Westvleteren 8

Westvleteren 8 (Photo credit: Bernt Rostad)

The Westvleteren Brewery (Brouwerij Westvleteren) is a Belgian brewery founded in 1838 inside the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in the Belgian municipality of Vleteren, not far from the hops-producing town of Poperinge and the medieval city of Ypres. The brewery and its beers are usually referred to as Westvleteren. The brewery’s three beers have acquired an international reputation for taste and quality, as well as the limited availability of the beers which are not brewed to normal commercial demands.

Trappist monks from the Catsberg monastery, located in France, founded the St Sixtus monastery in 1831. In 1838, the brewing at Westvleteren commenced. In 1850, some of the monks founded the Notre-Dame de Scourmont monastery, which also brews a Trappist beer. During World Wars I and II, the Westvleteren brewery continued to operate, albeit at a lower capacity. The brewery was the only Trappist one to retain the copper vessels throughout the wars—the other breweries had the copper salvaged by the Germans for their war efforts. In WWI this was primarily due to the abbey not being occupied by the Germans, but instead was caring for wounded allied troops. In 1931, the abbey began selling beer to the general public, having only served beer to guests and visitors up until that time.In 1946, the St. Bernardus brewery in nearby Watou was granted a licence to brew beer under the St Sixtus name. This agreement ended in 1992; St. Bernardus still brews beers of similar styles, but under their own name. That same year, the abbey opened its new brewery to replace the older equipment.

The brewery currently employs three secular workers for various manual labour tasks, however the primary brewing is done by the monks only. It is the only Trappist brewery where the monks still do all of the brewing. Of the 26 Cistercians who reside at the abbey, five monks run the brewery, with an additional five who assist during bottling.

As with all other Trappist breweries, the beer is only sold in order to financially support the monastery and other philanthropic causes. Whilst the brewery is a business by definition (its purpose is to make money), it does not exist for pure profit motives, and they do no advertising except for a small sign outside the abbey which indicates the daily availability of each beer. The monks have repeatedly stated that they only brew enough beer to run the monastery, and will make no more than they need to sell, regardless of demand. During World War II, the brewery stopped supplying wholesalers and since then they only sell to individual buyers in person at the brewery or the visitor’s centre opposite. These methods all go against modern business methods, however as stated by the Father Abbott on the opening of the new brewery, “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”.
Beers

The brewery currently brews three beers:

Westvleteren Blonde (green cap), 5.8% ABV, introduced on 10 June 1999.
Westvleteren 8 (blue cap) (formerly Extra), 8% ABV.
Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap) (formerly Abt), a 10.2% ABV, introduced in 1940.

Until 1999, the brewery also produced a 6.2% ABV dark beer and a lighter 4° which served as the monks’ table beer, but these were replaced by the Blonde. The 8 and 12 are bottle conditioned and are considered to have a long shelf life, with some drinkers preferring the taste when the beers have been stored for several years. The ingredients are yeast, hops, malt, sugar, caramel and water.

The bottles have been sold without labels since 1945. All of the legally required information is printed on the crown tops. Because of this lack of space, Westvleteren beers are the only Trappist beers that do not have the official Trappist logo displayed on the bottle. The logo is only printed on the distinctive wooden crates. Any bottles that are labelled have had them added unofficially by others. For example, some importers into the United States label the bottles in order to comply with local regulations.

Currently, the beer is priced at €30.00 (Blonde), €34.00 (8°) and €39.00 (12°) per 24-bottle crate (excluding bottle/crate deposit). Deposit for empty bottles and crate: 12 EUR (9.60 EUR for the crate plus 0.10 EUR per bottle). Glasses specifically designed to drink the beer can be purchased at the abbey in packs of 6 for 17 euro.

Buyers were originally limited to ten 24-bottle crates of the beer per car, but as the beer increased in popularity, this was first reduced to five, then to three and now to two or one crates. For the Westvleteren 12 in 2009, it was limited to one case. When making an order now, the type and quantity of beer available for sale are revealed. Sales are limited to one order every 60 days per person per license plate and phone number. Also, the beer must be reserved on their “beerphone” beforehand. The monks do not sell beer to individuals who drive up to the abbey hoping to purchase beer. The reason for this is to eliminate commercial reselling, and hence give all visitors a chance to purchase the product.

The current production is 4750 hl (60,000 cases) per year, and has remained the same since 1946.

Aside from the brewery itself, the only other official sale point for the beer is the abbey-owned In de Vrede, a cafe and visitor’s centre opposite the abbey. All beers can be bought there for immediate consumption or take-away, depending on availability (however, prices are higher than at the abbey). Often there is no beer available at the shop. The shop also sells cheeses made at the abbey, yeast tabs (not yeast to make beer but dead yeast for health) and other Trappist products.

Buyers of the beer receive a receipt with Niet verder verkopen (“Do not resell”) printed on it. The abbey is very much against resale of their beer, and it is their wish that the beer is only commercially available at the two official sale points. To this end, any Westvleteren beer which is sold anywhere else in the world is grey market beer, as no wholesalers or pubs are supplied with the beer. The abbey is actively working to eliminate the illicit sales, and generally only agrees to media interviews to spread their message against drinking illicitly sold Westvleteren beer.

In October, 2010 there were speculations that the beer would be sold in supermarkets, which have not yet come to pass.

The brewery and the Belgian retailer Colruyt are bringing a gift pack (6 bottles Westvleteren 12, 2 glasses) for sale, only against exchange of promotional coupons printed in selected media. Goal of the sales is to increase income to provide funds for urgent and immediate renovations at the monastery. Available from November 2, 2011, sales will be limited to 93.000 packs. One pack per coupon at 25,00 Euro/pack. All earnings of the sale will go to the renovation project. This is a first in the history of the brewery. (source: Het Nieuwsblad, October 14, 2011)

On November 4, 2011, it was announced that US importer Shelton Brothers would be importing 7760 gift packs consisting of 6 bottles Westvleteren 12 and 2 glasses starting in April 2012. Also mentioned was that Manneken-Brusel Imports out of Austin, TX would also be importing an undisclosed amount of the beer into the U.S market. Pricing is to be determined.
International reputation

Many beer drinkers rank Westvleteren 12 among their favourite beers. The 8 and the Blonde also rank highly on beer-rating websites.

In June 2005, when Westvleteren 12 was again highlighted as “Best Beer in the World”, news organizations followed this up and articles appeared in the international press, highlighting the beer ranking and the unusual business policies.

Following these events, interest in Westvleteren’s output increased and stories appeared of the abbey’s stock being low, forcing the monks to reduce the amount of beer sold to each customer. In an interview, monk Mark Bode explained that the abbey had no intention of increasing its production, despite demand: “We make the beer to live but we do not live for beer.”

Despite the popularity, the monks of St Sixtus have continued to decline almost all interview and visit requests, and have not enjoyed all of the attention they have received. Non-monastic visitors to the abbey are usually turned away, instead being directed to the visitor’s centre opposite where there is information about the abbey and brewery. They have stated their desire to only produce as much beer as needed to finance the community.

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