Does Westvleteren live up to the hype?

Recently Belgian Beer & Food posted a simple question on its Facebook page: what is your preferred Trappist beer. Unsurprisingly, a number of visitors nominated the Westvleteren XII, repeatedly voted best beer in the world by this or that awards jury. More surprisingly, the large majority opted for something else, with Orval taking the crown, for what it’s worth.

So the next question is: is the hype surrounding Westvleteren losing its allure?

Westvleteren XII

Brief recap: the St. Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren in West Flanders, one of the country’s six officially recognised Trappist breweries, brews an extremely limited quantity of its internationally lauded beers, in keeping with the rules of the International Trappist Association, which state that the income from brewing is to be used for pastoral and social works.

Westvleteren therefore applies strict limits to the sales of its beers. Faced with huge demand but strictly self-limited supply, they make customers come to the abbey in person, limit sales to two crates per person, ordered in advance and available to be picked up at a particular time.

The whole rigmarole has inevitably created a secondary market: bottles of the top-rated Westvleteren XII are on sale in beer shops in nearby Ieper for up to €30, and on the internet for much more. But is it worth it?

Not according to Freddy Van Daele, president of Belgium’s Zythos beer-lovers’ association.  “I know of some people who go there from where I live in Ertvelde in convoy, and that of course makes the beer seem more special. But the beer itself is not something that’s going to keep me awake at night,” he says.

While the “tickers” – beer lovers who like to tick off the beers they’ve experienced, the train-spotters of the trade – lust after Westvleteren XII the way autograph hunters lust after a signature from Kate Middleton, there’s a little secret shared by beer connoisseurs, which this magazine covered in its second-even issue.

Westvleteren XII was originally brewed by the secular brewery of Sint-Bernardus in nearby Poperinge. When Trappist beers became a marketing thing, and the monks took back the control over the brewing, they had to give up the recipe, and borrowed their yeast from Westmalle in Antwerp province. The original Westvleteren recipe is still being used, however, by Sint-Bernardus Abt 12.

“I think the Sint-Bernardus Abt 12 is just as delicious,” Van Daele admits. “And you can buy that anywhere.”

For beer sommelier Luc Deraedemaeker, similarly, the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. “It’s an excellent beer,” he stresses. “It’s a very high quality beer, that’s for sure. The problem is, it’s very hard to get.”

For him, the Rochefort 10 is just as good. “But the Rochefort you can buy in the supermarket, whereas for the Westvleteren you have to go to the abbey in person, in the middle of nowhere.”

So is the Westvleteren a marketing a ploy, which is beginning to unravel? Well, strictly speaking no. Despite the commercial strategies of Trappist breweries like Chimay and Westmalle, two of the most successful, the aims of the brewing monks are not supposed to be profit-seeking; the idea is to make enough money for pastoral projects. Westvleteren sticks to that principle more rigidly than anyone else, but it’s clearly set out. The abbey uses the beer to make money, but their main purpose is not that.

As other brewers have found, like Brussels’ Cantillon for example, a secondary market can always spring up, by which third parties can use scarcity to make money from someone else’s beer. Westvleteren’s tough sales measures are intended to discourage that, but they can only go so far. Sadly it’s scalpers who benefit, while genuine beer-lovers are the ones who suffer. On the bright side, though, there are enough alternatives around to keep all of us happy.