From: Belgian Shop Newsletter
www.belgianshop.com

Belgium: Trappist monks of Saint Sixtus abbey make unique offer through supermarkets

For the past 172 years, the Trappist monks of the Saint Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium, have resisted the financial rewards that would have come from mass commercialisation of their distinctive beer, The Financial Times reported on November, 4.

Even though their leading brew, Westvleteren 12, has consistently topped beer ranking tables, earning it a global following, its sales are still restricted to the walls of the abbey, near the French border.

A trip to Westvleteren is akin to a pilgrimage for beer lovers, with its own distinctive liturgy: after ringing a “beerphone” at a designated hour, customers are given a time to pick up a strictly rationed quantity of beer in the tiny village. Latecomers are ritually turned away.

But the abbey’s crumbling walls have forced the monks to relent – at least partly. To help finance an ˆ8 mln ($11 mln) rebuilding programme at Saint Sixtus, a 93,000-case batch of Westvleteren 12 reached supermarket shelves on November, 3.

“It’s a one-off event – an absolutely unique offer,” the abbey’s Brother Godfried said. “There is only so much beer that we can produce, or that we want to produce. It is only for this particular situation.”

Belgians queued to discover the famed beer, with its 10.8 per cent alcohol content, without having to satisfy the monks’ requirements to purchase it on-site.

“It’s the only Trappist beer I’ve never had,” said Sandy Logan, a translator in Antwerp who grew up near Westmalle, site of another religious brewery, and who took up the offer on November, 3.

“Westvleteren has a certain mystique: one of the things that contributes to it is the fact that it’s so rare.”

Few shops had stocks left on November, 4, and whatever is left was expected to be gone by the weekend, netting ˆ2.3 mln for the monks. A grey market has formed on internet auction sites, with six-packs offered for several times their ˆ25 retail price.

“It really is a special beer,” said Joe Tucker of RateBeer.com, a US-based site whose users rate Westvleteren 12 as the world’s best. “There are figs, raisin flavours, lots of cocoa, with a creamy texture. Its rarity also makes it that little bit special.”

Saint Sixtus, which started producing beer to sustain itself a few years after it was founded in 1831, is the smallest of six monastic breweries in Belgium, and the only one to stick to antiquated sales methods.

It produces 475,000 litres of beer annually, a fraction compared with almost 40 bln litres from AB InBev, the brewing behemoth behind Budweiser, whose global headquarters are down the road in Leuven.

There will be a second part to the extramural sales of Westverelen 12: a 70,000-case batch is being brewed for international distribution next year. The US and France will receive cases, as could Japan and China if distribution deals are secured.

Once that is finished, sales of Westvleteren will once more be confined to the walls of Saint Sixtus, its brief foray into mainstream commerce over once and for all.

“There are spiritual as well as practical reasons why it must be so,” explained Brother Godfried.