The resurgent brewing industry has been somewhat at odds with the declining fortunes of the nation’s pubs. There are mass-produced beers that make for a long night out, and some far rarer numbers that you might enjoy as a one-off.
One of the rarest beers you can get you hands on anywhere in the planet is Trappist Westvleteren 12, which has even been described as the world’s most sought-after beer – and it’s no surprise why.
Just over 5,000 barrels of the 10.2 per cent ABV strength quadruple dark ale are brewed annually by the 19 Trappist monks of St Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren, Flanders.
Drinkers tempted by the regular appearance of its darkest brew at the top of the world rankings must travel in person and on appointment to pick up their allotted two crates.
But you can get your hands on a bottle of this beer at one place in the region – the small creperie and beer cafe Chez Sophie in the middle of Shrewsbury which Mat Hocking runs with his French partner, Sophie Carron.
“The vast majority of beers we have here are limited editions so they’re not the kind of beer you will find anywhere, but Westvleteren is pretty rare,” says Mat.
But why is it so rare? Well that’s because it’s so hard to get hold of to sell in the first place.
Currently prospective buyers had to call the abbey’s so-called ‘beer phone’ for the right to purchase no more than two crates of Westvleteren.
It was reported that only two per cent of those that call actually successfully get through – and when you consider that it takes 85,000 callers an hour in peak time it’s hardly shocking that it’s hard to get your hands on.
A crate of 24 bottles of the highly prized Westvleteren 12 costs 45 euros direct from the abbey – although despite the high price, the effort of getting hold of the brew is far greater.
Those that are successful then have to queue up in their cars outside the monastery on a designated day to receive their allotment from the monks themselves. Fortunately for Mat the monastery lies just a few miles from Sophie’s childhood home, just across the border in France.
“Sophie’s parents are retired and they take a day to ring and then another to go and pick it up,” he says. “We currently have six bottles in, but it is really hard to get hold of, so maybe we will try and get some more in time for Christmas.”
The method of how the beer is ordered that is all about to change, and in order to stay one step ahead of those seeking to sell on their beer at steeply inflated prices, the abbey has announced it is going digital.
A website has been set up where customers can order their two crates, with priority given to recent and new customers.
Drinkers will still need to come in person to the abbey’s shop nestled in Flemish farmland to pick up their purchases but they will avoid having to use a hotline.
But Westvleteren is not the only unusual beer you’ll find in Mat’s cellar.
“I have a Belgian blonde called Tuverbol that they only brew once a year and then that’s it,” he said. “I want to give them a taste too which is why I like to get them in.”
In the Black Country, Scott Povey also got the bug for beer in Belgium and he know brews unusual cycling themed ales.
“Born to ride, born to brew,” is the motto at Blackheath’s Fixed Wheel Brewery, which was set up by cycling and beer enthusiast Scott – a British record-breaking time trialist.
“I had always grown up around bikes from BMXs to time trials,” says Scott.
“I never really used to drink a lot but during the cycling off-season, we would take trips to Belgium and that’s where I caught the bug for beer.”
At the brewery and attached tap house you can find a number of cycling themed beers such as the Chain Reaction Pale Ale, No Brakes IPA and Wheelie Pale. But there are also monthly specials which have the logo in the style of cycling jerseys and are named after cyclists and routes such as Froomie Cream Ale, The Manx Missile and The Sheriff Italian Grape Ale.
“We have a lot of fun looking at recipes and also looking at what we name them after,” adds Scott.
“The recipes don’t necessarily match the rider as such, I don’t look at Froomie and think I’ll make something low and skinny, we still have to do something that’s popular in the market.
“But we do get cycling fans who love to buy the beers.”
In the south of Shropshire there is another unique beer that could be considered a collector’s item by beer connoisseurs.
In Ludlow, The Blood Bay is like a time capsule transporting you back to the Victorian times.
But it’s not just about the traditional, curved, mahogany bar and period seats with drinking ledges.
The beer that is produced in the associated micro-brewery is quite unlike anything else you will drink.
The authentic inset lignum vitae beer engines enable customers to really experience what it may have been like to drink in one of the many long-gone Victorian pubs of the town.
The beers are produced by The Blood Bay’s own brewing concern – Swan Walters & Son – employing the same ingredients from source and authentic late-Victorian brewing practice as requested in the hand-written recipes.
Now they are also being brewed up in wooden casks, which presents a significant departure from the modern method.
The pub’s owner Jon Saxon said: “Since opening in 2018 customers have had the rare opportunity to experience a wide range of rare beer styles that would have once dominated the Victorian pub landscape – beers such as XX Mild, Table Beer and K light bitters.
“We have recently translated the original recipes, dating from 1895, which were brewed and sold in Shropshire by the Ludlow & Craven Arms Brewery Company.
“These have included their flagship Amber Bitter, which was renamed Ludlow Pale Ale after being awarded first prize at the 1906 International Brewery Awards.
“This beer is brewed with the exact same 19th century barley, dating back to the 1820s, which has been reintroduced in small quantities by the John Innes Institute from heritage seeds stored in their bank.
“The beer is then cellar-aged for two months in wooden casks, as would have been the norm.
“The Blood Bay is strongly committed to serving beers from the wood, with a growing population of oak casks, both old and coopered for us by Theakston Brewery in Masham, Yorkshire and as far as we know, we are the only pub in Shropshire serving beer from the wood.”