* Beer's high rating on Internet, in media spurs demand
* Production limited as only supposed to cover monks' needs
* Buyer says 10.2 percent ale conveys "bragging rights"
By Philip Blenkinsop
WESTVLETEREN, Belgium, April 4 Having a beer
rated as the world's best and selling out in minutes should be a
brewer's dream, but for the Trappists who brew Westvleteren ale
at a monastery in western Belgium it seems more of a burden.
Monks at the Sint Sixtus abbey have been selling to locals
since 1878, limiting production so that brewing never took over
monastic life or earned more than the community needed.
After World War Two they even got rid of a truck that once
delivered their beers to local cafes, selling instead only at
the abbey gates.
"The fear was that the community was devoting more time and
effort to beer than to prayer," said Brother Godfried.
He is one of 21 monks living at abbey, bound by the Trappist
code of "Ora et labora" (work and prayer) that requires them to
sell products ranging from cheese to soap to ceramics - and beer
- to make a living - but not to get rich.
The system worked until the Internet age and the birth of
beer fan sites such as RateBeer, which ranks Westvleteren XII,
the abbey's hard-hitting 10.2 percent brew, as the world's best.
That and other media attention triggered a stampede and now,
on most afternoons, a line of cars forms outside the monastery
walls at a pick-up point for the latest prized batch.
Drivers stay in their vehicles as staff check registration
plates, load two crates and take credit card payments.
"It's exclusive and frankly it does give you some bragging
rights," said Zeff Khan, a Texan with the U.S. military in Mons,
who added a set of Westvleteren glasses to the beer he'd bought.
Potential buyers must reserve by telephone but even this has
had its pitfalls. When the call system was introduced, the
volume was so high that the local exchange crashed, forcing the
monks to switch to a national high-capacity number.
At their peak, as many as 85,000 calls are made per hour, of
which only about 200 get through during a two-to-three-hour
HITTING THE PHONES
But where there is a will there is a way, and Peter
Doornkamp from the Dutch city of Rotterdam said he had developed
a system to ensure regular supplies.
"We have about 10 of us in the office who'll all be calling
in. When one gets through, he'll signal for the others to hang
up," he said.
Westvleteren produces three beers - a 5.8 percent-strong
blond, an 8 percent ale, and the 10.2 percent dark ale that
draws the really rave reviews.
Are the monks proud? "It's good to know our customers
appreciate what we make," Brother Godfried said.
Westvleteren XII is a sweet and rich in flavours, such a
touch of caramel, its taste belying its alcoholic strength,
which is approaching the level of wine.
Including deposit it costs just over 2 euros ($3) per
bottle, and the monks ask buyers not to sell to third parties.
But in Brussels, a Westvleteren XII can command $15 or more,
and well above $50 further afield in places like Brazil.
The monks say they are annoyed, but seem powerless to stop
this grey market trade.
Income from the beer is supposed to provide for the monks'
upkeep or be donated to charity, not line middlemen's pockets.
Tim Webb, author of the "Good Beer Guide Belgium", believes
Westvleteren could solve the problem if it sold via a
wholesaler, as other Trappists do, and accepted that the product
was a top quality beer deserving of a wine-like price.
"People do not blanche at paying 20, 30 pounds in a
restaurant for a bottle of wine... You start putting up beer at
10-15 pounds, and it doesn't look too bad.
"I don't fully understand why they have this thing about
keeping the prices down. I think they look on it as greed... but
it's not, it's people paying huge compliments."
($1 = 2.3092 Brazilian Reals)
($1 = 0.7258 Euros)
(Editing by Michael Roddy and John Stonestreet)