Westvleteren (see our review here) is a beer with a certain kind of mythological aura: Not only has it been voted “best beer in the world” for a couple of times; it’s also not available in shops. It can only be (legally) bought at the Abbey of Westvleteren itself or its adjoining cafe. (Yes, you can buy it in some beer shops and brasseries – but I doubt it’s very legal; also they charge 12€ and more per bottle).
You can’t just drive to Westvleteren and buy a trunkload full of bottles, either. Actually, it’s quite more complicated than that.
First of all, you have to make an appointment per phone – at certain times, which are listed at the SintSixtus website. Getting through is the first major obstacle; it took me 76 calls one morning before I was lucky enough to get a free line.
Before calling, make sure you have the registration number of your car ready. The same car is only allowed to pick up beer every 60 days; also, the same phone number will only be able to get through to the ‘beer phone’ every 60 days.
I was given an appointment the following week and was told to be there at the exact time – not 10 minutes earlier, not 10 minutes too late, as they are very strict with appointments.
You are allowed to pick up a maximum of 2 crates of beer (24 bottles each), but you cannot choose which beer of the three (one blonde and two dark ones at 8 and 12 %); you have to be happy with what’s on offer.
Since we didn’t want to miss our appointment, we got there an hour early (if you don’t travel with a SatNav, make sure to leave plenty of time, as they abbey is in the middle of nowhere and not too easy to find). So we had enough time to go to the In de Vrede restaurant next to the abbey (see our review here). There, you can have lunch or just a drink; we can recommend the trappist cheese along with a Westvleteren beer (in the cafe you can usually choose between all 3 beers).
You can also buy some beer at the restaurant shop, although it’s a bit more expensive and, again, limited; I think it was 6 or 12 bottles per person.
Picking up the beer is a very unspectatular transaction: There’s a little courtyard where the cars line up according to their appointment. When it’s your turn, you give your name, open your trunk, they put the beer in and ask you to proceed to a “drive-in” counter to pay (credit card only, no cash).
If you had a beer (or two) at the restaurant before picking up your crates, it’s a nice area to go for a walk, just in case you need to sober up before driving home.
Is it worth driving to Westvleteren? Yes. It’s a nice outing; and it’s actually a lot of fun to go through all that trouble just to buy some beer instead of just buying it in any store. For me, it makes the Westvleteren in the cellar something special, because every time I drink one I think of the day we went to the abbey. Also, it’s a great story to tell when you have friends, who are interested in Belgian beer but have not been to Westvleteren themselves.
St. Sixtus Abbey, Westvleteren // Website