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The black gold of beers

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

“Near perfection in a bottle,” writes Jason Alstroem, co-founder of beeradvocate.com, which together with www.ratebeer.com 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.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/benelux/090828/st-sixtus-westvleteren-beer