Monday, May 01, 2006

Absolution: the West Vleteren experience

It has come to pass. Months in the planning, and all down to the last detail: my quest to taste West Vleteren beer is over. But I am sure it will not be the last time I imbibe of this holy drink, which is rated by many as the best beer in the world.

As mentioned in the previous update, I have been in heavy training for this occasion. Some moderate drinking in the early part of the week, then four or five Leffe Tripels (8.5%) on Thursday, followed by an easier day of pils consumption on Friday. That was just to ease the load on the body while keeping the levels of alcohol dehydrogenase up high. But as I found, West Vleteren 12° (10.2% alcohol) is more than just a strong drink.

We had synchronised our watches so that Philippe and Guido would pick me up in Gent at 8:15 on Saturday evening. From there it was a 15 minute drive to our secret rendezvous just outside the city, a certain café in Philippe and Jo's neighbourhood run by the impressive Mia. Nothing was left to chance, although when we arrived, we were somewhat dismayed by the number of cars parked outside. Surely they weren't all coming to drink West Vleteren?? Fortunately, it turned out to be a school play or something, and we were not disturbed until later in the evening, when a mini-horde of children came into the bar and started reading books. [Note for the Belgians: this is not common in Australia].

The café was in a very pleasant rural setting and you could appreciate the history around it. From the old wooden bar and tables to the paintings and, err, trumpets, on the walls, the ancient beer bottles in crates on the floor, the local patrons and of course Mia herself... It was another slice of Belgian culture that I could taste.

Guido and Philippe outside Mia's café
© Jeff Jones

The wall decorations were a little surreal
© Jeff Jones

Mia was kept busy this evening. Cool bar too.
© Jeff Jones

Guido and Philippe get stuck into the serious part of the evening
© Jeff Jones

Enjoying West Vleteren 12°
© Probably not Jeff Jones

While we waited for Jo and Jan (of Ronde van Vlaanderen for wielertoeristen fame), Guido, Philippe and I decided to start with the serious business of the evening. West Vleteren wasn't even on the menu; you had to know that it was served here. The monks who brew it generally forbid it to be sold outside their abbey, and if you want to buy some there, you have to queue up for hours at certain times of the day. And even then, you are only limited to two or three crates! This stuff is hard to come by.

There are three types, all of which come in plain brown bottles with only the caps to distinguish them. The strongest is the full flavoured dark one - the Abbott - which is 12°/10.2%; then there is another dark one (Extra) with a sharper taste at 8°8%; and finally there is the blond (Special), which is 'only' 5.8% and has a different taste again. We had already decided to start with the heaviest first while our palates were still functional, then work our way down.

Mia poured us out three Abbott beers with a religious solemnity, holding the bottle above the glass and moving it anticlockwise, like a priest, until the glass was full and had a small layer of foam. We clinked glasses and I drank a mouthful, slowly. This sort of beer is like a good wine in that you should hold it in your mouth to taste it before swallowing. And although I'm by no means a connoisseur, I could tell that it was different.

The flavour seemed to come in two parts: first of all, sweet as it hits the front of your tongue, then slightly sour when you swallow it. Fruity? Yes, but also very heavy as it fills your head very quickly. It wasn't just the alcohol that did that, but also the full flavour. And it stays with you, no matter how slowly you drink it. It's pretty amazing stuff, and puts other beers in their place.

Jo and Jan contemplate the West Vleteren 12°
© Jeff Jones

We hadn't gotten too far into our glasses when Jo and Jan turned up, and proceeded to play a slow catch up. The café began to get more crowded as folks appeared, including the kiddies mentioned earlier. So we moved onto the next beer, which was the Extra, although by this stage the first beer was working rather well. The Extra had a much lighter, sharper flavour, but it was still a most delicious drop. I was thankful that it was only 8%, and that I had done the necessary training, because it was still hard going.

Our party doubled in size when The Wives appeared, and things became more merrie. We had moved onto the blonds (Extras) by this stage, and these took some getting used to after the donkere bieren. They were still very good, but I'd recommend drinking them separately to the dark beers.

As the evening wore on, we moved onto the blonds...
© Jeff Jones

Guido and Philippe in the non-serious part of the evening
© Jeff Jones

There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya about the raising of the wrist
© Jeff Jones

Serious drinkers: Jo, Guido, Philippe and Ik
© Jan de Roubaix

Three West Vleterens in one night was more than enough for me, and was happy to call a halt at midnight. Philippe only had one beer, so I got a lift home with him, with Guido and his wife heading back to Oudenaarde. Jo and Jan were still going by the time we left, and I hope they didn't end up like one of the patrons, who simply fell asleep on his stool.

Thank you Pater Guido and Brothers Philippe, Jo and Jan, for a full bodied, but not out of body, West Vleteren experience. Now for the Oudenaardse Einse Cnudde...

Close of play
© Jo Vandenheulen


Anonymous said...

Now that you went to full confession, I can absolve you. In the name of West Vleteren and the brothers and their spiritual liquids, amen. Go in peace and keep on the right path.

Brother Philippe

Pater Guido said...

Einse fierheid of is het koppigheid: zeg nooit tegen iemand van Eine dat hij van Oudenaarde is! Het is Einse Cnudde! Het beste parochiesop van de wereld.
Ik heb zondag alleen 40' op de rollen gereden...
(mijn vrouw heeft ook de 'kleine' armsteunen terug gevonden, indien nodig geef maar een seintje)

lucy (power, not sister) said...

I'm very glad to see that the injury hasn't affected your drinking capabilities. Is there anything beyond West-Vleteren, or have you peaked now?


oh, and ps., in Brussels a couple of weeks ago we found Leffe in cans! Didn't feel right drinking it that way, but gave it a good go in the interests of science.

Jeff Jones said...

Sorry Pater, alles corrigeerd. Mea culpa again. That might require a trip to the abbey.

Other than that, I will try to keep to the true path. I'm not sure about drinking Leffe out of cans though...