Tag Archives: Poperinge

#198 – Westvleteren 8

#198 - Westvleteren 8

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

This is currently the final beer on my Westvleteren journey (unless I’m fortunate enough to end up with a bottle of the long retired Westvleteren 6)  and having already rambled about the phenomenon which is Westvleteren (#66), and the history of the brewery itself (#90), this gives me the opportunity to finish the story by giving a little history of the abbey.

The Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus began life in 1831, although the plot on which the Abbey was formed had been a spiritual home for hundreds of years previously, with at least three different monasteries occupying the land. Historians suggest as far back as 806 the Cella Beborna was built on this land. Records also show that between 1260 and 1355 there was a nunnery, and between 1610 and 1784 the place was occupied by a monastery. If you ever get a chance to wander around the area there really does feel an eerie sense of spiritual history.

The catalyst for the most recent incarnation was probably the hermit Jan-Baptist Victoor, who left Poperinge in 1814 to settle in the woods of St. Sixtus, where he rebelled against the rules of Emperor Joseph II and took up the monastic tradition. It was only when the prior and a few other disparate monks at the Catsberg monastery joined the hermit that the Abbey was officially formed. The monks here often went off on journeys to found other monasteries, and you may recall from the tale of Chimay White (#165), that the Abbey at Scourmont was started by the monks at St. Sixtus.

Life at the Abbey in Westvleteren though began to grow, and by 1875 the number of members totalled 52. It was still mind you a completely peaceful rural community which would have seen very few visitors. All this was to change during the first World War, when hundreds of refugees and approximately 400,000 allied soldiers lived in and around the abbey. Now it is once again a very peaceful place with only around thirty brothers, who serve the community and provide the world with some of the finest beers known to humanity.

Once of which is the Westvleteren 8, and I had been saving the blue-capped beer for a special occasion and this one happened to be a relaxing Christmas afternoon after the usual three thousand calories of roast!. The pour was everything I hoped it would be – thick and viscous with a ring of rustic head, but I wasn’t getting much in the way of the nose. The taste was very good, with a mix of chocolate, coffee and festive spice. Perhaps though it was the lack of room in my stomach, but I felt just a little let down by the beer in the end. It was still impressive but I guess I had fallen for all the hype. I was expecting some kind of oral firework show, but all I ended up with was an overwhelming desire to nap!

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, Trappist Beer, Westvleteren

#156 – Plokkersbier

#156 - Plokkersbier

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

Plokkersbier is a tribute beer specially brewed by de Bie in honour and appreciation of the hop-pickers of the Poperinge region. Plokkersbier means “Pickers beer” in the local language, and the label of the beer depicts one of these folk of old, relaxing on a barrow of hops and quenching his thirst with a well earned beer. There is the other possibility of course that while everyone else is working, this lazy bugger isn’t !

Poperinge is the hop-capital of Belgium, with hectare upon hectare of prime crop needing to be harvested. Much of this is now done mechanically, but in the olden days the fields of Poperinge would be awash with seasonal workers chipping in to bring the crop in. It wasn’t just local people from the country who were used – amazingly, many townspeople and city dwellers would flock to the country in holiday season to escape the soot and the bustle and pick hops. It may seem strange to us now, but it was such a tradition in Belgium, that everyone went hop-picking – a tradition that dates as far back as the Middle Ages.

Days would start as early as 7am, where families and friends would join a cavalcade of carts, bikes and charabancs put on by the farmers, laden with food and drinks to be consumed as they worked. Each individual or family was paid by weight, and thus the more each could collect in their baskets, the higher the wage at the end of the day. Camaraderie was very common between workers, although one always had to be alert to the gypsy children who would try and steal from the workers baskets. The foreman would get around all the workers with a vegetable broth or soup, while each took turns to shelter from the weather on their hessian sacks. I feel almost nostalgic just thinking about it, with vague recollections of Sundays spent fruit picking in Essex as a child flooding back.

With such pleasantries running through my mind, it was with some disappointment, that the beer didn’t quite live up to the mindplay. It was probably one of the better beers I had tried from de Bie, but up to now that wasn’t really saying much. Again, it may have been that the beer was a long time out of date, but that isn’t usually a major issue for Belgian beers if they have been stored well. It was an attractive misty blonde, bordering on amber, with a very fruity mouthfeel and aftertaste. It began to wane and fade midway through, just as I probably would if I was in the fields picking all day. I expected a bit more from a 7% beer to be honest.

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Filed under 6, Belgian Ale, De Bie

#86 – Watou Tripel

#86 - Watou Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Watou is a bit of a haven when it comes to beer. If you start to plot breweries on a map of Belgium – which lets face it is a perfect thing to do on a quiet Sunday ;)  – you start to notice a batch of them all concentrated in a quiet area of countryside just north of the French border. Westvleteren, Van Eecke, Struise Brouwers and St. Bernardus are within a stones throw of each other, and each are renowned for the quality of their beers. The latter is based in the small village of Watou for which this beer is named.

The brewery claim that this beer was made for the French, maybe as a compromise for the fact that in 1793 this area was designated to fall within Flanders, as opposed to France. It’s odd because the beer sounds French, although there are villages that ended up in France at the carve-up that sound nailed on Flemish such as Steenvoorde and Winne Zele. It just happened that the geographical location of two rivers meant that it ended up in Belgian hands.

