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BEER: RARE, IMPORTED
The Place: Flanders, Belgium
The Poison: Sorry, Bud. If any brew can fairly claim the mantle of "King of Beers," it's got to be Trappist ale, which has been made by monks at six Flanders monasteries for the last, oh, one thousand years. Dark and supremely malty, ales of this type are best quaffed at room temperature, and, like wine, they can be preserved for years while the beer continues to ripen.
The Buzz: Belgium is a beer drinker's frothy, head-covered dream: There are 125 active breweries in this tiny country, and about 500 different beers (twice that, by some counts). Even the cuisine is "brewcentric": mussels steamed in beer, beef braised in beer, rabbit stewed in beer, and—oh yeah, fries! Antwerp is a great jumping-off point, with its modern fashion houses, Gothic architecture, and appealing collection of bars.
Down the Hatch: Many beer connoisseurs count Westvleteren as the best beer in the world. That might be, in part, because of its absolute rarity: Sold only at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Flanders, purchases are limited to 24 bottles of beer per person, and resale is illegal. Capitalists they aren't (though sales do pay for their monastic pursuits). But the monks will happily receive guests at the De Vrede meeting center, pouring the good stuff and giving lectures on their divine art.
Sleep It Off: You could stay in one of the abbey's 40 guest rooms, but you'll probably be more comfortable at the Hotel Julien in Antwerp, an hour away. Reached via a cobblestone alley and surrounded by historic mansions and a 17th-century church, the hotel is modern and minimalist: Just about everything is white, except for all those gorgeous orchids in vases.
Drink at Home: Westvleteren isn't exported, but other Trappist ales are available stateside. Chimay is the most common, but we prefer Orval Pale Ale, brewed at the Orval monastery in the town of villers-devant-orval. It comes in a large, corked bottle for about $9.
Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren
Tel: 32 7021 0045
Tel: 32 5740 1970
Tel: 32 3 229 0600
Doubles from $220