One of my main objectives for Belgium was to pick up a case or two of the Westvleteren 12, widely considered the best beer in the world. It is brewed by monks in Westvleteren and is notoriously difficult to get hold of.
I had previously visited Belgium in October 2005, and was only able to get a few bottles of Westvleteren Abt 8. This time, everything lined up pretty well, and I was able to purchases two cases and send them back.
While going through this process I realised I had a lot of questions I needed answered, and although a lot of people make the pilgramage (the Westvleteren Abdij St Sixtus is the only place in the world you are allowed to buy the beer), I did not have much luck finding similar stories. As such, I have collected all my advice I have for other beer lovers into one rambly post:
First of all – be as flexible as possible. You have a pretty good chance of getting some kind of beer (they make three types, the Blond, the 8 and the 12), but it will be sheer luck that it was be the 12, so be willing to accept one of the other two. Check what is available and what is coming up on the abbey’s website. It will also tell you which beer is coming in the following week (eg “For the Trappist Westvleteren Blond, please wait until further notice.”)
The Blond is highly underrated by the way. Do not leave the abbey without going to the cafe (called In De Vrede) and having a Blond and a 12. Also you MUST get the “In De Vrede” ice cream, made with the 12. Unbelievably good. The cheese is also excellent and also made by the monks. You can buy any amount you want at the cafe (compared to the 1kg chunks at Orval) and it will generally last 2-3 days without refrigeration. Combined with Trappist bread and a 12 it is the perfect dinner.
The appointments for picking up the beer are first come, first served. Ring up the beer phone as early as possible so you can get the appointment that suits you best. I failed to call on the first couple of days, and by the time I got through it didn’t fit my trip plan at all and I ended up having to drive 400 miles round trip to pick up the beer. The beer phone must be called from a real number – it blocks anonymous numbers, so Skype and calling cards don’t work. The number is +3270210045. You are supposed to give your car’s license plate details, but turning up in a rental car is fine – give your name instead of a license plate number.
Before you arrive to pick up the beer, be prepared. On your way to Westvleteren, go to a post office – preferrably in Flanders rather than Wallonia. That way they will speak English. Get two of the largest Kilopost boxes and at least 3 rolls of bubble wrap and some tape. One roll of tape should do, but maybe get two. Some newspaper will also be useful for the padding. Each box will hold 24 bottles if you do it correctly. Each box will then cost 75 euro to post back to the US, as it will weigh 18-19kg if you have packed it correctly.
If you drive to Ieper (10 minutes from Westvleteren), there is a post office there. After posting the beer, you can then either take the cases back and get 10 euro per case back, or keep them and take them in luggage. I tried posting and it’s just too darn hard. Two cases will fit in a regular sized suitcase pretty easily and weigh about 5kg each.
Total cost if you keep the cases:
90 euro for the beer/recycling fee/cases
150 euro for postage
Works out at 5 euro per beer. (approximately USD$7 at the moment)
I rushed my packaging and only 1 beer broke in transit. I remembered thinking at the time I meant to put some extra packaging in but was in such a hurry I forgot. If you do this right you should get zero breakages. Label the beer as glassware and fragile. It should take less than a week to arrive.
Some packing advice. Individually wrap in bubble wrap. Wrap the bottom to the neck in one section and have a separate one for the top. Layer bubble wrap between the bottles. Lay them sideways in the box. Allow for at least 1-2 hours to do this!! It will take time to do it right.
You can get 6 packs at the cafe. I found that they did not offer them on a Saturday, but did offer it on a Monday. I am not sure if this is indicative of anything, but just what happened when I went there. It might be worth trying to call the beer phone to ask if they are in stock before driving to Westvleteren. The 6 pack is actually a degustation kit. From memory, you will get 2x Blonds, 2x 8s, 2x 12s and a glass. I can’t remember the price exactly but I believe it was 14 euro. The kit is worth it if you don’t want the hassle of shipping a massive amount of beer, or if you want a few of the other types. If you’re serious about the 12, it is totally worth getting the crates and shipping.
The glass by itself was 3.50 euro from memory. MAKE SURE YOU BUY 2 GLASSES. You can’t buy it anywhere but the cafe, and they go for ridiculous prices on eBay. If one breaks imagine how sad you will be. I made the mistake of getting a single glass (no, it’s not broken, but I wish I had 2 now!). Take the glass in your carry-on luggage.
Another alternative to shipping is to get an empty suitcase and fill that with the beer, but you will need to split part of the beer into another suitcase (approx 8-10 beers) so that its weight does not exceed the 32kg maximum. Most airlines have a 23kg limit per bag as well. The simplicity of posting and forgetting makes the 150 euro worth it in my opinion. If taking a few bottles in your luggage, putting two socks over each bottle seems to work great to prevent breakages.
Good luck! It’s totally worth it.