The Monastery of ND de Saint Sixte is located in West Flanders.
The abbey is located about 4 kilometers from the village of Westvleteren and equidistant from Poperinghe, and 12 kilometers from the town of Ypres, which became so famous after the great war. The ND de Saint Sixte Abbey is only 18 kilometers from Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a thick forest still covered the site of the Abbey of Saint Sixte and it is a chapel located in this forest which gave its name to the monastery.
In 1814, a pious hermit, Jean Baptiste Victoors, lived here in solitude. He was a hops trader born in Reninghelst on October 22, 1756, who was not without fortune and whose ambition was to found a convent in honor of the Virgin Mary. It was for this purpose that he had bought a dozen hectares all around his hermitage. But how do you bring together a community?
He soon realized that he could never do this on his own. He then addressed himself to Dom Germain, Abbot of ND du Gard (near Amiens) and told him of his wishes. The conditions he proposed having been approved by the prelate, a small colony of monks dependent on the abbey of ND du Gard left the priory of the nearby Mont des Cats and set out for the forest of Saint Sixte. It was headed by, as Superior, the Reverend Father François Marie Van Langendonck. November 4, 1831, marks the date of the foundation, because it was on this day that the first solemn mass of thanksgiving was celebrated in the poor building made available to the newcomers by their benefactor. Jean Baptiste Victoor did not live long after the arrival of the monks; he died on May 8, 1832. In 1863, a modest monument was erected in the Church to evoke his memory forever.
The abbey (II)
The first years of the foundation were trying because it was necessary to clear the ground by cutting down a large number of trees and clearing an ungrateful and damp soil. In 1833 the community was made up of 11 monks; they grew to 23 in 1835.
The Monastery of ND de Saint Sixte depended on ND du Gard, who had founded it. But, on April 22, 1836, a pontifical decree designated Westmalle as an Abbey, and made all the Cistercian monasteries of Belgium subordinate to it. The nascent Monastery received from Westmalle several religious and in particular the one who became its second prior, Dom Dosithée Kempeneers.
In 1838, Dom Dosithée decided to create a brewery and on June 15, 1838, used brewing equipment was purchased. In 1850, Dom Dosithée accepted the founding offers made to him by the Prince of Chimay, and sent a swarm of religious to found the Abbey of Notre Dame de Scourmont, in Forges-lez-Chimay. In 1871, Saint-Sixte, which was still only Priory, was set up as an Abbey. The first titular Abbot, Dom Benoît Wuits, stayed barely a year. Coming from Westmalle, he was called back there by his former colleagues to succeed their deceased abbot. Since then, several abbots have followed one another and the Abbey has survived wars and torments without deviating from its original goal. Between twenty-five and thirty monks now reside at the abbey.
The motto of the abbey "Beata Solitudo, Sola Beatitudo" (happy solitude, solitary beatitude) reminds passers-by of the vocation of the abbey: prayer and meditation.
The brewery of the monastery ...
In 1838, Dom Dosithée decided to create a Brewery and on June 15, 1838, used brewing equipment was purchased for 919 francs. The brewery was built within the abbey itself, and the first brew was made in the spring of 1839. Until 1871, the year when the priory was elevated to the rank of abbey by the Bishop of Bruges, this beer was exclusively reserved for the consumption of monks. The brewery was later modernized and in 1877 beer began to be marketed.
In 1927, Father Dom Bonaventure De Groote, whose long abbatial (1910-1943) left a deep mark on the community, had the abbey buildings restored and at the same time brought a series of improvements to the brewery. But, after the Second World War, Father Gerardus believed that the presence of a large brewery would likely disturb the monastic spirit. He therefore took a series of measures which significantly slowed down the expansion of the Westvleteren brewery.
In 1946, an agreement was made with the St Bernard de Watou brewery. The St Bernard brewery would produce a beer using the Trappist process. Only the latter would be sold through the commercial channel.
The production capacity of the abbey brewery was reduced to the strict needs of the community, around 3,500 hl. Cafes and inns near and belonging to the abbey were sold, except the café "In De Vrede" located opposite the monastery.
Today, the measures taken by Father Gerardus still apply. About five monks work in the brewery, although this number can increase during racking and the brewery now meets modern production standards.
Beers are on sale only at the abbey. For a few years, they were kept in a store to the left of the entrance to the abbey, and were delivered directly to the trunk of one's motor vehicle - a sort of monastic drive-in. Now sales are only through online registration with the abbey's website.
The beers, once sold in wooden crates, are now presented in a cardboard pack of 6 bottles without a label and being differentiated by the color of their cap. Apart from this store, the "In de vrede" café located opposite the abbey also has some take-out sales and above all offers a full beer menu as well as some small catering.
The brewery (2/2)
In June 2005, the American website Ratebeer placed Westvleteren Abt beer at the top of its ranking, calling it "the best beer in the world."
This information was disseminated quickly and widely relayed by numerous media outlets, including several American and European websites.
Ratebeer's ranking, in which there is a predominance of beer with a high alcohol content, is probably biased by a large proportion of American reviewers, and only a fad can explain this craze.
Asked about this by the Belgian newspaper "L'Echo," Guy Claus, the former owner of the St Bernardus brewery in Watou, rightly believed that this kind of classification is not always very serious.
Be that as it may, the concordance of these events led in 2006 to a veritable rush on the brewery by Belgian, American, British and Dutch residents, to name only the main ones. On certain days, there was a queue of several hours, hundreds of cars having accumulated on the small country roads leading to the abbey. After having put in place various means of regulation, the monks finally adopted a limited delivery per person, as well as, since September 2006, a reservation system by telephone (and now by Internet) to better preserve the tranquility of the place and "avoid congestion as much as possible."
It is true that the abbey and its brewery are the subject of a real craze. Sightseeing tours (for a fee) are organized by some people from outside the abbey, praising the exceptional quality of the beer, the beauty of the surrounding landscape and the excellence of the cuisine served at the abbey cafe. ... These assessments are excessive.
The old café "In de Vrede" had the rustic charm of an old Flemish country café, but this was destroyed in 1999. The new, very modern building has lost its characteristic warmth and now has a much larger reception capacity. The acoustics of the place, during the influx of visitors, show its limits, the place quickly becoming very noisy. The café has definitely lost its typical Flemish soul.
Some "amateurs" called for a sharp increase in beer production so that the monks could use this source of additional profits to increase the social works of the abbey. This was an example of the disregard of the values that the monks of Westvleteren intend to respect on a daily basis. The organized trips, the resale (forbidden by the abbey) of Westvleteren beers in both Europe and the United States of America, showed how ignorance and greed had quickly taken over. This is the case for all fashions, because we know that the rapid spread of a fad is mainly due to its media coverage and its commercial exploitation. Passion won over reason in the judgment of some beer lovers, the fashion phenomenon did the rest.
Let Brother Joris conclude this debate on the "madness" about the beers of his abbey .