It is a bright autumn morning. I drive through flat Flemish landscape with beer and monks on my mind.
Westvleteren. An unassuming village in West Flanders, not far from the French frontier. At the Abbey of Saint Sixtus, I join a queue of cars. Soon, I am putting a wooden crate with 24 bottles of beer into my car boot.
Westvleteren beer is a phenomenon. Honoured by some as the world’s best beer, it is a much-sought brew and it is not an easy feat to get hold of it. Westvleteren is a secret beer. It is a hidden and elusive grail. It is not only a beer. It is a quest.
Ora et labora
Trappist monks in the Saint-Sixtus Abbey brew their ales since 1838. Westvleteren beer – there are currently three types – is brewed under the vow of silence in limited quantity. The monks have chosen to produce only inasmuch as to sustain their monastic needs and charity work. The brewery’s current annual output is 6,000 hectolitres, or 75,000 crates of beer.
The brothers’ motto is clear and sober. “We brew to live. We do not live to brew.” A medieval approach defying capitalism. The beer has no marketing. The price is fair (€1.50-1.90 a bottle). But it can be purchased solely through the abbey for personal consumption, not for resale. Three crates maximum per person at a time.
In the mid-2000s, when Westvleteren was crowned by RateBeer.com as the planet’s best beer, the demand skyrocketed and clashed with the brewery’s credo. This was when capitalism and its laws of demand and supply struck back. A black market emerged, offering the beer at exorbitant prices. In fact, the black market exists to this day, despite the sale conditions.
For years, the orders for Westvleteren beer had been made by phone. The line was notoriously busy in the designated reservation timeslots. In 2019, the monks switched to an online ordering system. Since early 2021, you can have your purchase delivered to your home address (if you have one in Belgium).
In any case, the online booking is equally excruciating experience (I have tried both options). Let patience and perseverance be your guide. Or not. There is an abbey café opposite the monastery. They sell six packs there for a slightly higher price.
Westvleteren beers – blond, 8 and 12 – are unfiltered, unpasteurized ales with secondary re-fermentation in the bottle. It’s good to have a crate of 24 in my car.
I have tasted most of the authentic Trappist beers but the Westvleteren beer is closest to the spirit of isolation and penitence of this austere Catholic order, a branch of the Cistercians. (Today, there are twelve Trappist monastic breweries in seven countries but only six of them are traditional establishments that have been in operation for decades, all but one in Belgium).
I walk around thinking about the monks behind the abbey’s walls. Working in silence and austerity. Reaching out to the Divine through whispered and chanted prayers and through the labour of their hands. Through their beer. The beer of silence. A beverage of hidden joy.
There is a narrow alley next to the abbey gate. It runs deeper into the monastic complex but it is still outside its walls protecting the monks from the rage of the modern world. I am walking in the alley with my camera, touching the walls.
A man suddenly surfaces in front of me. “Are you looking for anything?”
Pushing an old bicycle and a cart, he looks like a villager busy with an errand. He is around 60 or more. He speaks Flemish. I don’t understand, so we switch to French.
“I’m just looking around, taking some photos.”
“Come with me,” he winks.
He unlocks the gate at the end of the alley and shows me the vegetable garden inside. “Do you want a beer?”
Before I answer that I have just picked up a whole crate, he hands me a bottle of Westvleteren blond.
“I have been living in the abbey for twenty years,” he confides.
There is shyness in the way the monk speaks but silent he is not. I thank him for the beer. The beer of silence.
Cuisine is a diplomatic lubricant. To paraphrase an old proverb, the way to a polity’s heart is through the stomach of its elites. And there is more and more stomachs to satisfy (I wrote about it elsewhere).
Many high-level talks are smoothened by national staple foods. Lunches and receptions are the usual backstage of diplomatic small talk.
An Indonesian colleague of mine once told me that he could not imagine his mission laying off its cook, a decision my own mission had made during budget cuts. “Our food is how we sell Indonesia here,” he said shocked by our barbaric decision. Great, if your gastronomy is unique, not so much if it is mediocre.
