West Flanders resembles nothing so much as rural Wisconsin. Think vast pastures dotted with lazy solitary cows. Farms growing row upon row of cabbage, bisected by long empty two-lane country roads. An automobile can reach speeds of 50 or 60 miles per hour before being forced to stop at a traffic signal where another lonely country road intersects. A few larger towns – Bruges, Ypres, Poperinge, Veurne – interrupt the unrelentingly flat farmland.
On a clear warm September morning last year, Nicole and I drove our rented Citroen across the Flemish expanse, southwest from Bruges. It was the penultimate day of a two-week vacation that spanned several European nations. But if I were honest, I’d planned the trip entire backwards from this day. This was not a day of sightseeing or leisure. I was on a crusade, in search of a rare and desired artifact.
West Flanders produces the hops that fuel beer production throughout Belgium, though the beers from this region are not necessarily what one would call hop-forward. In America, California brewers have acclimated us to sharp bitterness up front, a bite of brain-cleaving hoppiness coupled with citrus and pine.
In old-world Belgium, meanwhile, Abbey ales are the apex of brewing. This region of Belgium is the epicenter of Trappist and Trappist-style ales. Until the relatively recent ascendance of American craft-brewers, one might consider these ales the apex of beer artisanry. It is for one of these beers that my girlfriend and I rented our car and drove past countless Flemish dairies. Any beer snob, I assume, would guess what we were heading for: the Westvleteren 12: Flemish burgundy, the holy grail. Imbibers may argue over whether this Trappist Quad deserves the title “best beer in the world,” but for years, consensus has held that it is. It is the Citizen Kane of beers, constantly topping best-of lists while discerning critics snipe at it from the sidelines.
Whatever its innate merits (and we’ll get to those soon enough), Westvleteren 12’s mystique draws in large part from its rarity. Brewed at the Saint-Sixtus Abbey near Westvleteren, it is the only one of the seven official Trappists not available abroad. The monks of Saint-Sixtus only sell enough beer to cover the expenses of their operations, and they have a strict definition of these expenses. One cannot take a tour of the abbey, but viewed from the street it is apparent the grounds cannot cost much to maintain.
As such, there are only two legit ways to obtain a Saint-Sixtus ale: either reserve a spot in line at the abbey on their beer phone – they take your license number, then give you a time to show up – and buy a case wholesale, or go across the street to their visitor center In De Vrede, where you can enjoy a sandwich, some cheese, and a reasonably priced glass of any or all of the three Trappists. The attached gift shop occasionally sells six packs of the ale when supplies are flush.
So it followed that we rented our car and sallied forth. Google Maps told us the journey would take approximately 50 minutes, but the algorithm apparently did not take into account the fact that the monks of Saint- Sixtus couldn’t give a toss whether a beer lover did or did not locate their abbey. Getting on the expressway was simple enough; so, too, was locating the correct exit. We needed to ask a surly service station attendant the direction to Westvleteren, but even that wasn’t enough to get us there. The abbey is separated from all neighboring villages, and at a certain point signage disappears from the roadways, as does pavement. Nicole and I intuited our way into cul de sacs and drove into cow pastures attempting to turn around. A sign with an arrow and the word Abdij (abbey) was little more than a vague gesture towards a general direction. After two hours of driving, we pulled into a gravel pathway between an unidentified walled-off structure (the abbey) and an unidentified glass-enclosed hall (In De Vrede). We both had to pee desperately, so destination or not, this was where we were stopping.
At 12:30 in the afternoon, we found ourselves in a massive and massively crowded visitor center. In de Vrede reminded me of the spare, liberal Catholic church I attended for a decade in Louisville. All glass particians and buffed concrete flooring and exposed wooden beams. The entire back patio was packed with Belgians in cycling spandex, but we found a table inside. A curt but attentive server explained to us that we should order quickly, since a German beer-tour had reserved an entire third of the center and would soon deplete the already limited ale supply for the day. Nicole and I hastily ordered two pate sandwiches and a Westvleteren 12 (Nicole, bless her, is not a beer drinker but nonetheless agreed to navigate).
 While we’re just beginning, it’s worth delineating what I mean by Trappist. A Trappist beer must conform to several strictures for official designation. Most importantly, it must be brewed in a Trappist monastery, with the proceeds going to the upkeep of the abbey. In this regard it’s like Kobe beef or champagne: native to a specific place of origin. Comparable styles to the seven official Trappists are known as abbey ales.
 And what is a Quad? Again, as long as we're just starting: the Quad is a the fullest, mealiest, richest and strongest of the abbey styles.
 Well, perhaps eight now, as only last month an Austrian abbey was accepted into the International Trappist Association. And maybe nine, as word spreads that a monastery in Massachusetts may become the first American Trappist.
 Navigate, but not drive as she cannot drive a stick. This meant I needed to moderate my drinking at In De Vrede. I could not in good conscience drink all three of their beers and continue to drive for the rest of the day. As such, I only enjoyed the Westvleteren 12 and the Westvleteren Blond (6).
