Belgian Trappists reopen tap for beer sales as lockdown eases

WESTVLETEREN, Belgium (Reuters) - Belgian Trappist monks who brew one of the world’s most coveted beers have reopened for business after a two-month break, though COVID-19 restrictions mean they can only supply local rather than international demand.

The Saint-Sixtus abbey, home to 19 monks, launched an online sale on Thursday evening of 6,000 crates, with pick-ups starting Friday. Exceptionally, customers can buy three crates. Normally it is just two.

Customers can come as usual by car, but are told not to leave their vehicles while queuing until they pass a newly installed traffic light before the pick-up point.

There, a lay worker in mask and gloves passes their 24-bottle crates through a small gap in a plastic screen. Payment must made electronically, not with cash. The nearby cafe serving the beers remains closed.

Demand is no issue. Brother Godfried said there were 5,000 new online accounts created from Wednesday to Thursday, bringing the total to 35,000.

“The picture is a bit distorted as for now we can only offer on the Belgian market. The borders are shut, even though the beer draws a certain international interest,” he told Reuters.

The monks sold a few cases in advance to test their new system. Thomas Vuylsteke, a 33-year-old lawyer, was one of the lucky recipients.

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“Well it has been selected a few times as the best beer in the world and it is really tasty. It’s always great,” he said.

Flor Holvoet had driven two hours to get to the abbey.

“For me it was very important because actually it was the first opportunity to do a real trip again, have a reason to come out again,” he said.

The abbey has been brewing its Westvleteren beers since 1839 and selling to the public since 1878, but production and sales were limited to ensure brewing never took over monastic life or earned more than was needed.

The monks opted to sell only at the abbey gates since World War Two, but the quiet local lanes filled with traffic after beer rating websites hailed the 10% Westvleteren XII as one of the world’s best beers.

The monks put in place a telephone reservation system in 2005, replacing it with internet ordering last year, though customers can still sit for hours in a virtual queue before being able to order.

Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Mike Collett-White