Photo of the week: Blessed news

Summary

The monks of Saint-Sixtus Abbey, brewers of the legendary Westvleteren beer, will begin taking orders online, ending the suffering of consumers forced to call the ‘beer hotline’

What’s the big deal?

The news was music to the ears of beer enthusiasts last weekend, as headlines began to shout: “Best beer in the world to be sold on internet!” While some of the headlines were rather misleading, it was still definitely big news from a brewer that has become legendary for its closed-door policy.

Westvleteren, long heralded as the world’s best beer, has begun taking orders online. But while it makes it easier to order it, no one is going to bring bottles of Westvleteren to your door. You still have to pick it up in person at the monastery in West Flanders.

Should you not be a beer fan or know anything about Westvleteren, the news might illicit a shrug. What’s the big deal?

For decades there has been only two ways to get your hands on the world’s best beer, a Trappist produced in limited quantities by the monks at the Saint-Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren. You can buy a six-bottle gift pack at the café and shop next to the abbey. But supplies there are limited, so there’s no guarantee.

Beer hotline

The only way to be sure you would get the beer – which comes in three varieties, the quadruple 12 being the most coveted – was to telephone the monastery and order a crate. You only got one crate (24 beers), and you had to give the monks the license number of your car, which they would check when you arrived to pick up your beer. This ensured that you hadn’t had a crate in the last 30 days (one a month per license plate was the limit).

Aside from mobility, the biggest problem with the system was that it was impossible to get through on the phone. Due to constant callers, a busy signal awaited those who tried for hours at a time.

An intrepid reporter for Flanders Today once carried out the exercise. She used two telephones hitting speed dial continuously. One of them finally got through after two hours.

We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to purchase Trappist Westvleteren at the correct price

- Abbot Manu Van Hecke

It wasn’t always so: Until 2005, Westvleteren allowed people to just show up at the abbey and buy beer on select days during the week. But with the advent of the internet, its fame grew to the point that it could no longer handle the crowds. Demand far outgrew supply, which is, by the way, 4,800 hectolitres a year.

The second problem was third-party sellers. While the monks have always kept the prices low – a crate of Westvleteren 12 costs a mere €45, or €1.80 a bottle – retailers were buying it up and selling it for €8 or more a bottle. Cafes were gouging customers for more than €15 a bottle.

The phone system was introduced, and it worked a charm for the abbey – if not for the consumers.

The new system comes with a “smart waiting room”. Not only can you order up to two crates at a time, you will get priority if you are a new customer or haven’t ordered in many years. Those who have ordered recently will be pushed down the list.


“The new sales system meets the needs of many Trappist Westvleteren enthusiasts,” said Brother Manu Van Hecke, abbot of Saint-Sixtus Abbey (pictured above). “We have thought long and hard about a good and customer-friendly alternative. Beer sales at the abbey will remain exclusively aimed at private customers. The web store is therefore only accessible to consumers, not to professional buyers.”

The abbey wants to “give as many people as possible the opportunity to purchase Trappist Westvleteren at the correct price,” he continued. “Anyone who does not adhere to the sales rules and abuses the system will be denied access to the online store.”

A democratic system that saves us time; it’s a dream come through for loyal Westvleteren drinkers. But before you go happily surfing to the Trappist Westvleteren website, be aware of the system:

  • The web store is only operational two days a month. Pick-up times are also limited and linked to the web order with a colour-coded system
  • Upon registration, the user creates an account with personal details (including number plate of the car)
  • User then receives a link via e-mail to validate the registration
  • User logs in and sets password
  • User enters virtual waiting room
  • When it’s the user’s turn, user enters the web store (how long this will take is as yet unclear)
  • User orders one or two crates of beer
  • Code is sent to user’s mobile phone, user enters code online to complete order
  • User is sent to third-party platform to pay
  • User receives QR code via email, which must be taken to monastery to pick up order

The system starts on 26 June.

Photo: Kurt Desplenter/BELGA