Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Westvleteren: Monks' Moderation and Beer Lovers Collide

The Trappist monks at St. Sixtus monastery have taken vows against riches, sex and eating red meat. They speak only when necessary. But you can call them on their beer phone.

Monks have been brewing Westvleteren beer at this remote spot near the French border since 1839. Their brew, offered in strengths up to 10.2% alcohol by volume, is among the most highly prized in the world. In bars from Brussels to Boston, and online, it sells for more than $15 for an 11-ounce bottle -- 10 times what the monks ask -- if you can get it.

For the 26 monks at St. Sixtus, however, success has brought a spiritual hangover as they fight to keep an insatiable market in tune with their life of contemplation.

The monks are doing their best to resist getting bigger. They don't advertise and don't put labels on their bottles. They haven't increased production since 1946. They sell only from their front gate. You have to make an appointment and there's a limit: two, 24-bottle cases a month. Because scarcity has created a high-priced gray market online, the monks search the net for resellers and try to get them to stop.

"We sell beer to live, and not vice versa," says Brother Joris, the white-robed brewery director. Beer lovers, however, seem to live for Westvleteren.
Other Trappist monasteries famous for their brewing (most noteably the monks of Scourmont who brew Chimay) have scaled their brewing operations to meet demand, using the resulting profits for the betterment of the monastery and surrounding town. The monks of St. Sixtus monastery in Westvleteren, however, continue to make just 60,000 cases of beer per year, regardless of demand. This has been enough to automate their production line (it now takes only two monks to brew the beer) and finance the monastery, and that's all they care to do.

The rest of the world is not so immune to materialism, and there's a brisk though unofficial distribution market, with people buying their two monthly cases and then reselling at healthy profits. The monks have tried consistently to stop this, asking distributors to simply let those who want to drink the beer come to the gate, and stop re-selling the beer without permission. Most stop, a few have remained stubborn, and the monks have had to file government complaints against them.

Through all this, the monks continue to try to make beer according to the model they've followed since the French Revolution took away all other means of support from the monastery: by making something their local community wants and selling it at a fair price. The idea of building a world distrubution market for their work couldn't interest them less.


Sardonicus said...

Anyone interested in the Monk beer should also check out the Grand Carthusian Monastery in France, which besides being the subject of a documentary, also makes Chartreuse.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking I may have to go to the monastary next time I'm in europe.

Anonymous said...

I like my capitalism well enough, but I think I like this model even better. Too bad we can't run all of our commercial enterprises with a Trappist bent.