The 12 pours a deep mahogany and smells of dried fruits, caramel, chocolate, with a dry alcoholic edge like sherry. These pictures were taken just after the server poured, so you can see a healthy head, which is more fizzy like cola than creamy. The taste has been chronicled in countless beer blogs, but I’ll endeavor to distill it to one word: complex. I mean that not as hedge. I mean complex in the sense that the flavor morphs constantly in your mouth. Sometimes fruity, sometimes chocolaty. Spicy overtones, only slightly bitter on the back end, cut almost immediately with a razor-shear of booze. Virtually no aftertaste. It has the consistency of half-in-half, chewy and full.
Nicole nibbled at her sandwich and drank her soda, as I gushed about the Trappist, which surpassed any beer – indeed any beverage – I’d had before. The final sip was like a farewell kiss. I savored it, willing every sensory component into a crystalline memory to carry with me. Then, I set down the chalice and reconstituted myself. One more beer, then we had to go. Next stop was a 19th century manor in Veurne.
* * *
A brief note on the history of this ale, and the men that brew it. The Saint-Sixtus Abbey came into existence in 1831 when a group of monks from the Catsberg Monastery crossed into Belgium and settled into the woods near Westvleteren. They formed a new Cistercian Monastery with a hermit called Jan-Baptiste Victoor. Victoor was a former hops-trader from Poperinge whose knowledge of the brewing process would come in handy. The monks first brewed a simple ale for the workers that built the abbey. By all accounts, it was a tepid, weak beer, nothing like the modern Westvleterens. Over time, the recipe would be embellished upon and refined for the next century.
As World War I ravaged central Europe, the Abbey welcomed refugees and Allied soldiers within its gates. Its role in the Second World War is a bit hazier, described on the Abbey’s website as a “difficult time” and stating, somewhat defensively, that “it is too early to get a clear and objective idea of what happened in those days.” During this time, though, the Abbey began trading and selling its ale. It gained in popularity, and in 1945, Saint-Sixtus’s head abbot decided to scale back production, insisting that the commercial expansion of the brewery was incompatible with the mission of Saint-Sixtus. Nonetheless, the Westvleteren ales – and the Westvleteren 12 in particular – developed a reputation as craft brewing culture in the US exploded in the 80's and 90’s and writers like Michael Jackson extolled its virtues.
In a world where free-market capitalism demands that quality products be made available internationally, one cannot help but marvel at the asceticism of these men. They potentially have a multimillion dollar profit generator on their hands, and their vow of poverty will not permit them to release it into the maw of commerce. Unless, of course, they suddenly need a new building.
* * *
I returned to the US in September with the sense that I’d experienced something profound. I’d tasted the fabled quad, and would likely never do so again. Then, word came down the wire that America was about to get a sudden and fleeting Trappist infusion.
On December 12, 2012 – only three months after our return from Europe – the Saint-Sixtus Abbey exported the Westvleteren 12 to America for one limited release. 50,000 gift packs, or “bricks,” were shipped to 19 states via the importer Shelton Brothers. Abbey instructions were that the packs were not to be split up for individual bottle sales. Each brick was supposed to be priced $85. The abbey needed a bit more repair than normal, and the monks made the extraordinary choice of a one-time American release. I managed to get my name on a list and secure a pack myself. Some bottles went to family as Christmas presents, the rest sit in a dark and cool space in my apartment to be opened among friends at 6 month intervals.
 Quick primer: Belgium was neutral in World War II. King Leopold wanted to serve as a broker between Hitler and the Allies, but Germany invaded his country at the same time it invaded the Netherlands (May 1940). Leopold capitulated quickly and is today viewed as a weak monarch unprepared for the brutality of the Nazis. The surrender in 1940 led to the British retreat at Dunkirk. Leopold refused to enact German policies in Belgium, but he was put under house arrest, and, ultimately, 20,000 Belgium were deported to concentration camps.
 Each brick contains six bottles of the Trappist and two tasting glasses. The glasses and bottles are emblazoned with "Ad aedificandam abbatiam adiuvi" (I helped build the abbey). The box, as you can see, owes much of its design inspiration to a starter pack of Magic: The Gathering.
 As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of madness surrounding this release. Most stores sold out within an hour. Surprisingly little price gouging by vendors was reported. Bricks were resold on Ebay for several times the price. Even empty boxes went for $40. One California restaurateur appears to have secured several bottles and sold them to select patrons for $55 apiece.
And the response from the American public? There was a bit of carping about the price, but plenty of 12 oz. imports go for $12-$15, so I hardly see why one would sniff at paying $14 a bottle for this rare bird. Regardless, it sold out without much advertising. Across beer sites, drinkers reported the results of blind taste tests pitting Westvleteren 12 against the other storied quads. Most seemed to conclude that, indeed, it is a damned good beer. Some decried it as pure hype bred of rarity and Europhilia. Several wondered why Piggly-Wiggly was included in the list of vendors.
