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The black gold of beers

Beer lovers go to great lengths for a bottle of Westvleteren.

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.