"The Best Beer in the World"
Inside the sanctuary of the abbey of St. Sixtus of Westvleteren is a beer lover's
dream and a businessman's nightmare. Piety, not profit, is what these monks seek.
The St. Sixtus monks break every rule of business except attention to quality. And
therein may lie the secret of their success in brewing a beer that many say is the
world's best. It's so good and so hard to get that there's even a black market for it.
The beer is Westvleteren 12. It's a strong, dark brew with a 12% alcohol content.
It's very rich and strong with an inherent complexity. The monks are not
compromising any kind of flavor profile to save a few pennies. Commercial brewers
are in the business of making money and they compromise taste; the monks do not..
And they've been doing it that way since 1836.
The Westvleteren abbey has only 72 brewing days a year so the supply is obviously
very limited which means it's nearly impossible to get. Potential customers will call
the abbey's "beer phone," which has a recorded message that tells them when the
beer will go on sale (36 times a year, for as long as stock lasts).
On the first day of sale, cars start lining up at the abbey at 5:15 a.m.; the gates open
at 10 a.m. Buyers are limited to two cases per car. "Not to be resold" is stamped on
the receipts, but customers regularly disregard the monks' wish, and the coveted
beer is exported, unlabeled and without permission, to America and elsewhere.
Illegally (according to the monks but debatable under actual law) imported
Westvleteren beer, for example, sells for $15 to $20 a bottle in specialty bars and
restaurants in the USA.
According to spokesperson Brother Jones, the underhanded exportation tactics go
against the Benedictine values under which the monks work. The St. Sixtus abbey
also has no way of vouching for the quality of the beer, which is sensitive to
temperature and light, when it arrives. Nor are they insured to export beer to the
"I would people not to ask for or buy Westvleteren," he says. "You do not support the
Trappist cause by buying Westvleteren in the United States. So if you want to
support the Trappist cause, you drink one from the other Trappist breweries, which
are legally imported."
St. Sixtus brews just 60,000 cases of beer a year. The famous Westvleteren 12 sells
for about $50 a case, the blond 6 is the cheapest at $30 for 24 bottles. That makes
enough money to cover the costs of maintaining the abbey, where 28 monks work.
There's also a little extra to help the needy.
The brewery currently is running at maximum capacity. And the monks are not
interested in raising prices or production, because that would require hiring more
outside workers (they have three) and working with distributors.
There are six Trappist monasteries in Belgium making beer and one in the
Netherlands. Several of them are considered to be in the top group of breweries in
the world. Only the abbey of Achel brews less than St. Sixtus, while the Abbey of
Notre-Dame de Scourmont, which makes the Chimay beer, is the largest.
But the monks at St. Sixtus don't see any of the Trappist beers as competition. They
have always said they follow the first Benedictine value - humility. It is because of
their goal to remain humble that you will never see their beers in a competition or
award giving festival. Besides, the monks never have and never will pack and ship
No marketing, no competition, no increase in prices or production - these folks are
true monks first and brewers second.