 3 styles to purchase and drink with your meal, so that was great that we could try the 8 since it wasn’t available to buy in the store.

    In the back of In De Vrede is a small museum called the Claustrum. There you can learn a bit about the daily ritual of the monks, as well as some info about the brewery. If you are a Dutch/Flemish speaker, there is a lot to learn here because there are videos and other interactive pieces. For English speakers though, there is only a small brochure that explains the basics, but doesn’t give as much detail as the Dutch parts. Still, it is definitely worth walking through here since you are not allowed into the abbey proper (don’t expect a tour like you could get at most breweries in the States!).

    Outside of In De Vrede, there are a lot of walking trails (many of which take you through hop fields), so if you have some time to kill, go explore!

    PICKING UP THE RESERVED BEER


    After we finished at In De Vrede, we got back in the car to go pick up the beer we reserved. When leaving the parking lot, turn left. After driving for a few seconds, you will see what looks like a garage at the end of a loop road on the right. I think the sign pointing toward this is labeled “bierverkoop” or something similar. Depending on what time you arrive, there will probably be a line of cars here waiting for their turn.

    When you get to the front of the line, you’ll see a monk standing behind a stack of the iconic Westvleteren wooden crates. He’ll ask you for your license plate (or he’ll just look at it to confirm). This is when I told him that it was a rental, and gave him our name and phone number. He confirmed us on the list, grabbed the case, took my money, then we were back on our way.

    All in all, it was a bit anticlimactic! After all the work reserving the beer and arranging to pick it up, it was over so fast! But man oh man was it worth it.

    The 12 is easily one of the best 2 beers I’ve ever had. The flavor is so rich, and it is dangerously smooth for a beer clocking in at over 10%. The Blonde is an incredibly tasty and refreshing Trappist single. We ended up walking away with 30 12’s and 12 Blondes. And after a lot of careful packing, we brought 36 back with us to New York!

    Since this was probably a once in a lifetime event for us, and since they suggest letting the 12s age for 1-2 years for the flavors to really become complex, we will be stashing most of them and opening them at different intervals over the next couple of years or so.

    I can’t recommend doing this highly enough. Even if you are unable to reserve the beer ahead of time, the trip to In De Vrede and the surrounding area is worth it on its own. It’s not as complicated as it sounds - just adequately plan everything ahead of time and you will be fine. I hope this might help some people who want to do this!

    And here are a few pictures we took!
     
  2. NeroFiddled

    NeroFiddled Poo-Bah (10,939) Jul 8, 2002 Pennsylvania
    Society Trader

    Extremely helpful post for those that want to do it! I don't know that I'd bother to reserve ahead but I might stop by De Vrede.
     
  3. Domingo

    Domingo Poo-Bah (2,611) Apr 23, 2005 Colorado
    Society

    When I went to In De Vrede in 2015, they actually had a sign up that said there would be no bottles for sale that day. Yet about an hour later (just before 2PM) that sign mysteriously came down and a line formed. They rolled in a huge dolly with dozens of pre-boxed six-packs of all 3 styles. People were allowed up to 18 bottles each.
    Basically, if you show up and it looks like you missed out, you might still be in luck. It probably doesn't hurt to speak with the people running the gift shop. At least a couple people in line seemed to know they planned to sell bottles in spite of the sign.
     
  4. jesus_man

    jesus_man Initiate (71) May 8, 2015 Illinois

    Great write-up and great effort to procure your stash! It was a big effort for me and we were living in Germany at the time. No plane ride involved.

    So you were only allowed to buy one case? I believe I went 4 times and was fortunate enough to be able to buy two cases each time. The redialing...most of the time it was an hour or more to get thru, but there was one time, I got thru on the second ring, much to the chagrin of my friend next to me also trying to get thru.

    I also wouldn't be afraid to age it even longer than two years. Some of the stuff I have is coming up on 6 yrs old and it still tastes great.

    Belgium makes for, arguably, the best beer touring to be done. So I agree that even if you can't get a reservation, it is still worth the visit. There are so many sources of incredible beer that don't require reservations that you won't have any trouble over-packing your luggage. I'd recommend planning one of the many beer fests into your itinerary tho. That is a great way to taste a lot of beer on one location.
     
  5. RedFlagBrewing

    RedFlagBrewing Initiate (15) Jun 6, 2019 New York

    We could have bought 2 cases, but we only had room enough in our luggage to bring back 2. And great tip about the aging! I want to stash some for milestone wedding anniversaries!
     
  6. RedFlagBrewing

    RedFlagBrewing Initiate (15) Jun 6, 2019 New York

    Whoops I mean we only had enough room to bring 1 case back
     
  7. pvdveld

    pvdveld Initiate (15) Jul 27, 2018 Belgium

    good explanation but they changed the method for ordering.

    now you have to create an account for the webshop and look at the calendar when you can order and hope you can get thru.
     
