Dec 06, 2014 by Stephane
This post explains a bit about the history of our beloved beer and the monastery that makes it: The recent history of the Saint Sixtus abbey of Westvleteren can be traced back to a man called Jan-Baptist Victoor. During the winter of 1814 he purchased 12 hectares of land in the woods around Westvleteren with the goal of setting up a monastery honouring the virgin Mary and living a monastic life. He left Poperinge, the village where he lived and went to settle on this land.
Thirty years prior to this he already lived as a hermit, but this was interrupted by emperor Jozef II. Quickly Jean-Baptist realised he needed help to full fill his plans and live the life he desired. He requested advise from Dom Germain, head of the Catsberg abbey in nearby Amiens in France, just across the border. Dom Germain ordered a small delegation of his monks to move to the humble beginnings of a monastery which Jean Baptist had started. In the summer of 1831, seventeen years after Jan-Baptist restarted his monastic life, a delegation of monks headed by François van Langendonck settled in the humble beginnings of the Westvleteren abbey. On 4 November the first mass took place and thus a new Cistercian order was born. Jean Baptist Victoor didn't get to experience much of his new order; he passed away in 1832 at the age of 75.
The Cistercian order is a catholic religious order founded in 1038 and focussed on a life of manual labour and self sufficiency. Over the years however this order started to pursue more academic pursuits and a eventually a reform movement was started at the Abbey of La Trappe in France, called the Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance (OCSO) or "Trappists". These monks preferred a simpler lifestyle and adhered once again to self sufficiency, often obtained by brewing beers. The monks of Westvleteren belong to this order of Trappists and like the other Trappist monks are famous for brewing fantastic beer.
The first few years were difficult. The terrain on which the Westvleteren abbey now resides had to be cleared of all its trees, all the roots had to be removed and the entire area had to be drained. Despite these difficulties, the number of monks in the order steadily grew and the community increased in size. In 1835 there were 23 Westvleteren monks and in 1875 this more than doubled to 52 monks. In 1836 several monks from the nearby abbey of Westmalle joined the Westvleteren order. One of these monks was Dosithée Kempeneers who in 1838 decided to establish the Westvleteren brewery and promptly purchased second hand brewing equipment for 919 Belgian francs (around 23EUR!) on 15 June of that year. The first output of the brewery appears a year later in 1839. Until 1871 the beer is only drunk inside the walls of the abbey. As from 1877 the beer becomes commercialised and sold outside.
In 1850, 16 Westvleteren monks left the order and moved to Scourmont to start an affiliated branch. Between 1858 and 1860 around 20 monks left to North America to found what would become the Spencer Abbey, which is currently the only place outside of Europe where authentic Trappist beer is brewn.
Back in Westvleteren, in 1840 the "old church" was built and in the same year a primary school was built. In 1938 the first brewery was constructed. In 1860 the Lebbe family donated to the monks the grounds on which the Westvleteren abbey would be built. Dom Bonaventure de Groote orders the brewery and living quarters to be refurbished and improved and in 1927 production increase greatly. During WWI the abbey housed hundreds of refugees and almost half a million allied soldiers. WWII brought difficult times to the abbey. There were many economical and political problems in the Westvleteren order. However the Westvleteren brewery was the only Trappist brewery that didn't have its copper brewing vats confiscated by the Germans. The period after WWII proved to be a very defining one.
The head of the Westvleteren order at the time, Dom Gerardus, ordered the brewery, which had been steadily increasing in size, to scale down to its current size. He does this out of fear of the success of the brewery becoming too great an influence on the monastic tradition. The output of Westvleteren beer was reduced to between 3500 and 4800 hectolitres. All the bars that were property of the abbey, apart from "In de Vrede" opposite the abbey, are sold. Currently just five of the Westvleteren monks are responsible for the brewing of the beer, although some of the production steps require some assistance from others. This is the only Trappist brewery where the actual monks still do all the brewing.
In 1964, a large guesthouse was constructed next to the abbey of Westvleteren. This illustrates the importance of hospitality and openness to the outside world to the monks. In 1968 a church was built in a typical "timeless" Cistercian architectural style. The church, which is not publicly accessible, allows the Westvleteren monks to practise in solitude and seclusion - another important pillar of their existence. The previous old church was donated to the public and until 2000 was serviced by the monks of Vleteren. After 2000 it was refurbished in to a mess hall and library.
Currently there are just 21 monks in the order of Westvleteren. Remarkably, since the end of the 19th century the number of monks has remained steady between 25 and 35.