Belgian Trappists overwhelmed by world's best beer tag

WESTVLETEREN, Belgium (Reuters) - 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.

An employee pours a Westvleteren Trappist beer at the brewery in Westvleteren February 18, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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 window.

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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 flavors, 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.”

Editing by Michael Roddy and John Stonestreet