It won’t shatter the myth, but it will change a few things: the famous and extremely rare Westvleteren beer from Sint Sixtus Abbey will soon become available outside the brewery.
Ben Kirst, May 22 2023
It is the second small revolution in the otherwise quiet atmosphere that surrounds the Abdij Sint Sixtus in West Flanders, Belgium, not far from the French border. And as you would expect in this context, it is of course about the famous Westvleteren beer, which is brewed there under the supervision of the Trappist monks.
First the look, now the distribution channels
Only recently it had been announced that the extremely purist bottle design, which so clearly distinguishes the appearance of the only 3 beers produced in the abbey’s own brewery (Blond, 8 and 12) from other beers, would be changed. In fact, until recently, the bottles did not bear a banderole containing the information usually provided (ingredients, alcohol content, filling volume, etc.). Previously, only the information required by law was printed on the crown cork. With the introduction of a label on the bottles, the interests of today’s consumers were now met last year, as the Belgian media company VRT quotes Brother Godfrey on their site.
However, the step that has now gained publicity is much more elementary, as it was previously only possible to get hold of the beer at all under strict conditions and exclusively on site. Anyone who wanted to take bottles home from the abbey had to register with a car license plate (and then online after the pandemic) in order to be able to drive up and load the trunk with the precious elixir. The beer’s value was not generated solely by its undisputed high quality. The fact that the personal collection quantity per year was limited contributed to a brisk black market trade, which in part bore blooms of fantastic proportions. Shortage of goods? The market knows only one answer to that: usury!
Lively black market despite clause
Those collecting the beer had previously given an undertaking that they would only use it for private purposes. Any commercial distribution was prohibited by the monks, and one had to agree to this request on the website. Obviously, this did not stop the bottle stores of this world from nevertheless trading this elaborate brew. I saw bottles in European specialty stores (in Germany, Slovenia, Belgium, France, Austria, and the Netherlands) alone, with prices ranging from 8 to an unfathomable 25 euros per 0.33-liter bottle. Even large retailers did not care much about the clause and offered the bottles in their online stores. The frequently proclaimed superlative „best beer in the world“ did its part to ensure that even the most brazen speculators (or their „victims“ in the retail trade) did not remain glued to the goods on sale – even though none of the bottles at the abbey gate had exceeded the 5 Euro mark.
The monks are now reacting to precisely these proliferations of capitalist logics of assertion, profit and multiplication with a small revolution. They are not completely turning their backs on the myth that has been cultivated for so many decades, but they are allowing a few gaps to appear in the thick monastery walls.
One might have wondered before how long the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, as the Trappist order is properly called, of all people, silently witnessed this usury – or blamed it on the monks‘ distinctive disengagement from the world. For the income generated by a Trappist monastery should always be modest and essentially limited to subsistence. Surpluses not to be aspired to are for charitable purposes and do not contribute to growth or enrichment. Although, of course, one cannot deny that those monasteries that produce goods in demand, such as beer or cheese, are economically better off than those that do not to the same extent.
So now the proactive step against usury: Trappist Westvleteren Blond, 8 and 12 will soon be available not only in West Flanders, but also at selected independent retailers.
As De Telegraaf writes, there is talk of an initial one-year test phase. In addition, the Dutch newspaper only mentions the Netherlands in it’s article. As it looks, you will soon be able to buy Westi in small quantities in cardboard boxes from many independent retailers there.
I will look around intensively again in Utrecht in the summer – but fortunately for me, this was planned in advance and has nothing to do with the fermentation products of strict believers without smartphones.
But if you have friends in the Netherlands, you might want to consider writing an email again, in which you casually mention that you’ve been thinking about possibly visiting again soon.
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