The black gold of beers

WESTVLETEREN, Belgium — The news that two prestigious online guides declared your ale the world’s best beer would be cause for celebration at most microbreweries.

The prospect of booming sales, bulging export orders and the glare of international media attention ought to be the perfect excuse to crack open a bottle or three.

But Cistercian monks, dedicated to a life of silence, seclusion and manual toil, don’t quite see it that way, even when their work includes maintaining a centuries-old tradition of brewing heavenly ales.

“The monks don’t want to brew more,” said Philip de Backer, whose In de Vrede cafe is one of the few bars where you can sup the elusive Westvleteren beers.

“They want to be monks, not brewers,” de Backer explained in an interview outside the abbey walls. “They don’t want to live for their beer, they only live for God.” The St. Sixtus abbey in the village of Westvleteren is one of seven Trappist breweries that still maintain a tradition of monk-made beers dating back to the Middle Ages.

However, while the other six — five in Belgium and one over the border in The Netherlands — market their beer through stores, bars and websites, the 30 monks of Westvleteren refuse to commercialize their beer or increase production.

Officially, the beer many connoisseurs consider the finest suds on the planet can only be bought direct from the monks or in de Backer’s cafe across the road from the Abbey.

Even for beer lovers who make the pilgrimage out to Westvleteren deep in the flat Flemish countryside, the only way to be sure of getting some beer to take home is calling in advance on the monks’ “beer phone” and making an appointment.

Sales are strictly limited to one crate of 24 bottles per car. Buyers can check in advance on the Abbey website to see which days the beer will be available, but they are often fully-booked for weeks in advance.

“It’s very worth it,” said Rudi Slechten about the 400-kilometer (250-mile) round trip from his home in northeastern Belgium to buy a crate of Westvleteren No. 12. “It’s a very special beer.”

On a bright summer Saturday, the terrace of de Backer’s cafe was crowded with drinkers quaffing goblets of ale to accompany some other fruits of the monks’ labor: pate, cheese, bread, even beer-flavored ice-cream. Outside, a stream of cars wound its way through the fields of potatoes and beets to line up at the abbey gate.

The Westvleteren monks produce three beers: the Blond, a tangy, honey blond thirst quencher; the No. 8, a malty, chestnut-hued brew with a hint of brown sugar sweetness; and the legendary No. 12, a chocolate-dark cup of seduction that leaves beer fans gushing.

“Near perfection in a bottle,” writes Jason Alstroem, co-founder of, which together with ranks Westvleteren 12 as the world's No. 1.

“Suggestions of plump golden raisins, anise, herbal tea, buckwheat honey, caramel, lemon rind, fresh baked short bread … clove with a mellow medicinal phenol,” Alstroem adds. “Christmas pudding also, with alcohol and candied fruit.”

When a beer is this good and this hard to find, it’s no surprise that there’s a thriving black, or at least gray, market in the elusive ales, despite the monks’ strict no resale policy.

In the nearby town of Poperinge, center of Belgium’s hop-growing region, you’ll find plenty of fine local beers on show in shop windows, but no Westvleteren. A quiet word with local storekeepers can, however, lead to a clandestine case being retrieved from their backroom stash.

Nasser Eftekhari is less shy. The Iranian-born entrepreneur runs the best-known ale store in Brussels. The shelves of Beer Mania hold an intoxicating array of over 400 Belgian brews, from sour-cherry infused krieks, to organic brown ales, pale spiced wheat beers and the full range of Trappist ales — including Westvleteren.

“When I started having Westvleteren here, it was exactly 11 years ago [when] no one knew about that beer, no one,” said the one-time teenage refugee.

“It was my discovery … . I said this beer should be famous.”

Back then, Eftekhari said, the abbey was producing a surplus, which allowed him to return to the capital with as many as 70 cases. He thinks the monks should be grateful to him for making them an international success. The monks disagree.

“They sued me. They say ‘we hate you, because of you we don’t have an easy life now,’” he said. “Now I’m buying from the black market, I can’t go there.”

Confident of winning a lawsuit launched by the monks, Eftekhari continues to sell the beer, even to fans across the Atlantic.

At a hefty 12 euro a bottle, plus shipping, buying from Eftekhari is a tad more expensive than paying the monks 1.5 euro per bottle of No. 12. Eftekhari said the high prices are necessary because he’s forced to pay off middle men since the monks ban him from buying direct.

Despite the price, Eftekhari said the Westvleteren ales remain among his best sellers. And despite his dispute with the monks, he acknowledged they make a divine brew.

“Someone told me Americans say: I’ll share my car with a friend, yes; my wife, maybe; my gun, never. And I say this: my car, yes; my wife, maybe, my Westvleteren, never.”