On Wednesday, people lined up in droves around the U.S. (and, yes, in some other countries) for what many hold up as the best beer in the world, Westvleteren XII.
While much has been written about this beer, its producers at The Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus and the epic one-day sale, in particular, what about the Trappist breweries as a whole?
Enter, Marc Beirens, owner of the only beer distributor handling all of the Trappist breweries, Belgium-based Weynants. The soft-spoken Beirens joined Shelton Brothers’ under-the-radar weekly radio gig, The High and Mighty Beer Show, this past spring and dropped a lot of knowledge about what goes on inside each of the abbeys (we’ll use that term to keep things simple though there are distinctions between monasteries and abbeys). Shelton Brothers, which handled Wednesday’s one-time U.S. sale of Westvleteren, also imports Achel, one of the Trappist breweries, to the U.S. on a year-round basis.
Beirens’ father started in the beer distributing business back in 1961 with Weynants. At that time, he was the youngest in a brewer’s family and looking for other beer-related businesses to explore outside of brewing.
In the 1960s, the company distributed Westmalle and Orval. It wasn’t until 1977, that they picked up Chimay and then a few years later, it signed Rochefort. Around the turn of the Millenium, Weynants signed Achel to fill out the Trappist portfolio. Today, Weynants also carries Loterbol and Erdinger.
Monks and nuns in Trappist abbeys follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Each day, they divide their schedule approximately evenly between eight hours of work with their hands, eight hours for prayer and eight hours for rest. Of course, they eat, too. They are vegetarians, says Beirens.
But how do they make money?
In the case of the abbeys brewing beer, Beirens says politics of the abbots determine the commercial and charitable goals of each abbey. Production varies widely from abbey to abbey with one producing just 4,000 hectoliters and others producing tens of thousands.
Rochefort, for example, recently increased production from 15-17,000 hectoliters annually (13-14,000 U.S. barrels) to 28,000 hectoliters annually. The Rochefort abbot “had a lot of investments” in the abbey, Beirens says, and he needed to increase revenue to cover those investments. He is no longer there, according to Beirens, and a new abbot is now overseeing construction. The hope of the abbey is to spruce up the place in order to attract younger people to join.
Aging residents is a key problem across the abbeys. Beirens jokes that 70 years of age is actually young for a monk and that most hope to retire between the age of 75-80 years.
It is not a luxurious lifestyle. Those following the Rule of St. Benedict take a vow of poverty and give up their possessions to be shared among others as community property when they take up ‘monkhood.’
This helps explain why, despite demand obviously outweighing supply for Wednesday’s Westvleteren XII sale, the retail price of boxes (containing six bottles and two glasses) were limited to $85. The Abbey of Saint Sixtus hopes to raise ‘just enough’ money with the global sale of these Westvleteren XII boxes to cover the costs of much-needed abbey restorations. The monks aren’t interested in perception of the sale as a capitalistic enterprise which is why Shelton Brothers has been adamant about the boxes going for $85 at every retail location.
Strange as it may seem, as many in the U.S. imbibed with Westvleteren XII on Wednesday evening (some for the first time), the monks themselves would have been drinking the lightest beer that they produce on Wednesday, or even more likely, water. They don’t get drunk.
Most of them don’t brew either, according to Beirens. Only at Westvleteren and Achel, do they brew.
Weynants is the only distributor for Achel, the smallest of the abbeys in terms of both production and number of monks with eight or so. Beirens cautions that there could be transition there in the next several years and wonders whether the abbey may change hands or lose it ‘Trappist’ designation.
Westmalle, meanwhile has more than 25 monks and ten worldwide distributors. Westvleteren produces about the same limited amount of beer as Achel but has around 30 monks.
Westmalle and Chimay are the largest breweries among the abbeys, both producing over 100,000 hectoliters annually. The 150 year-old Chimay, especially driven by charitable efforts and donations to many international organizations, brewed nearly 170,000 hectoliters in 2011. Ranked first among the Trappist breweries, sales have grown thanks to a rapid rise in international demand. Even Orval has doubled production in recent years.
But back to Wednesday’s big one-time sale…
The question that many hoped to answer for themselves was whether Westvleteren XII would be worth the cost, worth waiting in line for, and would it live up to its billing as the World’s Best Beer.
Shelton Brothers sampled the biggest beers from each Trappist brewery at the end of the show and were surprisingly forthright, and as per usual comedic, even when discussing their own offerings from Westvleteren and Achel.
Their resounding conclusion?
(Note: Stift Engelszell, the world’s eighth Trappist brewery opened its operations later in 2012 after the interview originally aired.)
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