I finally thought a stop at the cafe was on the cards a few years ago when I was in Belgium – but when I checked online, it was closed on the day we were passing through.
Finally, last year, I decided plan ahead, aim higher, and try my luck on the famous “beer phone” to collect my own stash of Westvleteren 12.
I’d read a lot of reviews saying you have to book 60 days in advance, but that turned out to be inaccurate. You actually book one week before you collect. A calendar on the website tells you when the phone line will be open, what type of beer (6, 8 or 12) is available, and gives you available collection dates.
If you’re lucky enough to get through (and that’s the nail-biting part) you give your name, car registration number and collection day/time.
Once confirmed, no further bookings will be accepted from your phone or registration numbers for a period of 60 days – presumably to discourage bulk-buying and reselling.
Calling the beer phone
I thought I’d planned it really well – if I left the house early I could hit the phone before I started work. The boyfriend was also armed with the number so he could try too.
I was running across a car park trying to catch a train when I suddenly realised I’d done something stupid. In my excitement I totally forgot about the time difference between UK and Belgium. The lines had been open for an hour already – what an idiot!
I grabbed my hands-free kit and started calling while I was on the move. Engaged. Engaged. Engaged. But within minutes it miraculously connected and there was an automated message I couldn’t translate. Then I got cut off. Had the message given me a prompt I didn’t understand? Was I supposed to press a button and didn’t? Arrghh!
I boarded the train, hands free kit in my ears, sat at a table and attempted to do pre-work makeup with one hand while punching re-dial repeatedly with the other. I sat next to the toilet in case I needed to dive into a private spot to read out my bank card details. Engaged. Engaged. Engaged. Then the same again…connected…and cut off.
I got off the train, still hitting re-dial. I was on my 300th attempt when it happened…an answer. I was so excited I got tongue-tied and almost forgot the registration number. I gave my name, registration, squeaked ‘THANK YOU!’ and that was it – no chit-chat, no card details, no email confirmation. All done in about 20 seconds.
I phoned the boyfriend then practically skipped to my meeting with an ear-to-ear grin.
I spent the next week irrationally worrying I’d somehow done it wrong. But the boyfriend and I had made our way from Scotland to Belgium by campervan, hit the supermarket and had plenty of nice beers to take our minds off the worry.
On collection day I was over-excited to say the least. I boiled an egg that morning, which burst in the pan, and when I peeled it I was convinced it looked like a monk (it had two eyes and a bald head – a sign surely?!).
We trundled through the fields in West Flanders and eventually started seeing signs for the Abbey…nearly there! We arrived a couple of hours early with plans for lunch at In de Vrede but when we got there a crowd of disappointed American tourists told us it was closed. A shame, but at least we had our booking to look forward to.
I took a walk along to the collection point and tried to peek over the barbed wire fence at the stacks of iconic wooden Westvleteren crates. Signs on the gate banned photography. I got back in the van, and since we still had hours to wait, we found a cafe about ten minutes away and settled for coffee in the sunshine to pass the time.
Finally it was time. A small queue of cars had started forming. We were third in the queue.
The boyfriend was pissing himself laughing at how tense I was, as I repeatedly got in and out of the van to check that we had made enough space in the back for the beer.
A tourist stood outside the gate, and at one point a man came out and spoke to him. I couldn’t understand the conversation but think he was begging them to sell him some beer without an appointment – he left disappointed and I felt sorry for him.
Then the queue started moving and empathy turned to nervous excitement as we got through the gate.
When it was our turn, I jumped out of the van and slid open the back door where I’d cleared a space for two cases. The man who greeted us lifted the cases into the van then pointed me to a window where I could pay.
I glanced down at the crates and there was a beer missing. I didn’t want to sound ungrateful since I’d just got hold of the ‘best beer in the world’ but I wasn’t leaving without that beer! I called the man back over and he quickly apologised and replaced the missing bottle.
They took payment by card – 84 Euros for the 48 bottles and 24 Euros deposit for the two wooden crates – so, all in, 108 Euros.
The next trip
That was back in September last year and we’ve been incredibly disciplined in not guzzling it too quickly. We’ve brought out the Westvleteren 12 mostly for special occasions and amazingly we still have ten bottles left.
Once they’re done, would I do it again? Absolutely! Until the next trip…