  8. thuey

    thuey Aspirant (265) Nov 13, 2015 California

    Question! I just got back from Belgium (didn't have the time to actually go to Westvleteren) and I picked up 1 bottle of Blonde, 8 and 12.

    Since I only have one of each, is there an ideal amount of aging I should hold onto them for? (Yes, I know I'm going to get a bunch of "Now" answers.)

    And since Blonde is lower in ABV, I assume that should be drunk first?
     
  9. atomeyes

    atomeyes Aspirant (295) Jul 13, 2011 Ontario (Canada)

    blonde: 6 months after bottling
    8: i used to say 5 years. now? 3-4 years
    12: same as 8.

    the beer's quality seems to have dipped.
     
    thuey likes this.
  10. Coronaeus

    Coronaeus Savant (914) Apr 21, 2014 Ontario (Canada)
    Trader

    When do you see this dip as having started? Thoughts on 12 with a 2016 date on the cap? Thanks.
     
  11. JHDStein

    JHDStein Initiate (58) Aug 16, 2013 Germany

    Great write-up on the experience! I actually just ordered (and picked up) from Westvleteren using the new online system. At least for me, it worked like a charm, and pretty much exactly as specified on their explanatory webpage.

    I registered the day before, and then made sure that I was signed in about 5 minutes before the calendar indicated the sale would begin. My clock must have been a bit ahead of their's because nothing happened at the specified time. I kept clicking on the shopping basket in the top right corner and eventually it registered that the sale had started, and it placed me in the "waiting room" (where you can buy other, non-beer items).

    I kept the browser open in the background while doing other stuff, and about 30 minutes later, it immediately transferred me to a webpage that listed the available beers. I made my selections, and then picked what date and time I wanted to pick up my order (in my case, there were a ton available times). After finalizing my order, they sent me a text message with a code number. You enter that into the webpage and then it allows you to pay (I used a credit card, and I didn't see an option to pay at pick-up, but I also didn't look).

    In order to pick-up, you need to have the car with the correct license plate number and a scannable code. The code was sent to me through an email, but an easier way was simply to go straight to your account information and look at your orders. Right next to the "cancel order" button is a "download overview" option. This "overview" is the sheet of paper with the scannable code on it. That print out was all I needed.

    All in all, it was a surprisingly easy and stress-free process. The most difficult part for me was actually finding the Abbey, since my GPS decided to stop working around the time I needed it most. The roads at the end were quite narrow and loaded with summer bicyclists, but they were decently sign-posted, so as soon as I got in the area, I could just follow the signs. Hope this helps supplement the excellent original write-up from RedFlagBrewing. Thanks again for that!
     
    boddhitree likes this.
  12. atomeyes

    atomeyes Aspirant (295) Jul 13, 2011 Ontario (Canada)

    i don't recall the dating system anymore. sorry.
    the dip seemed to happen when they increased their output. 5 years ago, if memory serves correctly?
     
    Coronaeus likes this.
  13. EdKing

    EdKing Initiate (89) Jul 1, 2013 United Kingdom (England)

    Just to give another perspective... it seems to me the new online system is tough.

    I managed to order Westy over the phone in 2014 and 2016, but in the years after that it seemed to become impossible trying to get through on the phone lines. I went over there last Summer and camped by the monastery. I went to the cafe 4 times in that week and only once were they selling the 2 x six packs. So going to buy it at the cafe is a lottery.

    I registered early and have tried to book online twice now. The first time after about ten minutes I went from the waiting page to a 10 minute countdown to 'complete my order'. Problem was there was no beer to order and nothing in my basket/cart. So it just counted down and I got nothing even though there was still an hour left for the sale. I've just tried again, two weeks later, and was just on the waiting page for 1 hr 30 mins. It does warn on the website that it will take months for everyone to fulfil an order
     
  14. jwilms02

    jwilms02 Initiate (49) Apr 1, 2017 Germany
    Trader

    I used the online system for the first time on Aug. 5. Was in the waiting room for about 25 minutes before going into the "complete your order" countdown. I barely made it inside the 10 minutes, but got my reservation for 2 crates of 12. What I found confusing is that your can have your pick of any of the three styles but the pickup dates don't exist for each day, and you have to scroll through to find an open date that works for that beer type you selected. My problem was I tried to do one crate of 8 and one of 12 but couldn't find two dates that worked.

    I wonder if because you got through but didn't order anything in the allotted time if you're moved to the bottom of the queue now.
     
  15. MilwaukeeBoy

    MilwaukeeBoy Initiate (35) Nov 23, 2017 California

    Just FYI - although supposedly not allowed, there are some retailers that sell Westvleteren. I have purchased 8, 10, and 12 at De Bierkoning in Amsterdam. I also had it in Bruges from one of the bars. Amazing stuff.