THE ADVENT CALENDAR OF ALCOHOL – 12th December (11%-12%): Westvleteren 12 11.3%

In ye olden days (actually often not that olden but this is myth, give me a chance), ye godly Belgian Trappist monks took inspiration from the Lord and brewed heavenly beer. This they would consume in the pursuance of their own worship. Selling a little never harmed ye Abbey coffers, mind.

Everyone loved the monks’ beer, and everyone wanted some. It became big business, so much so that many monasteries took the step of licensing production of their brews to commercial concerns much better suited to dealing with the mass market. These licensed beers are known as Abbey Beers.

A hardy few stayed strong, though, and maintained their traditions. They’re called Trappist beers and you can count them on your fingers: Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. They’re concerned with purity and continuity, they like things as they were. My friends, these few hardy souls are the true indie of the beer world (just in case you don’t believe they’re really indie, check out the arguments about whether Achelse Kluis or Koningshoeven count as Trappist’) .

Now we all know that all sensible discussions of things indie end up revolving around one key issue: who or what is the most indie? In the world of Trappist beers, there can only be one answer, and that’s Westvleteren.

How indie is Westvleteren? Very indie indeed. Why? Well:

1. It’s very, very difficult to buy in the shops. The classical way to buy Westvleteren is to drive to the monastery where they make it, where a monk type fellow apparently opens a shop every now and again when he feels like it. There’s a bar near the monastery which stocks it, too. (Londoners please note: you can sometimes find it in the wonderful Bottles on the Commercial Road in Shadwell, which is the Rough Trade of the beer enthusiast.)
2. The bottles have no labels. To have a pretty label would be a sell-out on a par with New Order writing their name on their LP covers, never mind all manner of issues with graven images and that. There are three different Westvleterens available for sale: 6, 8 and 12. The 12 is the darkest and the strongest and most complex and savoury. These can be distinguished by their differently coloured caps.
3. It is known that Westvleteren brew another beer but that is kept back for the sole consumption of the monks themselves. (‘The demos, man, the demos’ they’re the best thing they ever did”)

The thing is that it’s all very well for me to be smart about square headed indieist beer hunters, but these beers are unbelievably good. The fact that Westvleteren is one of the holy grails of Those Who Sup is about more than just scarcity, it’s about quality, too. Has my analogy broken down? I’m not sure.