The Brewery of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren is a Belgian Trappist brewery. The brewery is located inside the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in the Belgian municipality of Westvleteren, not far from the hops-producing town of Poperinge. The brewery and its beers are usually referred to as just Westvleteren. Like many strong Belgian beers, the 8 from Westvleteren age well and can be cellared for many years whilst maintaining quality.
The bottles have been sold without labels since 1945. All of the legally required information is printed on the crown tops. Because of this lack of space, Westvleteren beers are the only Trappist beers that do not have the official Trappist logo displayed on the bottle. The logo is only printed on the distinctive wooden crates. Any bottles that are labelled have had them added unofficially by others. For example, some importers into the United States label the bottles in order to comply with local regulations.
Trappist monks from the Catsberg monastery, located in France, founded the St Sixtus monastery in 1831. In 1838, the brewing at Westvleteren commenced, and has been continuous ever since. In 1850, some of the monks founded the Notre Dame de Scourmont monastery, which also brews a Trappist beer. During World Wars I and II, the Westvleteren brewery continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity. The brewery was the only Trappist one to retain the copper vessels throughout the wars - the other breweries had the copper salvaged by the Germans for their war efforts. In WWI this was primarily due to the abbey not being occupied by the Germans, but instead was caring for wounded allied troops. In 1962, the St Bernardus brewery in nearby Watou was granted a licence to brew beer under the St Sixtus name. In 1992 this agreement ended, however St Bernardus still brews beers of similar styles, but under their own name. In 1989 the abbey opened its new brewery to replace the older equipment.
The brewery currently employs three secular workers for various manual labour tasks, however the primary brewing is done by the monks only. It is the only Trappist brewery where the monks still do all of the brewing. Five monks run most of the brewery, but an additional five help during bottling.
As with all other Trappist breweries, the beer is only sold in order to financially support the monastery and some other good causes. Whilst the brewery is a business by definition (it's purpose is to make money), it does not exist for pure profit motives, and they do no advertising except for a small sign outside the abbey which indicates the daily availability of each beer. The monks have repeatedly stated that they only brew enough beer to run the monastery, and will make no more than they need to sell, regardless of demand. During World War II, the brewery stopped supplying wholesalers and since then they only sell to individual buyers in person at the brewery or the inn opposite. These methods all go against modern business methods, however as stated by the Father Abbott on the opening of the new brewery, "We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.". The current production is 4750 hL per year, and this is not expected to be increased. Aside from the brewery itself, the only other official sale point for the beer is the abbey-owned In de Vrede, a small inn opposite the abbey. Buyers of the beer receive a receipt with Niet verder verkopen (Do not resell) printed on it. The abbey is very much against resale of their beer, and it's their wish that the beer is only commercially available at the two official sale points. To this end, any Westvleteren beer which is sold anywhere else in the world is grey market beer.
The world's best beer?
Whilst taste is highly subjective and individual, many international beer connoiseurs consider the Westvleteren 12 to be the best beer in the world. Since 2001 it has been ranked #1 at BeerAdvocate's website, a website dedicated to beer started by the Alström brothers, under "Best of BA", a list of the top 100 beers in the world.In June 2005, it was voted "Best Beer in the World" in a competition of over 30.000 beers organized by ratebeer.com, an American website dedicated to beer.RateBeer.com consistently rates the Westveleteren 12 #1. The 8 and the Blonde also rank highly on both sites. News organisations followed this up and many articles appeared in thœe international press, highlighting the beer ranking and the unusual business policies. Following these events, Westvleteren's popularity increased tremendously, quickly draining the abbey's stock and forcing the monks to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer even further. Towards the end of 2005, stocks were finally depleted, and no more would be ready until spring 2006. In an interview with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, monk Mark Bode explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite the demand. Westvleteren has since gained an almost cult following, and many beer connoiseurs consider the Westvleteren 12 to be the holy grail of beer.
Despite the popularity, the monks of St Sixtus have shunned almost all interview and visit requests, and have not enjoyed all of the attention they have received. Non-monastic visitors to the abbey are usually turned away, instead being directed to the inn opposite where there is information about the abbey and brewery. They have stated a desire to live a peaceful monastic life, and find the resulting interruptions quite intrusive.
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