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Belgian Trappist Brewery Visit

Owen Ogletree and Paul Eckloff have visited all five of the remaining Belgian Trappist monasteries that still brew their own ales. This is our story of one of them.

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This is the third installment in our series of articles describing the five remaining Belgian Trappist monasteries that produce their own ales. The monastery of St. Sixtus near the small village of Westvleteren can be found in the southern part of the Belgian region of Flanders close to the border of France. From this tiny Trappist brewery come three of the most distinctive, strong, and flavorful Belgian ales produced today. These wonderful beers are unfortunately hard to find as they can only be purchased from a very amicable monk in a small drive-through booth at the monastery on certain days throughout the year. Some very dedicated cafe owners make the trip down the narrow one lane road that leads to the monastery to purchase these fine beers for resale. 

This monastery is found in a very remote area of Belgium near the hop producing town of Poperinge. Across the street from the monastery gates, thirsty visitors can enjoy the rich ales of Westvleteren at the Cafe De Vrede. This cafe exists for the sole reason of entertaining Belgians and beer tourists who travel far and wide to sample these beers. The building, which appears to date from the early 1900's, looks well worn from many days of entertaining beer fans but was almost empty on the cold February afternoon we visited. We didn't mind -- this meant more beer for us! The Cafe also has a small gift shop where visitors can purchase official glasses from the abbey and packs of their beer.

In the Cafe De Vrede, we sampled the Special, Extra, and Abbott. The Special is a complex, spicy ale with an alcohol content of almost 5 percent by weight and 6 percent by volume. All of the beers made at the St. Sixtus abbey are very malty and rich. Almost no hop character is evident, as the hops are masked by the intense malt presence. The fermentation that occurs in the bottles of these beers produces a rich, tall, creamy head when poured.

The Extra comes in at around 6 percent alcohol by weight and almost 8 percent by volume. The most evident characteristic of this ale is the fruitiness of the esters produced by the maturation of the special yeast. A beer fan with any imagination can detect citrus, berries, and other fruit aromas. The Extra also features a slight, warm alcohol presence.

A huge following has developed over the years for the Abbott brew which boasts a mighty 8.8 percent alcohol by weight and 11 percent by volume. Of all the Belgian ales we've had to privilege to sample, this definitely ranks as one of our favorites. It is a rich mouthful with a delicious body. A famous quote from an old Trappist brewer went something like this, "In Heaven there's no beer. That's why we drink it here." Westvleteren Abbott ale is like heaven on Earth.

In the 1940's the abbey gave permission for its monastic name to be used by a small brewery nearby. The beers from this secular brewery were known simply as St. Sixtus and the brewery itself as St. Bernardus. In recent years this agreement has ended, but the St. Bernardus brewery is still cranking out beers that are similar to those of Westvleteren, but not nearly identical. The St. Sixtus abbey and St. Bernardus brewery use different strains of yeast, and as a result their beers have differing flavor profiles. St. Bernardus' St. Sixtus ale is available in some areas of the southeastern United States and is a hearty, chocolately beer with complex flavors and aromas reminiscent of bananas, caramel, and spice.

The St. Sixtus monastery is a beautiful stone building surrounded by trees and a large stone wall that stands between the abbey and the tiny road. It was a cold, misty day that we visited. There was a peaceful calmness in the air. The wonderful beer at the Cafe did much to warm our bodies, hearts, and souls.


Owen Ogletree is an award-winning homebrewer, certified beer judge, and Director of Athens' (Ga.) Classic City Brew-Fest held each spring.


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