The classic Belgian beer styles produced by Trappist monasteries around the world are noted for being some of the most nuanced and delicious on Earth, and none of those breweries has quite the mystique around it as the one possessed by Westvleteren. Given that they are the smallest and hardest to acquire of all the Trappist breweries, it’s no surprise that our conspicuous consumption society would label Westvleteren the “best” of them all—but in this case, it may well be true. On the rare occasions when Paste has been able to sample Westvleteren beers, we can affirm that the products produced by this 170-year-old monastery are mind-blowingly good. It’s a shame you’ll never be able to purchase them at your local grocery store.
...Or will you? Well, if you live in The Netherlands, you recently could, although it was a bit of a shady deal. According to an amusing little story in the New York Times, a Dutch supermarket chain called Jan Linders essentially went rogue, acquiring Westvleteren bottles through back channels and then selling more than 7,000 bottles in its stores without permission from the monks. Compounding matters was the 10 Euro per bottle price point, which is almost 10 times higher than the price the monks sell their beer for at the monastery. Typically, this is where most customers purchase the beer in person, after arranging a sale via phone call in advance.
This naturally had the effect of spoiling the good humor of the monks, who denounced the sale, “saying the aim behind their endeavors was not to commercialize their product, but to finance themselves and support those in need,” according to the NYT. The brewery traditionally produces only as much beer as the monastery needs to pay its operating expenses, although it made a one-time exception in 2012, selling a special allottment of its highly sought after quadrupel Westvleteren 12 in order to pay for repairs and expansion of the St. Sixtus Abbey.
The supermarket initially defended its sale, claiming it didn’t make any significant profit thanks to the various middlemen taking their cuts along the way, which led to the inflated price of each bottle of beer. Still, they managed to sell 300 crates of 24 bottles each, and eventually offered an apology for the one off sale. In a statement on its website, Jan Linders apologized to the monks and thanked customers for introducing them to “this beautiful beer.”
So beware, if you ever happen to see a Westvleteren bottle sitting in a grocery store—you don’t want to bring the wrath of the monks down on you.