* * *
So the question: what does it mean to be the best beer in the world? One might as well expand the question: what does it mean to be to best in any subjective field? It’s easier to systemically determine who is, say, the best base-runner of a given season is. But consider any work of art you’ve experienced after being told it was categorically the best: Citizen Kane, Sergeant Pepper, The Wire, Hamlet. When one experiences these evidently perfect creations, one cannot help but fixating on the mundane of them. Not flaws, mind you, but aspects that smack of the unexceptional, the less than perfect. Can Hamlet be perfect with a passage as dull as the Reynaldo scene? And what about Season 2 of The Wire?
Anyone unfamiliar with the Belgian Quad would find the Westvleteren 12 revelatory. The intermingling of caramel, figs, spice, chocolate and ethanol, the effervescence paired with the substantial weight in one’s mouth (not to mention on one’s brain), the continually realigning of taste with each sip – this beer is operating at or near the pinnacle of craft. 
More seasoned drinkers, on the other hand, detect the mundane. Within the flavor profile are notes that other great beers have struck, sometimes to greater resonance. Since returning from Belgium, I’ve had the two quads that drinkers often place against the Westvleteren: Rochefort 10 and St. Bernardus Abt 12. Both are fine, full, flavorful quads. The Rochefort has the dryness of brut champagne with notes of molasses, candied fruit and peat; I've drunk it with steak and oysters like a single malt scotch. Westvleteren, however, is a meal unto itself. The friends I’ve shared it with invariably insist on cleansing their palates beforehand, afraid to bastardize the flavor and bouquet with food or lesser drink. With this level of reverence, I can see how one might be disappointed with the supposed best beer in the world.
I too suspect, as many Westvleteren detractors suggest, that this ale’s virtues have been augmented by the fact that it requires a plane ticket or a couple hundred dollars on Ebay to acquire.
Nonetheless, the experience of “best” is always worthwhile in that it reveals something about a culture’s values. The maximalist flavor of Wesveleteren 12, its balance, its rarity and its old-world appeal – all these coalesce to provide a drinking experience that is special. The experience was not unlike that of a tasting menu at a chef-centric eatery: transporting but ultimately vacuous. We as a culture love to consume, but elevating the act of consumption beyond a certain level seems foolish. I doubt that consuming a great beer – or, for that matter, a wine, a whiskey, or a fine meal – can enlighten the way a fine painting or book or film can. It satisfies on a primal level, rather than an intellectual or emotional level. Sure, a taste/aroma/texture can spark a sense memory – perhaps even draw a tear or a burst of laughter – but there is no truly illuminating component to drinking a great beer. Merely satisfaction.
But I’m drawing too wide an arc. The question is whether this beer is distinctly and unambiguously the best. To answer this question, one has to look at the backlash since its US release.
This backlash also speaks to a culture’s values. Look at the other top beers on Rate Beer and Beer Advocate and you see Double IPA’s and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts. These are the beers of a young, ascendant brewing culture. Beer lovers that post on these sites regularly deride the Westvleteren 12 as a product of obscurity and European snobbery, but nearly all concede that it is an exceptional drink. Twice already, I’ve mentioned Citizen Kane, and it is a good corollary. Everyone agrees that Citizen Kane is a great film, innovative and engaging, and it elevated filmmaking to an equal footing as more established art forms. Still, no one’s favorite movie is Citizen Kane. One sees it every few years and remembers how fresh, vibrant and alive it still is.
The Westvleteren 12 is a like experience, best saved for the occasional special evening to renew one’s appreciation. On these terms, it has not let me down. Three weeks back, I joined my father in enjoying a bottle that had aged eight months. There was a new burnt coffee taste that settled beneath the sweetness. It was the gustatory equivalent to the patina that settles over a fresco. In November, I expect to crack an 18-month-old bottle with one of my oldest friends in Kentucky. I’m already looking forward to that.
I expect to drink equally fine beers over the remainder of my life’s course, just as I expect to see great films, read great books, live through breathtaking historic events. But the fact that other great moments lie ahead doesn’t mean one shouldn’t succumb, if possible, to the mastery of the past; the mastery of silent holy men in a simple abbey in a distant land not all that different from Wisconsin.
 In the way of quadruple ales, I had only ever had Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers before my trip to St. Sixtus. Three Philosophers may not be in the same ballpark as the Westvleteren 12, but it is a fine ale and definitely a great, accessible American option for anyone who wants to taste a quad tonight.
 The former is one of the other official Trappists, brewed in Rochefort, Belgium. St. Bernardus is an interesting case: brewed in Watou, in the same West Flanders region as Saint-Sixtus, this quad is effectively the same recipe as the Westvleteren 12. The Saint Sixtus brewmaster came to the Catsberg Monastery in Watou (see Sidenote 6) in the late 1940’s when the two breweries entered into a commercial agreement whereby the Watou brewers would sell the storied Trappist throughout Central Europe. The partnership dissolved in 1992, but Catsberg kept brewing under the name St. Bernardus. I’d be remiss not to mention that a determined search of beer stores in pretty much any town in the US will yield this beer, and it is a fantastic beer.
 I also suspect that other consensus top beers (Pliny the Younger, Heady Topper, Dark Lord, KBS) benefit from this effect.
 Of which I’ll not speak ill. In fact, the next article in Imbibliography will focus in on one of these styles.