Wednesday, November 08, 2006 AD

St Sixtus Abbey brews beer

By Noelle Knox, USA TODAY
BRUSSELS — Inside the sanctuary of the abbey of St. Sixtus of Westvleteren is a beer lover's dream and a businessman's nightmare.

Piety, not profit, is what these monks seek. The St. Sixtus monks break every rule in Business 101 except attention to quality. And therein may lie the secret of their success in brewing a beer that some rank among the world's best and that is so hard to get there's a black market for it.

St. Sixtus brews three beers. The Westvleteren 12 is a strong, dark beer with a 12% alcohol content. It is consistently ranked among the top five beers in the world by, a website for beer enthusiasts with 26,500 members. In the latest survey, it reclaimed the No. 1 spot from AleSmith Barrel Aged Speedway Stout.

The Westvleteren monks also make a dark beer with an 8% alcohol content (ranked ninth by, and a blond beer with a 6% alcohol content. This is heady stuff compared with a can of Coors, which has 4% alcohol.

"It's a great beer. Very rich, very strong. ... There's a lot of inherent complexity, tastes of dates, raisins, cocoa," explains Joseph Tucker, executive director for RateBeer. "They're not compromising any kind of flavor profile to save a few pennies. Most commercial brewers are in the business of making money, to serve their investors, and they compromise taste."

While craft brewing in the USA is still relatively new, the abbey in Westvleteren has been making beer since 1836, passing the tradition from monk to monk over the ages.

No reason to change

The doorbell sounds with a loud chime. Brother Joris, head of the brewery, answers, dressed in the Cistercian habit of white robe with a black, hooded outer robe, gray socks and leather sandals. His dark hair is cropped short. He wears a plain watch with a black band.

It's one of the 72 brewing days of the year, but the abbey is still quiet and peaceful. Brother Joris leads the way past aluminum tanks and the bottling room, where a team of five monks is at work.

During the next five to eight weeks, as the beer ages in tanks and then in bottles, potential customers will call the abbey's "beer phone," which has a recorded message that tells them when the beer will go on sale (36 times a year, for as long as stock lasts).

On the first day the beer goes on sale, cars start lining up at the abbey at 5:15 a.m., says Brother Joris. The gates open at 10 a.m., and buyers are limited to two cases per car. "Not to be resold" is stamped on the receipts, but customers regularly disregard the monks' wish, and the coveted beer is exported, unlabeled and without permission, to America and elsewhere.

While the machinery is more modern today — it was last updated in 1989 — the philosophy is the same.

"As monks, the rule is pray and work. These are the two pillars of a Trappist life," Brother Joris explains. "If you prayed 24 hours a day you'd go nuts. So there has to be a balance between work and monastic life. So that balance is there. We earn our living. There's no reason to change that, or make more money."

St. Sixtus brews just 60,000 cases of beer a year. The famous Westvleteren 12 sells for about $33 a case, the blond 6 is the cheapest at $23 for 24 bottles. That makes enough money to cover the costs of maintaining the abbey, where 28 monks work. There's also a little extra to help the needy.

The brewery currently is running at maximum capacity. And the monks are not interested in raising prices or production, because that would require hiring more outside workers (they have three) and working with distributors.

"At that moment it would cease to be what it is now, an integrated part of our existence," he explains.

Brother Joris, 45, joined St. Sixtus 12 years ago. Before that, he was a captain in the Belgian police force. "We are separated from the world, but we encounter the world in ourselves," he says. "You do not become a saint by entering a monastery."

A tradition of beermaking

There are six Trappist monasteries in Belgium making beer and one in The Netherlands. Several of them rank in RateBeer's top 50. Only the abbey of Achel brews less than St. Sixtus, while the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont, which makes the Chimay beer, is the largest.

But the monks at St. Sixtus don't see any of the Trappist beers as competition.

"The first Benedictine value, we follow the rule of St. Benedict, is humility," Brother Joris says. "Humility begins with not comparing oneself with another.

"We make one Trappist ale. There are seven Trappist breweries: Each of them has its own character, reflects its own community. They're all good. What's the point of beginning to compete?"

Nor do they care that they are again the top-ranked beer. "Being No. 1 is not news. It's a website. There are other professional beer-tasting contests and beer awards that are more valuable than being No. 1 on a website," he adds.

But they don't participate in those contests either. "It's more trouble," he says, "packing the bottles and shipping them."

No marketing, no competition, no increase in prices or production. It's enough to make a capitalist cry.

Illegally imported Westvleteren beer, for example, sells for $8 to $12 a bottle in specialty bars and restaurants in the USA.

"We bought all the rest of it we could get that was left from the distributors," says Michael Roper, owner of the Hopleaf bar in Chicago.

Roper's bar sold out of Westvleteren two weeks ago. Supply has dried up under pressure from the monks to stop illegal exports, he says.

"Westvleteren is a great beer, and I'm very saddened I don't have any more, and I didn't even save any for myself and now I'm thinking, 'What was I thinking?' "

Roper says he would love to see it in his bar again. "But I also understand they're not a brewery. It's a spiritual community," he says. "I don't think their mission is the same as Anheuser-Busch."

Brother Joris agrees. In fact, he agreed to be interviewed only because he wanted to warn Americans against buying illegally imported Westvleteren.

"My message is, people should know that the beer arrives there in a very un-Trappist-like way," he says. "It's the result of a lot of maneuvering in the dark before it actually shows up there."

Such underhanded tactics go against the Benedictine values under which the monks work. The St. Sixtus abbey also has no way of vouching for the quality of the beer, which is sensitive to temperature and light, when it arrives. Nor are they insured to export beer to the United States.

"I would advise your readers not to ask for or buy Westvleteren," he says. "You do not support the Trappist cause by buying Westvleteren in the United States. So if you want to support the Trappist cause, you drink one from the other six (breweries), which are legally imported."


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