Watou generally translates as “watery area”, a direct reference to the rivers that dominate the locality. It only has a population of around 2000 people, but often the streets are bursting with visitors to the Flanders fields, or to a number of annual festivals that take place in the village and surrounding areas. One of these is a choir festival that takes place in St. Bavo church, the one so beautifully recreated on the label of this beer. The church has been a preserved monument since 1939 and contains the tombs of two of the first counts of Watou. Other visitors come to visit the brewery of St. Bernardus and the famous hop farms of Poperinge.

Local hops are used to make this extremely pleasant medium strength blonde. The bitterness of the hops is played off expertly against the zesty fruity tang which accompanies every sip. To be honest it didn’t start off as a great beer, but it grew with every inch downed. Where it began mellow and indistinctive, it ended alive and buzzing with energy. Rarely does a beer start as a six and end as an eight – though you would expect nothing less from a St. Bernardus.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Tripel, St. Bernardus

#85 – Arabier

 

#85 - Arabier

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

The second beer in a week from De Dolle Brouwers, and this time one of the two staple brews on which much of their regular sales rely. Oerbier (#208) started it all off when the eccentric Herteleer family won their beer competition, but Arabier was to follow shortly after. This is a much drier beer, brewed with pure malt and spiced by dry-hopping using the typical Poperinge Nugget-hops. It is almost the complete opposite of Boskeun (#82) in that sense – the only other De Dolle beer I had tried to date.

Some have claimed that the title Arabier was given to the beer due to its dryness, pointing to the fact that Arabier translates into ‘an inhabitant of Arabia’ and after all, Arabia is a pretty arid place. Without the exact reason given by the brewery, one may wish to follow this line of thought, although a further clue seems to point more in the direction of the small colourful parrot who sits on the label with a glass of beer in its hand. It is surely not a coincidence that Ara is a genus of colourful macaw parrot that inhabits the South American continent. We have already established a link between brother Jo and South America (#82), and we can probably safely assume this is a much more likely, although no less logical, reason for the name of the beer.

Quite what the Ara has to do with beer is debatable, although they are renowned for their colourful plumage and distinctive exuberance. If you get to meet any of the Herteleers or visit the brewery/art exhibitions in Esen, it is not hard to find a subtle relationship between the two. The main diet of the Ara is also seeds, which funnily enough is essentially the main ingredient in beer.

Arabier itself is impressive, and it certainly justified its entry in the top 100 Belgian Beers book I had recently bought. Very hoppy and full of flavours, although certainly not an Orval (#37), but perhaps a more mellow and fruity deputy. I sat back and watched Ukraine end Englands’ 100% record in the World Cup Qualifying group – a sadly indistinguished occasion for a beer this good.

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Filed under 8, Belgian Strong Ale, De Dolle Brouwers, Parrot

#66 – Westvleteren 12

#66 - Westvleteren 12

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10.2 %

My last beer in Belgium on this trip was always going to be a bit special. In 2005 there was something of a media frenzy whipped up when the Westvleteren 12 was again voted the best beer in the world. It seemed preposterous to the journalists of the world that a beer made by monks in a tiny monastery in the middle of nowhere could lay claim to this, and they decided to investigate. The inevitable happened and the eyes of the world turned to the Trappist Abbey of St Sixtus (#46). Suddenly, and rather uncomfortably for both the monks of Westvleteren, and indeed the local population, hoards of beer lovers and profiteers alike from all over the world descended on the quaint country lanes north of Poperinge. For anyone who has driven up to the Abbey, they will testify that this must have been pure carnage. It is hard enough finding the place, let alone considering 3km queues of angry punters not being able to get anywhere near the Abbey doors.

The monks remained unrepentant and refused to up the sales of the beer. In true Trappist tradition (#7) they remained vigilant in only producing enough beer to provide for themselves and the community. On the opening of the new brewery premises, the head abbot stated “We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.” – a wonderful sentiment, but not one to appease the outside world who misread this statement as an indication of the beers becoming even rarer, and thus the queues grew and the media frenzy intensified further.

The monks have been true to their word, and even now only brew 4750 hectolitres per annum. To put this into perspective Chimay probably turn over 135,000 hectolitres per annum, which is almost thirty times the amount of beer! They are able to manage this by advertising sales by appointment only from the website, and by restricting public sales to a very limited amount on visiting. In fact I was only able to buy six Westvleteren Blondes (#90) to take away at the ‘In de Vrede’ café/brewery tap, and as many as I wanted of any of their three beers as long as I was on the premises. Time was short and I had a car to drive, so Tash and I shared what is still, according to the ‘Rate Beer’ website, the best beer in the world.

It was over four Euros which is fairly excessive but probably not really when you consider the location and how I paid nearly double that for a bottle of Westvleteren 8 in the UK (I wont tell you where in case I get anyone into trouble). It was elegantly poured and served at our cafeteria style table, and looked superb glistening under the lights. It was dark, but just enough light was able to radiate through. The overriding aroma was of liquorice and christmas pudding, followed by fruit and malt and many many more winter treats. On the palate it was solid, thick and venomous, as if the best mince pies had been liquidised with good beer. In a way it was more like dessert than a beer, and therefore I still vouch that the Trappistes Rochefort 8 (#31) is a tidier beer for its subtlety and style. The Westy was trying just that bit too hard, although I think maybe this might have tasted better had I the opportunity to savour my own by the fireside on a winters evening, as opposed to sharing a quick sip in a heaving tourist-ridden cafeteria in the middle of the day. We will meet again I am sure.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Beer, Abt/Quadrupel, Trappist Beer, Westvleteren