Stop Buying Westvleteren!

Advocate This by | Dec 2007 | Issue #12
Illustration by Martin Pavlinic

Let’s cut to the chase. The Trappist monks at the abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium, have a problem: They brew what some consider the best beer in the world (mostly due to the hype surrounding it), but they only sell it locally to earn money to survive. Volume is low, demand is high. So the beer goes on the black market. Those who eventually get their beer geek mitts on a Westvleteren Blonde, 8, and especially 12—the so-called “holy grail” of beer—wind up selling their souls and dancing with the devil for a single bottle. To combat this, the monks have restricted selling by appointment only and limited the number of cases an individual can purchase and have participated in interviews to tell their story.

If anything, this has only increased demand.

Personally, we’re bored to death with the attention that this monastic brewery receives along with the subsequent hyping—and the experience and mystique is being lost. That’s why we’re urging beer geeks around the world to stop buying Westvleteren beers. Why?

Reselling is Illegal
“Westvleteren Trappist is only sold to individual customers. Every customer promises not to sell the beer to others.”

Promises are about as valuable as the US dollar is right now, so that doesn’t stop beer bars and stores throughout the world from selling Westvleteren beers. In the US, the beers aren’t registered with the federal or local governments and are resold illegally without any labeling—both of which are required by law. Word on the street is that most of the Westvleteren coming in is via importers, who then resell to choice accounts at which point it’s resold again to consumers. Even more unethical, over the years certain importers even went so far as registering the beers with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in order to bring them in and turn a profit. Now we’re not experts, but we’re guessing that you can’t sell a beer unless you get a brewery’s permission to sell their beer—otherwise it’s not yours to sell.

Ironically, all hell would break loose if a well-known beer from an American brewer was being sold illegally.

Bragging Rights + Price Gouging = Bad Beer Karma
“It’s a total cloak-and-dagger mission.”
—Mike Burmil, manager Hop Devil Grill in New York

Apparently Burmil was giggling to Time Out New York about getting his hands on 24 bottles of Westvleteren 12 and boasted that they’re the only vendor in the country selling the beer. Not only is that incorrect, and a rather dumb thing to brag about from a legal point of view, but Burmil recently put his stash on sale for $55 per 11.2oz bottle—that’s $6 more than an entire crate of 24 bottles (€33) would cost if purchased directly at the abbey! Some people might call Burmil and the Hop Devil Grill “crooks,” others might high-five them for carrying “Westy 12” and drop it low for making a buck. Regardless, it’s illegal and slapping the monks in the face by disrespecting their simple wishes and then giggling about it.

The Monks Can’t Seem to Practice What They Preach
“There are many forms of silence. Refusing any contact is a form of silence too.”

Last month Brother Joris, the monk in charge of brewery operations and apparently their spokesman, took the time to yet again be interviewed—this time for the Wall Street Journal… who really didn’t report anything new. Maybe Brother Joris loves the attention or thinks he’s performing damage control? Who knows, but by breaking his vow of silence and catering to the media in recent years he’s allowed himself to be elevated to a sort of rock star among beer geeks. His non-refusal of contact has only increased the hype, created more demand, raised prices, inflated opinions and teased wanting consumers—most of whom will never get a sip. Westvleteren is now in the limelight more than ever before.

If they can’t practice what they preach, let’s help them out by not buying the beer under shady conditions.

Go visit Café In de Vrede—located across the street from the abbey and the only vendor who has the monks’ blessing to resell for consumption. If you can’t make the pilgrimage to Belgium, oh well. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. Life will go on. Save your money. Grab a St. Bernardus Abt 12 or Rochefort 10 instead, or invest in a fine, local, American craft-brewed beer.