Beer, too, is part of the diplomatic game of winning the hearts, minds and stomachs. Beer is the Nasi Goreng of Belgian, German, Irish, or Czech diplomacy.
Pilsner on tap is the magnet of Czech National Day receptions (overshadowing the second diplomatic lager in line, the state-owned Budweiser Budvar). In the corona(virus) times, the Czech Centres, a cultural diplomacy arm of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organized an “online beer tasting”. That is, a real tasting accompanied by an online commentary by beer connoisseurs. You order beer samples, chill them, log on, listen and taste. Strange times.
Beer is also an egalitarian symbol far away from exclusive diplomatic realms. Despite the boom of craft beers or Trappist silence ales, beer still is, more than anything else, a democratic, down-to-earth manly drink. A working-class beverage. A non-partisan symbol that bridges ethnic, social, or economic division lines.
In the popular psyche, beer defies elitism as Westvleteren ales defy capitalism. The image of U.S. President Obama sipping a pint of Bud Light is his embrace of the “ordinary guy”. But wait, is Anheuser-Busch still a Yankee company? No, it isn’t (it’s Belgian-Brazilian) and Pilsner Urquell is not Czech either (Japanese).
There are many shades of beer politics. In President Obama’s beer game, the Bud Light occupies one end of the spectrum, the other end being his homebrewing, his honey ale and honey porter, first beers ever crafted on the White House premises. The latter catered for beer enthusiasts and it met with much attention. Inasmuch as a petition had been filed seeking the disclosure of the Presidential beer recipe. With election campaigning in full swing, the Obama administration bowed to the push with gusto.
There is a fine line between a diplomatic lubricant and a diplomatic poison. With beer, this devilish fine line lies in the label. Other countries’ national heroes don’t match well with beer. Especially not if they were teetotallers.
When a Swiss craft brewery finally settled on the right name for its spicy seasonal beer, they must have been very happy. Birendra, what a beerish name! The label featured the Nepalese king Birendra sipping a pint. Soon, however, a diplomatic incident unfolded between Switzerland and Nepal where the late king is a much venerated figure.
Protests in Nepal against Switzerland prompted the Swiss diplomacy to act and ask the Zurich brewer to stop the advertising. Combined with a petition of enraged Nepalese, Turbinen Bräu, the blasphemous brewer, backed down and re-branded the beer.
There have been similar beer diplomatic incidents. For some reason, Gandhi seems to be a favourite choice of craft beer marketers. In recent years, the Mahatma has been embossed on an American, Israeli, and a Czech beer. In all these cases, indignation in India forced the producers to apologize after it had spilled over into politics and bilateral diplomatic relations.
Are you into politics?
The monk and I walk the alley back to the main road. He pushes his bike and the small cart. I carry my bottle and play with the camera (but no, he does not wish to be photographed).
He suddenly stops and, shyly, looks me in the eyes. He is around 60, maybe more, but his eyes are young, with the spark of a child-like playfulness.
“Are you interested in politics?” he asks as if he could read my mind and sniff out my inner Butchers and Angels. “Do you know Herman van Rompuy?”
I nod and smile. I have met him, the former Prime Minister of Belgium and the first President of the European Council. I met him once; it was more than a decade ago.
“Well, he is my brother-in-law!”
The monk is full of swallowed words and unspoken stories. Beau frère. This is his trump card for me, a layman from the world behind the abbey walls. From the big, unruly world out there.
I want to talk to him about international politics. I want to ask him questions. But the Trappist monk is gone as abruptly as he came my way. Without a word, he has suddenly left as if ashamed that he has sinned talking to me and talking at all. He has even left behind his cart.
I smile. Beer, diplomacy, silence, and words. Everything is connected, I ponder in a philosophical awe.
Cheers, loud or silent!
Nota bene: This post is independent. I have not received anything from the brewers mentioned above, anything but one bottle of beer from one kind Trappist monk. Westvleteren is a joyful beer, though. Worth the quest?