Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Trappists go hi-tech

Back in November 2015, I wrote an article about the visit I made to the St Sixtus Monastery at Westvleteren in West Flanders. St Sixtus Monastery is the smallest of the 10 Trappist Monastery Breweries, with an output of just under 4,000 barrels, or 126,000 gallons, a year, but its beers are amongst the most sought after.

I was in Belgium for the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference, but didn’t actually set foot inside the abbey or even get much of a glimpse of the place. To say that the monastery, hidden behind its high brick wall, is rather secretive would be an understatement, but the world-class beers brewed by the monks can be enjoyed at the modern and spacious café, located just across from the abbey.

The café is known as In de Vrede, and not only can you drink the beer by the glass there, but you can also buy limited quantities of bottles to take home with you at the integral shop, (maximum of two six-packs per person). Those wishing to buy more have to do so at the monastery gate, and that is a much more fraught experience. Not only are you limited to just one case per car, but your order must be reserved at least 60 days in advance.

You do this by calling the brewery over the "beer phone"; a dedicated number which is supposed to put you through to the brewery, but more often than not, it is impossible to get through. It is claimed that at peak times as many as 85,000 calls are made per hour, and it is reckoned that only around 200 callers get through during the two-to-three-hour window when orders may be placed.

Determined drinkers do manage to place an order though as, on most afternoons, a line of cars forms outside the monastery walls at a pick-up point for the latest coveted batch. Drivers stay in their cars as staff check registration plates, load the single crate and then take the credit card payments.

So why bother, and why all this secrecy and fuss? The answer lies in the title of my 2015 post; “The Best Beer in the World?” Back in 2005, the beer-information website ranked Westvleteren 12° as the best beer in the world.  The monks at Saint Sixtus who brew this dark, quadrupel-style beer were not at all pleased by the ensuing publicity, despite this award being an achievement that most brewers can only dream of.

As you can imagine, a beer which few people had heard of suddenly rocketed in popularity. One day, a few dozen people were drinking the beer; the next, there was a huge line of cars queuing up at the abbey gate to buy it. Stories began to appear about the abbey's stocks of Westvleteren 12 starting to run low, so to counter this situation the monks were forced to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer.

In a rare interview one of the brothers explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite the clear demand for the beer. "We make the beer to live”, he said, “but we do not live for beer.” . In other words, they brew beer only in sufficient quantities to support themselves and their abbey, and are not in the business of brewing beer in order to win awards, or to make money

Despite this reticence, things are about to change at St Sixtus Abbey because, in a bid to stop the thriving black market in this most sought after of beers, the holy fathers have been forced to go digital. Because of its credence and ranking amongst the top beers in the world, Westvleteren 12, which has been brewed since 1838, is a highly sought after beer. The brothers sell a crate of 24 bottles for £40 at the brewery gate, and insist the beers should only be sold to private individuals and not businesses.

In practice, this does not always happen, as despite the ban, it is possible to buy Westvleteren 12,  in a number of off-licences and bars in Belgium, invariably at an inflated price. For example, a bottle can sell in Brussels for about £14, and reach up to £40 in the USA. Its providence is increased by the Trappist monks’ resolve to only brew as much each year as they need to cover their annual costs.

Things came to a head last year, when a Dutch supermarket chain placed 7,000 bottles on sale priced at £9 a bottle. The chain received a stern rebuke from the monks, although at the same time it prompted the holy fathers to abandon their complicated phone ordering system, described above, in favour of an online shop.

The new system allows orders to be placed at anytime, and the software  has been programmed to give first-time buyers an advantage over regular customers. Every beer and every shopper will be given an online code, which means customers can be linked to the beers they buy.

The beers must still be picked up from the abbey, and no customer can return until 60 days after their last purchase. This ruling was also enforced under the old system, as the monks demanded the registration number of their visitors' cars.

Speaking about the new system to Flemish broadcaster VRT, brother Manu Van Hecke, Abbot of St Sixtus Abbey said, “We like to give as many people as possible the opportunity to buy our beer at the right price.”  He went on to warn though that, “Anyone who does not adhere to the sales rules and abuses the system will be denied access to the web store."

The new system certainly seems a lot easier, although whether it can prevent the black-market sales, feared by the monks, remains to be seen. I mentioned in the 2015 article that a work colleague has a Belgian friend who visits England quite regularly. In the past he has brought over various Flemish beers for me, so now, given the new digital system, I am tempted to order a case of Westvleteren 12 and get him to deliver it next time he comes over.

Finally, I wish to express my solidarity with the monks of St Sixtus Monastery, along with my contempt for sites, such as RateBeer, which created this un-holy mess in the first place. They have turned the world of beer drinking into little more than a glorified, "list-ticking exercise", rather than what it should be – the appreciation and enjoyment of  good beer.

No self-respecting beer lover needs a ranking site to tell them what to drink; especially as such a forum can be open to manipulation. Why not make your own mind up? Don’t follow the crowd; do some proper research of your own. Get out there and try these beers for yourself. Even better, try and visit some of the places where they are produced, and experience how better these world classic beers taste on their home turf.


Dave said...

I always find the idea of a "best" beer an odd one. I get there are quality differences in beer production, but does anyone really think one beer stands out that much above all others? Dispense method and style differences seem much more important to me.

Paul Bailey said...

Dave, the idea of a “best beer” is more than just an odd one, it is nonsensical, particularly given the wide variety of different styles, strengths and brands available today.

Beer rating sites have a lot to answer for, but that is what they do, and that is their sole raison d'être. Without wishing to stereotype people too much, our friends from across the Atlantic do seem to fall for these glorified “ticking” sites, but then I know quite a few CAMRA members who are totally hooked on UnTappd.

The article illustrates the damage that winning such a false and often dubious title can cause to a small brewery, such as Westvleteren; and the same applies to those micro-breweries whose beers win CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain award.

For me, there are many “best beers,” each dependent on many different factors. These could be the location, the company, the occasion or even the time of year. So let’s drop the hype surrounding such pomposity, and settle on the fact that there is no such thing as the “best beer in the world.”