Black marks for black market

By Alan Hope

Brewers are up in arms over a secondary market in their rare beers

Westvleteren XII

The monks of the St Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren in West Flanders are reported to have reached an agreement with a Dutch supermarket chain over the sale at inflated prices of the abbey’s world-famous Westvleteren XII beer. The dispute brought to the fore the question of the international black market in rare Belgian beers.

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

Westvleteren applies tough limits to the sales of its beers. Faced with huge demand but a supply they themselves limit tightly, 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.

Despite the two-crate limit, the Jan Linders supermarket chain somehow managed to lay hands on 300 crates, which it was offering in its stores at a price of €10 a 33cl bottle. After an outcry from the usually reserved monks, the chain apologised and said it had carried out the action – presumably with the collusion of dozens of fake buyers if not more – out of respect for the Trappist beers. A spokesperson for the chain said the incident would not be repeated. The abbey, meanwhile, said it would be reviewing its sales system.

However, it’s not only the reclusive monks of Westvleteren who are the victims of a black market in rare beers. In recent times, Cantillon in Brussels and 3 Fonteinen in Beersel have spoken out on the matter. They claim that their more innovative brews require investment, which is difficult to recoup while keeping the beers’ prices within the reach of customers.

According to Gaëtan Claes, commercial manager at 3 Fonteinen, the special circumstances of brewing lambic, as well as the limited brewing season, mean that batches of experimental beers are small. “That creates a scarcity, which leads to a black market.” The brewery tries to limit sales to individual customers, but unlike Westvleteren, their beers are also sold in retail outlets. Buyers can pick up bottles in shops at democratic prices, and thanks to the internet, put them immediately on sale to beer-lovers across the world. “There’s not much we can do about it,” he says.

On the local site, we found one bottle each of Sint-Bernardus Abt from 2015 and Special from 2006 open to offers over €45. Another advertiser in Antwerp is looking for special editions of beers from Cantillon, Tilquin and 3 Fonteinen, with no mention of prices.

On another site, they were selling a 75cl bottle of Cantillon Fou Foune Limited for €35.20, with sales limited to one bottle per customer. Also a bottle of Cantillon Vigneronne, made with muscat grapes, for €33.80. And a 3 Fonteinen Framboos at €60 for a single bottle.

Not all of these sites’ beers are on sale at scalper prices; a 75cl bottle of Rodenbach Vintage 2013, for example, is going for a very reasonable €10.85.

Lambic blender Pierre Tilquin agrees that scarcity – whether deliberate or imposed by conditions – is the driving force behind the black market. The solution, he says, is to produce more.

Tilquin is a blender and obtains his lambic wort from three producers in Flanders and one in Brussels. At the same time, he produces a number of experimental blends, using fruits as various as redcurrants, wild blueberries and rhubarb, as well as hibiscus flowers.


Pierre Tilquin

“When you make a rather rare beer, you always have the risk of seeing your beer sold on the black market, but I’m fortunate to be a bit less affected than others. One of the reasons I don’t have as much of a problem is the fact that my beer is quite widely distributed in the US. I’m sending two full containers of beer to the US every year, that’s 42 palettes; last year it was about 51 palettes. That means that the American beer geeks can find it more easily, so they don’t try to buy it on the internet,” he explains.

“The solution is to produce sufficient amounts and offer wider distribution. When I make a new beer, I try to announce there will be so many bottles for Norway, so many for the US and so on, and then you hope they just wait for the beer to come. But if you don’t do that and you sell everything on site then you run the risk of having this black market. I think that if you sell a new beer only at an open-door weekend or at a special occasion, you create and maintain the black-market problem yourself. But when you want to innovate a new beer, it’s true that it is difficult to do that in large quantities.

“When I make a new beer, I try to produce a minimum of 5,000 75cl bottles, and that’s already a small amount; 10,000 bottles of 75cl would be the ideal. If it is not possible to produce such an amount, for example like for the experimental blends that I produce in very small volume, I found another solution to avoid the problem of black market. I decided to produce them only in kegs for serving on festivals so that as many people as possible can taste them, or to sell the bottles only open to drink on site at my facility, which means that there is no takeaway possible, like Cantillon also does for rare batches.”