Destination: Westmalle, Belgium
As an astute observer of cyclocross, you’re surely aware of the strong correlation between this beautiful sport and beer. At races in Belgium and beyond, thousands of cycling fans regularly pour all manner of cheap pilsner down their throats while standing along the course tape, or trying to dance in the huge party tents during and after the events. In scenes like these, it’s definitely a ‘quantity, not quality’ drinking policy – as it should be, because half the beer is usually spilled right into the mud.
In Belgium, for each bland, yellow beer like Primus, Maes, and the Holy Grail of cyclocross swill known as Jupiler, there are at least ten other great beers. Arguably at the top of this delicious pile of beers are those brewed by the monks of the Westmalle Abbey.
The Westmalle Abbey, officially known as Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart, is one of ten monasteries around the world that enjoy the honor of bearing the exclusive Trappist seal on their beers. To earn the Trappist distinction, among a few other simple rules, the beer must be brewed in a monastery, and revenue from its production should cover nothing more than the living expenses of the monks and the upkeep of their facilities.
The Westmalle Abbey and brewery occupy a large, expansive compound that’s set back about 200 meters from the road just outside the town center of Westmalle. Partially obscured by a picturesque tree line, the red brick walls of the amazingly beautiful Abbey surround a large working farm, a church, the actual monastery and the beer production facility. While bona fide monks tend to the farm and are involved with beer production, secular employees are also involved with the beer- and cheese-making.
Three types of beer are produced by Westmalle, all radically different to mass-produced common beer. The Dubbel is a darker beer with a 7% alcohol content. This delicious ale is very well balanced with slightly sweet notes, and a dry, malty finish. The term ‘dubbel’ refers to the fact that a secondary addition of yeast is added to the beer after it has been bottled. Westmalle Tripel is considered one of the best triple specimens in existence. Available only in bottles, this clear, golden ale is quite complex, yet incredibly smooth, and has a 9.5% alcohol content. There also exists a special, private beer known as Westmalle Extra. With a significantly lower alcohol content than its two siblings, this beer is brewed only twice per year, and only the monks inside the monastery have the privilege of drinking it, usually with lunch. However, it has been available for purchase outside the Abbey walls on special occasions, usually through murky sales channels. The brothers of Westmalle also produce a fine, mild cheese.
Enjoying the Beer.
Since the Westmalle Abbey is a working monastery, lay people like you and I are not able to get past its walls for a tour or even a simple visit. However, across the street from the Abbey sits Café Trappisten, where you can sample the freshest pours of Westmalle, and a nice selection of other Trappist and more common beers. Nice selections of typical Belgian fare like stoofvlees (beef stew), macaroni and (Trappist) cheese, and the usual selection of fried foods and sandwiches offer the visitor a good taste of the local cuisine, but in a much finer setting than the corner café or frituur. While Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel are available in just about every grocery store in the country, the freshness of the beer combined with the good food at Café Trappisten demand you make the trip.
Westmalle and Cycling.
The Abbey and Café Trappisten lie within reach of a decent bike ride from Antwerp. The ideal route takes you along the paved bikeway next to the Albert Canal, and then along the gravel, historic Anti-Tank Canal, which is dotted with World War-era concrete bunkers and fortresses. Once you reach Café Trappisten you’ll find that the café, recognizing the importance of cycling to its customers, offers enough Westmalle-branded bicycle rack space for about 100 bikes. After, or before, you enjoy your meal and drinks at Café Trappisten, you’ll want to cycle across the street and ride around the massive Abbey and brewery, which offers lots of opportunities for some great photos.