Cult beer alters town, not the monks who brew it

JOHN TAGLIABUE

On the face of it, this quaint Belgian town has few attractions — a charming brick parish church; a tall wooden windmill at the town's main intersection. But it has the world's best beer.

In the past few years, several websites that ask beer drinkers to rate their favourite brews have accorded that honour to a strong, dark local brew known as Westvleteren 12. In fact, the enthusiastic American website RateBeer.com gave the beer the honour two years in a row, dethroning a Swedish dark beer, Närke Kaggen Stormaktsporter.

Yet the people of Vleteren, population 3,700, have mixed feelings. The beer has been brewed for a century and a half by the Trappist monks of a local abbey, St. Sixtus, nestled in farmlands on the edge of town. Clearly, its newfound fame has given a lift to the local economy, benefiting restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and local shops that cater to pilgrims and tourists flocking to the abbey for the rich, brown-hued brew.

"It's very good for us," said Stephan Mourisse, 46, a notary who is the town's part-time mayor. "We don't need to advertise, our bed-and-breakfasts are always full, full, full because of the beer."

A dozen years back, he said, if you wanted Westvleteren 12 you just drove out to St. Sixtus and bought some. Now, he said, in nice weather the line of cars waiting to buy the beer can stretch for three miles.

The pick-me-up for the local economy could not come at a better time, with Belgium feeling the recession afflicting all of Europe. Out in Liège, in the east, a major steel works announced in January that it was laying off 1,300 people; a month earlier, Ford said it would close a car plant in nearby Genk, affecting as many as 10,000 jobs.

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