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About those reports of more Westvleteren beer

News last week that Abbey Saint Sixtus, the Trappist monastery at Westvleteren in Belgium, might boost production of its much-cherished beer and sell it through supermarket channels led to the consumption of considerable bandwidth on beer discussion boards.

Perhaps some of the questions not addressed by that story were answered in the various threads, but not in the few I had time to read. And I didn’t see a mention of the report from Danny Van Tricht in September that the abbey had installed new lagering tanks. Gee, doesn’t that make you wonder just how much more beer Saint Sixtus might brew?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but an email response from Brother Joris — the monk in charge of brewing at Saint Sixtus — would indicate “not much” and even that won’t be on a permanent basis.

He explained, “I am not allowed to give away more details on the matter, as it should be a surprise.”

He wrote that the reports the brewery would sell beer away from the monastery are not correct, adding, “We remain faithful to our sales policy and we have no intention of opening a second channel for the distribution of our beers in the way suggested by the media.” He indicated the monastery is considering a one-time special project (that would not last for long) to raise additional funds for construction work on the cloister.. “This will however not come down to ‘Westvleteren being for sale in the racks of a supermarket,'” he wrote.

He further explained that the new tanks make the production schedule more flexible, so that brewing needn’t be delayed because beer in the lagering tanks isn’t ready for bottling. This makes it possible to produce a fixed quantity each year (currently that might vary between 4,200 and 4,750 hectoliters a year — comparable to about 3,600 to 4,000 U.S. barrels).

Digression No. 1: Stephen Beaumont has asked what will become of Westvelteren’s cult status should they become easier to buy. The notion — not Mr. B’s, should there be any confusion — that the Saint Sixtus beers might be “dumbed down” is laughable. By adding lagering tanks the monks assure that beer will not be hurried out the door. When I visited the brewery in 2004, Brother Joris explained that the 8 usually lagers four weeks but that the 12 might take two months to ten weeks, “when you get a difficult one.”

If the monks at Saint Sixtus wanted to ramp up production they already could have. The thoroughly modern brewhouse installed in 1989 could crank out a lot more wort, and the squares for primary fermentation sit idle more days than they are used. Plenty of breweries around the world have shortened lagering or aging times to meet growing demand.

Digression No. 2: In cruising through discussion boards I saw it suggested, and I’m paraphrasing, that “the monks should brew more beer to raise more money for the poor.” How come nobody finishes that sentence with what they are really thinking? “. . . and make it easier for me to buy their beer.”

In fact, larger monastery breweries, notably Westmalles and Chimay, help support other monasteries, multiple charities and local economies. Chimay, with 150 employees in its brewery and cheese making facility, is one of the largest employers in one of Belgium’s poorest regions. Westvleteren sells its beer in wooden crates (pictured at the top) manufactured in a “shielded workplace” for those not able to work in a mainstream environment.

But that’s not why they brew. Monks — Benedictine, Cistercian and Trappist — live by the rule of Saint Benedict, written about A.D. 530. Among other things, it calls on monks to be self-sufficient through their own labor.

Brother Joris puts it quite well: “We live on brewing, but we do it so we can continue with our real business, which is being monks.”


9 Responses to About those reports of more Westvleteren beer

  1. Alan November 1, 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Does the nature of their monastic life include doing charity? Maybe that is the point that needs clarification. There are religious orders that do not and those that do.

  2. Mike November 1, 2010 at 3:15 pm #

    There has indeed been a lot of nonsense about the Westvleteren situation written, and, Stan, I find this one of the most sensible.

    I’m not quite clear how, even if this deal goes through, this will change the availability of the beer very much. Yes, it is difficult to buy from the monastery, but the café across the road seems to always have beer for sale with no requirement to phone ahead and reserve. The café has been doing this for years and shows no sign of slowing down.

    The monks, regardless of what Hate Beer says, continue making only enough beer to take care of their needs. At the moment, their needs are temporarily higher, but that will not last long. I suspect, once the rebuilding is paid for, the brothers will go back to what that have been brewing for the past decades.

  3. Darren November 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    I still just like that the monks make good beer and give the cash to charity. Nice to see that there are still people just doing good things out there, both in beer and in being good blokes.

  4. Lew Bryson November 2, 2010 at 7:52 am #

    Brother Joris puts it quite well: “We live on brewing, but we do it so we can continue with our real business, which is being monks.”

    To a Catholic (and someone who studied medieval history years before converting), the way that this point has to be repeated so often is mildly depressing. People do not become monks to make beer (or cheese, or fudge or cordials or brandy), or so they can live a simpler (‘cheaper’) life in order to have more to give to the poor. People make the huge commitment and sacrifice of becoming a monk (or nun, or priest, or deacon) in order to praise and serve God, as they see it fits best in their life. When you miss that point — and whether you agree or believe doesn’t matter; the monk believes — the rest of it doesn’t make much sense.

    I don’t get much Westvleteren; to tell the truth, I don’t get much of any of the Trappist beers, because they’re just a small part of my drinking rotation. But when I do, I’m grateful for it. I know it’s subjective, and maybe specious, but…I don’t know that I’d want it to be more common and easy to get. Especially since there are so many great beers available almost everywhere in the US these days.

    Be monks. Praise God. I pray for you, and support you.

  5. Richard November 2, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    I’ve never tasted Westvleteren, because I’ve never been to the monastery in person. I think this is both wonderful and frustrating – why should the monks go out of their way (or it seems any distance whatsoever) to provide their beer for me? If I want it badly enough, I’ll go and see them.

    Every time I read something about Saint Sixtus it makes me want to go there more, which is why they have such cult value amongst the beer community. I can think of five places within two miles of my home in Edinburgh that stock Orval, Chimay and Westmalle. But never Westvleteren. And they never will. Which is why it’s both fantastic sentiment and brilliant marketing.

  6. Michael November 3, 2010 at 8:16 am #


    Well said, thanks for putting this all in perspective!


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